Hazratganj is central Lucknow’s busiest crossing. It is here that the grand building of the Uttar Pradesh Vidhan Sabha is located.
The battle to enter the premises of the assembly has begun in full swing in India’s most populous, and politically significant state.
UP’s key political parties operate in offices close to the assembly.
Over the next eight months, these offices will become the hub of political activity. The meetings and the decisions taken here will determine the next verdict, and the future of almost 200 million people for the next five years.
The power corridors of Lucknow
The Akhilesh factor
On Vikramaditya Marg, the Samajwadi Party office is abuzz with activity. Ministers step out of official cars with their red beacons. Supplicants and party workers wait in the lawns for their turn. Many predict the party will return to power.
But beneath the bluster, the party knows it is facing a huge challenge.
If it has one thing going for it, it remains chief minister Akhikesh Yadav’s image.
Across the state, there appears to be a huge amount of goodwill for the leader. A businessman in Lucknow says, “His sincerity cannot be doubted. He listens, he tries to solve problems, and he is interested in development.” An official who has worked with him closely says, “If we even ask him about politics, he says let us not waste time but discuss something more constructive. That is why there is dissatisfaction but no aggressive resentment against the government.”
For an electorate that has primarily participated in the politics of identity of Mulayam Singh, Mayawati and Kalyan Singh, Akhikesh is a whiff of fresh air. The government has also worked on welfare schemes, which seem under-appreciated in public commentary.
But this is where the problems begin.
Akhilesh, critics point out, can maintain this clean image because others - his father, uncles - are doing the real politics, which is synonymous with the old politics of patronage and corruption. A bureaucrat agrees. “Look, there is no doubt there is multipolarity of the power structure. This means that the government’s control over bureaucracy is shaky. Each officer reports to his patron.”
This, he adds, is also the reason why law and order is weak. “Police officials do not quite have the confidence to respond quickly because they don’t know who within the power structure will respond how.” This multipolarity, and the ensuing sense of lawlessness, is SP’s biggest handicap. Almost all castes, besides Yadavs, are hostile to the party.
The other disadvantage for the SP is the perception that it has been disproportionately favourable to Muslims. Guddu, a Yadav driver in the city, says, “You people think it is our sarkar but this is actually Azam Khan’s sarkar. It is only for the minorities.”
It is precisely this image that the BJP hopes to exploit to consolidate its vote.
BJP’s search for the face
Bang opposite the Vidhan Sabha is the BJP state headquarters.
Party spokesperson Vijay Bahadur Pathak gives a sense of the party’s core message - which will be based on a contrast of the SP and BJP’s record.
He lists out a chargesheet against the current SP regime - the lawlessness (’see what happened in Mathura’); the weak CM (’his father, uncles and Azam Khan run the show’), the absence of development (’most state development funds have not been spent’).
But it is not on message but leadership issue that the party faces a big challenge. It does not have a declared CM face.
A party MLA admits, “We will improve our performance but we are not winning. We need a face. Neither Smriti Irani nor Mahesh Sharma nor Adityanath can get us a victory. Rajnath Singh is our best bet.” But whether Singh - a former state CM - would want to take on the responsibility - especially when victory is uncertain - is doubtful. Pathak says, “The party will decide on the leadership question at the right time. All we have been told by Amit Shah is to work hard in our areas of responsibility.”
What Shah is definitely working on is building up the party’s support among non-Yadav backward castes and non-Jatav Dalit communities. Look no further than the recent cabinet expansion - where one Brahman, one Kurmi, and one Dalit - for proof.
When asked about the general perception that BJP was deliberately talking up the SP in order to downplay the real threat of the Bahujan Samaj Party, Pathak said, “The SP is in government. This will be an election of ‘satta parivartan’, change of regime. Of course, we will have to target SP.”
