For too long, UP politics has been trapped in a time warp. This verdict shows that it feels left behind.
The results of the 2014 national elections, particularly for UP, are a complete reversal of the 2009 mandate. The tectonic shift in UP is significant as it was the battleground from where three major contenders — Narendra Modi, Rahul Gandhi and Arvind Kejriwal — fought the election. Moreover, it is not a victory for the BJP as much as it is for Modi in UP and elsewhere. In 2009, the Congress party won 21 seats in UP, which was one of the 12 states that powered the UPA to victory. This led observers to comment that the party was on the path to recovery in the state. But in 2014, it has only won the two family seats of Sonia and Rahul Gandhi.
The BSP and SP — which obtained 20 and 23 seats, respectively, in 2009 — have been wiped out. The former won zero seats and the latter five, all of which have gone to Mulayam Singh Yadav and his family members. The BSP, whose vote share has been rising since the 1989 national election, gained 4.2 per cent of the votes but did not get a single seat. In UP, it lost all 17 reserved seats to the BJP, and even strongholds like Sitapur, Misrikh and Ambedkar Nagar. In constituencies where the BSP and SP fielded Muslim candidates, the latter’s nominees reportedly gained more votes. While it could be argued that the results would have been different in an assembly election, the BJP, which had won 10 seats in 2009, has obtained 71 out of the 80 seats in UP this time round. It mopped up the Hindu vote, effectively decimating the Congress and penetrating the backward and Dalit base of the BSP and SP.
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While a detailed analysis of the results is required, three preliminary explanations can be proffered. First, the Muzaffarnagar riots and communal mobilisation that followed polarised voters, which helped the BJP. The BJP, following its decline in the state after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, did not have a well-established organisation in UP. However, the appointment of Amit Shah as strategist and campaign manager and the support of the RSS changed that. Together, these well-planned decisions revived the Hindutva agenda, revamped the organisation by setting the old guard aside and by bringing in younger candidates, and took the campaign deep into the countryside. Also, while Modi initially spoke mainly on development issues in his UP rallies, during the last phase of polling, there was a definite communal appeal.
Second, the anger against the government for failing to prevent the riots and its inept handling of them and for poor governance was also a factor that went against the SP. The victory of the SP in the assembly elections in March 2012 and the appointment of Akhilesh Yadav as chief minister had raised expectations. People thought that a young, educated chief minister would be able to improve UP’s economy. By 2014, the public was disappointed with the CM because he had failed to maintain law and order, provide clean governance or development or establish his authority over a family-controlled party. Time was spent distributing laptops and renaming welfare policies started by the previous government. No new or innovative programme was implemented. This was reinforced by the disappointment with the Congress-led UPA 2 for its failure to prevent corruption, low growth rates and high unemployment.
However, while much has been written on the above, a third significant factor merits consideration. Since the late 1990s, the two main national parties — the Congress and BJP — have been in decline in UP. The SP and BSP were the main players in the state, between which there was a constant turnover of power. During this period, neither party attempted to address issues of underdevelopment, backwardness or poverty. Rather, both parties were more concerned with pursuing narrow, sectarian agendas through which they could strengthen their identity-based vote banks and keep the other party out of power. Consequently, despite the attempt by the SP to use Mandal to unite backward castes, it has shrunk to become a party mainly of the Yadavs led by a single family. Mayawati’s efforts to capture state power through the strategy of sarvjan made Dalits insecure and diluted the party’s bahujan identity, as this went against the original goal of the BSP-led movement of removing social hierarchies and discrimination.
At Independence, UP was one of the best-governed states in the country. But during the first three decades of Congress rule, its socio-economic progress was slow. In the 1980s, for the first time, there was a structural shift from agriculture towards industry and a drop in poverty rates. But during the 1990s, due to destabilising identity-based politics, the state witnessed a steep decline. With the weakening of identity politics in the early 2000s, it was hoped that the SP or BSP would introduce a development-oriented agenda. But in contrast with other states, where leaders such as Shivraj Singh Chouhan in Madhya Pradesh, Raman Singh in Chhattisgarh and J. Jayalalithaa in Tamil Nadu have tried to move away from purely identity-based politics towards issues of development and governance, this did not happen in UP. UP remains trapped in traditional politics and has not been able to make use of the new opportunities provided by liberalisation. The fate of UP is well illustrated by Craig Jeffrey’s book, Timepass: Youth, Class and the Politics of Waiting in India, which shows how farmers in western UP, who benefited from the Green Revolution, gave their sons college/ university educations in the hope that they would obtain professional jobs. But the boys are still “waiting” for such opportunities, indulging in “purposeless timepass”, hanging around street corners and teashops, doing small jobs. This is leading to immense frustration and participation in petty politics. An aspirational younger generation is disturbed and the middle class is angry as the promised benefits of higher economic growth have proved elusive. The discussion on TV channels on the “Gujarat model” has made them feel left behind.
The situation in UP is perhaps reflective of such feelings in many parts of the country. It is hoped that the Narendra Modi government will set aside divisive agendas that could cleave the country, and focus its energies on understanding and addressing the needs and aspirations that have been roused in the Hindi heartland.
The writer is professor at the Centre for Political Studies and rector, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi