Early this year in Bundelkhand, I met villagers enduring the lethal assault of three recurring years of drought, mounted on the back of chronic agrarian distress. People were eating only one meal a day, and that too often a single coarse roti mixed with bitter wild leaves that killed hunger. Entire villages had emptied out, as there was no work, water or food. People fled with their children in search of any work on any terms to the cities. Back in the village, old people and cattle were left behind to fend for themselves.
The response of both the central and state governments to both drought and the agrarian crisis lacked urgency, compassion and administrative acumen. But it is remarkable how these failures are not issues for public discussions in rallies and speeches in the run-up to the elections in Uttar Pradesh.
The fact that UP is just ahead of Bihar among large states in its dismal record of human development does not find mention in the election priorities of the state. Large hoardings celebrating India’s display of military muscularity with “surgical strikes” are instead touted as the ruling party’s crowning achievement.
Discussions on street-corners and TV screens assume that the UP voter will vote based on either age-old solidarities of caste and religious identity, or on surcharged hyper-sentiment — nationalist or communal. A few discussions suggest that concerns of social justice might also weigh with segments of voters. But they all assume that voters will not evaluate competing parties based on what they will contribute to tangibly improve the lives of millions of impoverished people.
I am struck by how peripheral these questions of dignified survival of the poor, and of humane and just governance are in the UP election campaign. Maybe, the pundits are underestimating the political astuteness of the ordinary voter, in the way that they did fatally in the landmark elections in Bihar last winter.
It is evident that the BJP offers little to the voter beyond its divisive sentiment. This worked handsomely to its favour during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections; but will it once again forge alliances between high, middle and low-caste Hindus against the Muslims? The Muslim has been constructed in the political discourse of the BJP and RSS into the dangerous “other”. Sentiments are mobilised against them in the name of cow protection, reverence for Ram, charges of love jihad and sexual harassment by Muslim boys, and Muslim personal law.
A climate of fear and dread has been fostered among Muslims across UP, as in much of India, with almost daily reports of local attacks on Muslims. The fate of Mohammed Ikhlaq and his family have come to symbolise for Muslims the insecurity and injustice of their lives.
The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) for the first time since it was constituted issued an openly communal report that repeated the false rumours that had been raised by BJP MP Hukum Singh. These were about the “exodus” of Hindus from Kairana after people displaced by the communal killings of 2013 in Muzaffarnagar and Shamli settled in this Muslim-majority township. The report said that Muslim youth “pass lewd/taunting remarks” against Hindu women, although there is not even a single complaint in the police station, again echoing the RSS demonisation of Muslim men as sexual predators. This report is being quoted by the Union home minister Rajnath Singh in the trail of the UP “parivatan” trail.
In “Living Apart: Communal Violence and Forced Displacement in Muzaffarnagar and Shamli”, a report by Akram Chaudhary, Zafar Eqbal and Rajanya Bose and this author, we document the travails of 50,000 Muslims, of who 30,000 are living in self-settled refugee colonies including Kairana. Significantly, the suffering of people displaced by communal violence was not a matter of any concern for the NHRC. Instead they are portrayed as the danger to the rest of us.
The just cause of ending the practice of triple talaq in the Muslim personal law is also stained by the timing and selectivity of the initiative. If the purpose was to promote gender justice, then the initiative would carry credibility only if the Centre addressed simultaneously personal laws that are unfair to women in other religious traditions.
In much of the communal targeting of Muslims, the Samajwadi Party-led state government is complicit. Whether this is deliberate, in order to benefit from the resulting communal polarisation, or is only the outcome of shocking ineptitude, is hard to confirm. But either of these makes the SP unfit for governance. Rahul Gandhi has tried to raise some issues relevant to farmers and Dalits in his rallies, but his efforts are not backed by credible evidence of sustained ground-level Congress engagement with issues of social and economic justice or reversing the agrarian distress.
That only leaves the Mayawati-led BSP. In her public addresses, she has called for the coming together of Dalits and Muslims. This would require her to win the trust of Muslim voters. How Dalits choose at the ballot will be the single-most critical factor for determining the outcome of the elections. Do they share the mounting anger of Dalits against the BJP-RSS combine in many other parts of India? Can Dalits and Muslims cement a new social alliance? The answers to these questions will decide if Mayawati can form the next government in Lucknow.
Harsh Mander is author, Looking Away: Inequality, Prejudice and Indifference in New India
The views expressed are personal