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The politics of resignation

Mayawati’s moment is passing. So give UP’s voters a real alternative

Written by Vandita Mishra |
April 30, 2009 10:47:31 pm

Tarmendra Singh Yadav owns a small shop in the kasba of Shuklaganj,district Unnao,on Kanpur’s edge. His family has traditionally supported the Congress,he says. Even today,his old mother expresses her helplessness. Inside the polling booth her finger assumes a life of its own,she says,it presses the button on the Congress symbol. But Yadav and the rest of his family have switched loyalties to the SP,primarily because “The Congress won’t even acknowledge my vote,while the SP does that at least. Why would I waste my vote by supporting a party that won’t even believe I voted for it?”

Despite the chatter about its revival in UP,the Congress is really a bit player in this story. The main protagonists are still the SP and the BSP. Tarmendra Singh Yadav’s predicament resonates among the BSP’s voters in the Dalit village of Satgur Kheda in the same district,for instance,and in Chamarpurva farther away in Mohanlalganj. There is irregular electricity in Chamarpurva and darkness blankets Satgur Kheda after sunset; there is no road in either village. But in both places,as they profess support for Mayawati,the dominant sense is one of resignation,not aspiration. “Who else will we vote for,if not the BSP? At least,Behenji is one of us.”

Across central UP that casts its vote in the third phase today,the real battle is set up between voters who are resigned to the claustrophobic and congealed ways in which the contest has been framed for them by political parties,and voters who are chafing against its limits. As this reporter travelled through constituencies in this region,the several signs of voter restlessness — evident,for instance,in the louder talk about candidates and the relative reticence on parties — seemed most acute among UP’s Muslims.

By all accounts,Mulayam Singh Yadav has squandered much of the gratitude and goodwill that came his way from a community that had felt besieged by the BJP’s aggressive mobilisation in the early ’90s,finally leading to the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Memories of that time linger,of course,especially in the older generation,which still looks to the SP as the only recourse against Hindu majoritarianism. But the younger generation is increasingly reluctant to spare empathy for a party that has failed to provide the community with anything more than protection against the BJP. The saffron party itself has waned in UP. Moreover,the remembered fear of the BJP must contend with more recent images of lumpenism from the brash Mulayam regime that was ousted in 2007.

Perhaps Mulayam senses this disaffection. Perhaps that explains his pre-poll understanding with the chief minister under whose watch the Babri Masjid was demolished in UP. It may be that Mulayam calculates that the damage caused by his intimacies with Kalyan Singh to the SP’s already dwindling Muslim vote can be overtaken by the gains in the backward caste or Lodh vote that will presumably follow Kalyan Singh. At a time when the politics of “secularism” appears to have run up against its own lack of a development vision or moral imagination,the mantra of “backward caste unity” beckons once more to the embattled SP chief. His feverish clasping of hands with Lalu Prasad and Ram Vilas Paswan is probably part of the rewritten script.

But it remains to be seen if Mulayam’s revised poll calculus will pay. For one,the Lodh vote is no monolith in UP. Also,politics is seldom about the intended consequences,anyway.

Take Mayawati’s much-feted “rainbow coalition” in UP,arguably one of the most spectacular instances of the politics of unintended consequences. It is true that having sensed the necessity of the “plus vote” in UP,the BSP deliberately pitched a wider tent in the run-up to the 2007 polls. It held “bhaichara sammelans”,blunted and redrafted its slogans,doled out tickets and the promise of enhanced representation to members of other castes and communities,especially Brahmins. But it is also true that if there is something on which voters in Lucknow agree with those in Sitapur and in Hamirpur at the other end,it is this: The 2007 vote was not so much a mandate for Mayawati’s social engineering as much as a verdict against the flagrantly unpopular Mulayam regime.

It was to root out the SP that voters across castes,mostly from the poor among them,banded together behind the BSP. Already,two years later,the fragility of that coming together is showing. In this election,that grand coalition is being undone by the caste prejudice that had only been briefly relegated in 2007 by the more urgent political imperative to oust the SP.

But it is also being strained by the Mayawati government’s terrible wasting of its own opportunity to transform her unprecedented electoral coalition into an enduring social alliance. In its two years in power,the BSP regime is seen to have delivered little other than a broad firmness on conspicuous law and order violations. What has been showcased,instead,is its magnificent obsession with building memorials in Lucknow,its frank patronage of friends and family,and of criminals formerly in the SP. Most of all,the Mayawati government is widely seen to be as corrupt as Mulayam’s regime was seen to be lumpenised.

Of course,support for Behenji is still undaunted among the Dalits,especially in rural areas. But in urban areas,and more generally among other castes,“Behenji” is ironically being painted as “Memsahib” — inaccessible and remote,distanced from her people by layers of securitymen,power brokers and middlemen.

Can the two “national” parties in UP take advantage of the space opened up by the opportunities squandered by parties that had once seemed to be more responsive to ground-level sensitivities in UP? Can the Congress,in particular,capitalise on the fuzzy but growing nostalgia for an earlier time in the state,and the enthusiasms worked up by some of its candidates in a few constituencies?

There is scepticism in UP,even within Congress ranks,even in a place like Kanpur. Here,the party has most staunchly held its ground in a bipolar contest against the BJP. In Kanpur today,Congress oldtimers lament the organisational decay that has led to the party withdrawing from the hard work of political mobilisation. In a place where the Congress is still seen to be strong,veteran Congressmen regret the passing of the baton to workers on hire and to political entrepreneurs.

vandita.mishra@expressindia.com

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