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Bijli, sadak, jaati

Delhi and the nation’s television screens popped and crackled with the fate of the Lokpal Bill the whole of last week but across the political landscape of Uttar Pradesh, it was pre-assembly election business as usual. But what is ‘business as usual’ in circa 2012 UP? Chanakya writes.

india Updated: Dec 25, 2011 12:21 IST
Chanakya

Delhi and the nation’s television screens popped and crackled with the fate of the Lokpal Bill the whole of last week, with even the ‘domitable’ Sonia Gandhi coming out and stating that she will “fight for Lokpal”. But across the political landscape of Uttar Pradesh, it was pre-assembly election business as usual. But what is ‘business as usual’ in circa 2012 UP?

For those pundits, psephologists and fellow Chanakyas in demand through the 90s and early 2000s for their detailed knowledge of caste and sub-caste break-ups and who votes which party, the last decade had been somewhat quiet. In the 2007 assembly polls, Mayawati simply raked in the Dalit vote that included the sizeable Jatav community (who comprise almost 57% of UP’s Dalits) along with the electoral support of other backward classes (OBCs) to romp to a 206-seat majority. Five years ago, it was a relatively simple ‘Dalit vs scattered non-Dalit’ assembly poll.

This time round, that isn’t the case.

For one, there’s a resurgent Samajwadi Party and a voluble Congress that are already making Mayawati’s BSP not take things for granted. It’s not only the Yadavs, Kurmis and Lodhs who, dissatisfied by what they deem as the exclusionary politics of Mayawati, are looking towards Mulayam Singh as a saviour, but also the still unconvinced Brahmin voters, who are looking for a non-BSP option in Lucknow.

And then there are the Muslims, forming about 18% of UP’s 200 million-odd electorate. The Congress, armed with the scalpel that is Amethi MP Rahul Gandhi, and the sword that is the central government, has already rolled up its sleeves and started wooing this constituency.

If the Rs2,350 crore central package for weavers was wrapped as a social welfare exercise, the fact that an overwhelming number of those who will benefit from this scheme happen to be Muslims has been duly noted as a social targeting exercise. And the Congress set a pigeon among the cats by suggesting reservations for Muslims within the existing OBC quota. This Thursday, the Union Cabinet complied by squeezing out a 4.5% sub-quota for ‘minorities’.

Chief minister Mayawati, never the sort to believe that imitation is the best form of flattery, was quick to announce in a Lucknow rally last week that the total number of seats reserved for OBCs should be increased proportionately (including 27% for ‘backward Muslims’) and pushed for the inclusion of some OBCs into the SC-ST category. True to form, the Congress responded to this by stating that “the minorities will not be fooled by such rhetoric”. It remains unclear whether the party believes that minorities can be ‘fooled’ by any other kind (read: its own) of rhetoric.

But while Mayawati brings out full-page ads in newspapers proclaiming what her government has done for Muslims, and the Samajwadi Party pulls out all the stops to retrieve its lost Muslim votes, what has become clear is that it’s not all about bijli-sadak-paani in UP 2012 as we may like to believe. Instead, it’s a deft (or otherwise) mix of caste-community targeting along with developmental promises from all sides.

Even as other parties castigate the ruling BSP for not doing enough on the development front — and the BSP, on its part, hollers that it has done so much on the development front over the last five years — UP’s ‘traditional’ caste-community-based politics seems to have made a forceful ‘comeback’ (not that it actually went anywhere).

But the development mantra over the last decade has changed things in one important way. Voters in UP have become more aspirational, complaints filtered through the caste-community prism of ‘Their community gets 24-hour electricity in that district, but our community here doesn’t’. Essentially, much of the demand for development is being made along caste-community lines. The thinking from the voters on the ground is along these lines: If Mayawati has brought Dalits a better life, Mulayam (or Rahul) could get better roads for Muslims.

A Bihar-style ‘rainbow electorate’ that Nitish Kumar has managed to forge with the nuts and bolts of development still eludes UP. So, as UP 2012 starts rolling, expect those caste-community experts rolling off numbers and the alliance strategies of Jats and Jatavs and Yadavs and Rajputs and Lodhs and Kurmis and Brahmins to make a comeback. Be sure that they’ll explain what happened after the election results are announced next year.