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Uttar Pradesh polls: Fighting shy of caste & past, SP focus on bread and butter to take on Yogi’s Hindutva plus

Following five years of the BJP’s incumbency under Yogi Adityanath, with Narendra Modi at the Centre, the project of Hindu consolidation sounds triumphal. But the other project, of backward caste consolidation, dares not speak its name.

Written by Vandita Mishra | Ayodhya, Azamgarh, Gorakhpur, Lucknow |
Updated: March 3, 2022 3:54:39 pm
Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and SP president Akhilesh Yadav.

In the state where the contest between Mandal and Kamandal was most sharply etched in the decade of the 1990s, as Election 2022 winds down to its last two phases, you can track the distance covered — or not — by both.

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Following five years of the BJP’s incumbency under Yogi Adityanath, with Narendra Modi at the Centre, the project of Hindu consolidation sounds triumphal. But the other project, of backward caste consolidation, dares not speak its name.

So the BJP’s main opponent and legatee of Mandal politics, Samajwadi Party, hopes for backward caste consolidation — the party has ensured greater representation in ticket distribution of smaller backward caste groups apart from the Yadavs, and stitched up alliances with smaller caste outfits — but it cannot say it out loud.

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Its own past mistakes — it is still chased by accusations of “Yadav raj” — and the BJP’s current narrative dominance have ensured that on the ground, in large sections, the politics of caste is projected as divisive, its egalitarian charge seems all but spent, while a Hindutva which explicitly and openly excludes Muslims is portrayed as non-discriminatory.

To a large extent, Hindutva has achieved this feat by becoming Hindutva plus. Most of all, in five years of the Yogi incumbency in UP, the project has expanded and entrenched itself by appropriating the law and order argument. Suraksha, safety and security, is the prime concern, many who speak in favour of the BJP say.

In large part, this argument resonates because it rides on the back of the perceived failures of the Samajwadi Party governments on the law and order front. It is also being joined to the national security argument, in which Modi takes centrestage from Yogi.

At KS Saket PG College in Ayodhya, Harsh Singh, a student, says: “Earlier, there was gundagardi, dadagiri (lumpenism). Ab prashasan tight hai (now the administration is stern)”. “Hamaare ghar ki betiyan kahin bhi jaa sakti hain (women are safer in UP now)”, says Rajnath. Six out of the group of eight students say that “suraksha” is the topmost issue — “sabse pehle suraksha (safety first)”, they say — “phir vikas”, followed by development. ”Women’s safety, beti bachao, beti padhao…” says Priya, in Sunshine Girls Degree College in Azamgarh, are what changed in the past five years in UP.

In the Pasi (SC) mohalla of Rajapur in district Barabanki, “Modi ji ki baat alag hai, Ukraine bhi sahayata maang raha hai (even Ukraine is asking for India’s help under Modi)”, says Mukesh Chand. “Sainik jawan pehle marte the… ab badla lete hain (earlier our soldiers were killed, now they wreak revenge)” says Umesh.

There is approval and admiration for a harder, more unforgiving state, stern and punishing in demeanour. The thana (police station) is its primal stage, and Yogi Adityanath, who runs a “kada shasan (strict administration)”, and is nicknamed “Bulldozer Baba”, its star player.

Many, across castes — except in the Yadav and Muslim mohallas and in some SC clusters where the memory of the crime at Hathras hasn’t faded — talk of how, earlier, under SP rule, the thana had come under pressure from SP leaders, how culprits were booked or let off depending on their proximity to the ruling establishment, how those who were let off were mostly Yadavs and Muslims. Outside a ration shop in Rajaupur village, off the Ayodhya-Amethi road, Suraj Kumar, who is studying engineering, says: “There is no difference on law and order or on the safety front but it is true that now there are no communal clashes. Earlier, there were skirmishes when the tazia procession (on the occasion of Muharram) was taken out. But now the tazia is much smaller”.

Alongwith the security plank, Hindutva has annexed the government scheme in UP. In a state still recovering from the pandemic, the most prominent in a list that includes toilets, gas cylinders and Kisan Samman Nidhi is the free ration scheme — earlier wheat and rice were given once a month on subsidised rates, free ration was added after the onset of the pandemic, and then, just before the polls were announced, ration distribution became twice a month for free.

