Even though it makes for the perfect television shot, there’s something heartbreaking about the sight of village children excitedly chasing a helicopter as it kicks dust in the faces of hundreds of men and women who stand there transfixed and fascinated by the blinding haze.
Election season sometimes makes you feel that all that has changed over the decades in the lives of India’s poor is that many of them now have a mobile phone to capture the image of the netas soaring to the sky. And yet, despite the evident ‘mai-baap’ dimension to the high-flying and seasonal visits of vote-seeking politicians, the electorate itself is now driving some fascinating changes in the traditional paradigm of politics.
Uttar Pradesh is witnessing one of its most keenly contested, four-cornered elections. Much has been made of the fact that 60% of the voters are under the age of 40 and at least two of the most-prominent faces of the campaign — Rahul Gandhi and Akhilesh Yadav — are Generation Next politicians who are attempting to re-invent their own parties. So, has the youth factor trumped caste and identity politics? Not quite. The winnability of political strategy is still being deconstructed in terms of who can claim the 21% Dalit vote or the 18% Muslim vote in the state. In many ways, the absence of either an over-arching emotive issue or an inspirational, hope-inspiring leader means that there is no tidal wave that can wash over the faultlines of caste and religion. But where caste was once rigidly central to how people voted and how politicians plotted to win their votes, today caste has become a fluid and moveable element in the elections.
In other words, while some voter loyalty continues to form around narrow caste affiliations, it is now fairly typical for ticket distribution by all parties to reflect a rainbow coalition of communities. Uttar Pradesh may not quite be ready yet for a Nitish Kumar-led Bihar model where governance has the capacity to subsume caste. But growing urbanisation, new technology and a generational shift in thinking has ensured that while caste remains a key element behind political choice; it’s now a more malleable, mobile, and flexible factor than ever before.
Ironically — the one politician in the state who is most defined by identity politics — is also the architect of a social engineering churn that has now become the accepted political formula employed by almost every party. Mayawati — unapologetic about positioning herself as a “Dalit ki beti,” adamant about why she needed to pour in crore of rupees into memorial parks that mark Dalit pride — is also the same politician who first understood that India’s politics no longer has any inbuilt pariahs. In 2007, she was able to successfully stitch together an unlikely patchwork of support with Dalits, Muslims and Brahmins. That successful experimental model has now become the reference point for every party’s electoral arithmetic. And while the rest of the country may identify Mayawati as a Dalit leader, a close reading of the ticket distribution by her party this time illustrates her continued and assiduous courtship of other castes and communities — a higher number of Brahmin and Thakur candidates, for example, against the 88 Dalit candidates who are contesting, and nearly an equal number of tickets for Muslim candidates.
That Mayawati’s rainbow is in danger of being rained upon this time has much less to do with the rigidities of caste hierarchies and more to do with other complex issues of anti-incumbency and a perceived aloofness in political style. The criticism of the second aspect is another significant change that an assertive electorate has pushed on the polity. Despite all the helicopter-hopping, politicians across parties are being forced to abandon a talk-down and top-down approach.
The village voter may show fascination for your flying machine but he expects to be able to meet you, talk to you, shake your hand and petition you directly about the absence of drinking water, electricity or a functional primary school. Both arrogance and shyness now have a shrinking space in the politics of the heartland. Akhilesh Yadav may use the iPad to navigate his campaign routes, but he also needs to clamber on an ordinary cycle and establish mass contact with voters.
Rahul Gandhi may have limited time for journalists but after every speech he jumps off the stage, shrugs off his security ring and walks straight into the rally grounds to mingle with the crowds. Uma Bharti’s once famous rhetorical extremity is of much less value now compared to her earthy political style that is able to establish an easy communication line with the people.
There are some contradictions of course. Mayawati — who set the social engineering ball into motion — remains the only exception to this emerging norm. The red carpet laid out to receive her is swept many times before her arrival; her ministers swiftly leave their footwear at the base of the stage as they stand by to receive her and she rarely, if ever, steps down to mingle with the crowds. And yet her rallies — even today — draw the most staggering numbers. In part, the well-oiled organisational infrastructural machinery of the BSP makes this possible. But it’s also the record of historic injustices towards India’s most marginalised community that provide her a great deal of latitude that most other politicians simply cannot afford.
Yet, once the Dalit community gradually moves towards economic betterment and social assimilation, even Mayawati will be forced to re-invent her style. Despite the dramatics of the helicopter landings in dusty barren village fields, political largesse can no longer be dropped from the skies like manna from heaven. Not unless you want the ground beneath your feet to shake dangerously.
(Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV)
The views expressed by the author are personal