Others in the capital speak or a more cynical ploy - both BJP and SP want to talk up the threat posed by each other to consolidate respectively, the Hindu and Muslim vote. If this is even remotely true, UP is headed for an election polarised on communal lines. An aide to an MLA said, “Frankly, if we have to win, we have to polarise to get Hindu votes, including Dalits.”
This is precisely Mayawati’s nightmare scenario.
Mayawati - The invisible lady
As one turns into Mall Avenue, there are two big structures. On the left, the gates are closed, security personnel guard the door fiercely, and an elevated 18-foot sandstone wall makes even a brief glimpse inside impossible. Mayawati lives here.
On the right is another grand building, with its gates open. This is the BSP office. Barring an office assistant, it is almost entirely deserted. Large statues of BR Ambedkar, Kanshi Ram and Mayawati are placed inside.
Mayawati’s focus on building parks, monuments and statues during her last term came under so much fire that she has publicly committed there would be no fresh constructions if she becomes CM again. But while the perception of corruption and excessive expenditure is the baggage she carries, the BSP’s big advantage going into this election is Mayawati’s image as a strong leader.
From a sarpanch in Amroha in west UP to a boatman on the ghats of Varanasi, HT heard a common refrain. “Under Mayawati, the administration was tight. Law and order was excellent. There were no riots.”
As Anupam Mishra, an Allahabad journalist explains, “Under SP, there is democratisation of crime. Every SP worker feels he can take on the law. Under BSP, there is total centralisation, and so even the cadre is careful.”
But if this gives her the edge, Mayawati faces a real challenge in getting her vote alignments right. Its leader of opposition in the assembly, Swami Prasad Maurya, has resigned, causing a dent in the party’s support among non-Yadav OBCs. A Pasi leader, RK Chaudhary, left the party on June 30th.
It is only when she is seen as a potential winner that Muslims will switch to her from the SP to defeat the BJP. With both the SP and BJP investing efforts to diminish her, stitching such a winning coalition is Mayawati’s big challenge.
One way to possibly to do this - and convey to Muslims both her winnability and commitment to fight the BJP - is to walk down Mall Avenue and ally with her neighbour, the Congress. But Mayawati is averse to pre-poll alliances - for she feels the votes of the other party do not transfer to BSP.
Congress - A distant fourth
Down the road from Mayawati’s majestic house, on Mall avenue, is Nehru Bhawan - the state headquarters of the Congress party. Banners greet Rahul Gandhi for his birthday, and Ghulam Nabi Azad for becoming the general secretary in charge of the state.
Virendra Madan, vice-chairperson of the party communication department, explains the Congress decline with a polemic against his rivals - the BJP’s communalism, the SP and BSP’s ‘casteism’.
“Under Congress, caste was never discussed. Now, even the bureaucracy is divided on caste lines.” Many would argue that this blindness to caste is actually nostalgia for upper caste domination. Most of Congress’ chief ministers were upper castes. It also perhaps reflects an inability to cope with the social assertion of the backwards.
Madan explains that strategist Prashant Kishor has brought new energy into the campaign. His team has gone to all districts, met Congress leaders, got feedback on issues and reasons for loss. He is also trying to get dedicated booth level workers, and has told people that unless you have five to ten workers at every booth, you are not even in the race.
Kishor’s strategy of making Priyanka Gandhi the face of the campaign has enthused the cadre, but unless she is the CM face, it will be difficult to translate it into votes.
The hope of bringing back Brahmans - with possibly a Brahman CM face - and Muslims by reassuring them the party is a winnable horse is also on thin ground. A Brahman journalist, embedded in community networks, says, “We don’t want a face. We want to see a winnable combination. And Congress does not have it. Our first option is BJP, the second option is whoever can defeat the SP.” Privately, Congress leaders admit their only hope is an alliance with BSP. “Otherwise, if we can double their current strength of 23 seats, it will be an achievement,” says an insider.
As parties polish their strategy, what is clear is that UP is in poll mode. The verdict will have implications far beyond the state.