Identity and issues have always played a decisive role in Uttar Pradesh elections but the 2017 polls are being clearly driven by personalities.
Apparently all political parties wanted it as issues were losing the potency to swing the votes and the vulnerable voters, smitten by personal aura of primarily Prime Minister Narendra Modi, chief minister Akhilesh Yadav and BSP national president Mayawati, played into their hands.
No more are they discussing policies, programmes and promises offered by the three major players, rendering the manifestoes redundant. Not many know that even the everyday issue of traffic management has found a place in the SP manifesto.
Thus public issues, that infuriated the voters for five years, are buried under a poll narrative that focuses on personalities, reminding many of the days when Indira Gandhi ruled India and won UP elections by her mere charisma. Or for that matter the recent US elections where Donald Trump’s personality hogged the limelight.
As the election started from the communal zone of the state — West UP — some burning issues did lace the initial campaign. The SP-Congress alliance called for a referendum on demonetisation. While Akhilesh Yadav repeatedly said “People punish those who make them suffer”, Modi built a case for the rejection of the SP and the BSP for non-performance.
The principal thrust of Modi’s campaign against Akhilesh’s “Kaam bolta hai” was “Kaam nahin karname bolte hai”. But gradually it acquired an emotional overtone, “UP’s adopted son” and the SP-Congress alliance’s slogan of “UP ke ladke”.
Apparently, by the time five of the seven phases of polling were over, the major players realised that anti-incumbency, demonetisation, law and order, and development were hardly potent enough to swing the pendulum in their favour. People were discussing issues which did not decide their voting behaviour.
The personalities were then pushed to an extent that they became larger than their parties. Modi campaigned hard in the state; Akhilesh Yadav, who has emerged as a brand in politics after he won an intense family feud, addressed seven to nine rallies a day; while Mayawati stuck to her old style of rallies at the district or division level.
The public thronged the rallies of all the three leaders, making it clear that crowds cannot be the barometer for judging the strength of the parties. The state is witnessing a triangular contest almost after two decades, but fierce combat for every seat is direct — it is BSP-BJP in some, SP-BJP in others. Pollsters were confused as while some felt it’s definitely advantage the BJP, others felt the SP-Congress alliance was fighting for every seat and the BSP silently manoeuvring its way.
The voters crowded rallies, driven by the magic of their leader of choice, others by their caste loyalties. Few could follow the speeches that moved from donkeys to KASAB. Any query on issues often got the same response, “It’s Modi this time”, “Akhilesh bhaiya has done good work and is bound to come back”, and that “law and order was better under Mayawati”.
Interestingly, candidates, too, got dwarfed in the process as voters were clear they were electing Modi, Akhilesh or Mayawati — cult politics that is more a rage in south than in the north of India.
Generally, candidates do matter in assembly elections, except when there is a wave or undercurrent in favour of any party. In this election there is no such undercurrent.
The focus on personalities suited the BJP as it didn’t have a chief ministerial face against the popular candidature of Akhilesh and Mayawati. Modi easily filled this vacuum for the BJP.
A professor in Rae Bareli summed up the advantages of three players, “The SP has Akhilesh’s personal image, youth, caste and freebies; Modi has his image, a subtle caste calculation, lipstick development and a huge party paraphernalia; Mayawati has stuck to identity politics.”
Apparently in this election, the people of Uttar Pradesh are directly electing the leader they want to rule the state. Should they then crib about the state’s backwardness?