But at its bottom and in its core, after five years of power, the BJP’s Hindutva project in UP spells out a new and diminished definition of Muslim citizenship — as an equal recipient of the government scheme, but not as a minority that needs to be acknowledged or represented politically.

Again and again, the refrain from BJP supporters is that there is no discrimination or “bhed bhaav” under Yogi-Modi because: “Don’t they (Muslims) get free rations as well?” And pension and Ujjwala cylinders and toilets?

At Ram ki Paidi, the beautified ghats on the banks of the Saryu in Ayodhya, Swati, a school teacher, says: “The government makes no distinction between Hindus and Muslims in the distribution of schemes. They take advantage of this and still… ”

“Let them say that they don’t get free ration, and Ujjwala, and kisan nidhi”, says Lalji Goswami in Gosainpura village in Ambedkarnagar. Imtiaz Ahmed counters: “If everyone is getting ration, so are we. Why wouldn’t we? This is a democracy, and we, too, have ration cards. But you say sabka saath sabka vikas, and yet in a 400-plus seat election, the BJP cannot find Muslims to give tickets to. You tell us, make the tazia smaller, don’t bring it to the chowk, you tell us we cannot go to the masjid for namaz because of corona… Don’t terror bombs go off on motorcycles, in tiffins, and pressure cookers, why must you talk of the cycle as a vehicle for terrorists?”

In Tarbetpurva village in Faizabad district, Riaz Ahmed says, “galat galat bolte hain, badnaam karte hain (he speaks wrong and ill of us)”, referring to the speeches of CM Yogi. “They (the BJP) say we don’t want your vote, kharaab lagta hai (it feels bad)”. “No chief minister spoke like this before. When those who rule speak like this, will we not feel hurt?” asks Shan Mohammad.

On the other side, be it on questions of caste, or law and order, the SP is not just held back by its own past baggage, it also recognises that it has an image problem.

In Ayodhya, district vice president of SP, Jaishankar Pandey, says: “It is just like the BJP painted Rahul Gandhi as pappu… But SP is a party with an ideology… ” In Jagadishpur in district Amethi, Sabir Khan, state secretary, SP, says, defensively: “This is a new SP. The state executive committee has representatives from all sections, and no member of the Mulayam Singh Yadav family. Akhilesh ji has said so from many platforms, that we don’t want the goonda vote”.

It cannot speak on the predicament of Muslims too loudly for fear of sparking greater Hindu consolidation which would benefit the BJP.

In Gorakhpur, SP candidate Amarendra Nishad, when asked about his poll priorities, speaks of issues that are strictly local: “Land was identified in my village for building a hospital, but the BJP took the project to the city. In Pipraich town, the crossing near the railway station sees daily traffic jams, we need an underpass and a bridge”.

Apart from the local issues, however, the SP and to some extent the BSP — which is particularly low key in this election — are also mining the wider discontents on berozgaari (unemployment), mehengai (price rise) and chutta janwar (abandoned cows that have become a threat to the standing crop), not necessarily in that order.

On all these, distress is deep. Across the state, you hear about how many chase jobs that are too few, and the flawed and erratic processes of recruitment. Of prices rising as incomes dwindle. And about the problem for the farmer posed by the abandoned, marauding cows.

These grievances are heard most unequivocally in the Yadav and Muslim and Jatav mohallas. Elsewhere, they often invite a counter argument: On the problem of the cow, for instance: “Did Yogi-Modi come and set our animals free? We did it, can we not look after them like we look after our own parents?” Or: “The problem is not the cow, but the corruption in the gau shalas (cow shelters)”.

But, crucially for the BJP, resentment and despair over joblessness, rising prices and uncertain futures of the young can now also be heard among those smaller backward castes that have no fixed party-political address, have felt relegated by Yadav dominance during SP rule, and rallied behind the Modi-BJP in large numbers in 2017. They are also the most moveable parts in the UP election.

In the end, it’s the disquiet on the unvarnished bread and butter issues that the SP is counting on. And on voters like Rajmati. In Ayodhya’s Hanumangarhi bazaar, visiting from Basti, she says: “We did not get colony (housing), there was a lockdown, our incomes dwindled and our children are out of school. We gave Modi our vote in 2017 but this time, let us see”.

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