The BJP has reason to celebrate. It has proved political pundits wrong by putting up a creditable showing in Uttar Pradesh’s recent civic polls. It has managed to hang on to its urban vote-bank and has, in fact, improved upon its past performance. This fillip comes at a time when the party is groping in the dark for issues that the electorate will find appealing.
The party had marshalled all its resources for the local elections. The Sangh parivar was out in full strength and all the units worked in tandem. Being the nerve centre of Indian politics, UP polls are always a matter of prestige. Further, the local elections are seen as a precursor to the forthcoming assembly polls which are likely to determine the future course of national politics.
Not only does UP have a major political presence in the country because of its sheer size, but it is also home to all the potential conflict zones — Ayodhya, Kashi and Mathura — all pointers to the future politics of the parivar. The BJP even roped in former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to campaign.
The Congress, whose dwindling electoral base in UP has made its presence as a majority at the national level precarious, has cause to celebrate also. It has managed to improve its vote tally and has become a force to be reckoned with in UP’s urban spread. The Congress leadership is aware that UP accounts for 80 seats in the 543-member Lok Sabha. It is success here that can help the Congress change the electoral arithmetic at the national level.
Interestingly, the principal actor on the UP stage, the ruling Samajwadi Party, strident in its opposition to the BJP’s brand of politics, is also gloating over its performance in the civic polls — for it has a stronger grip now on the rural and semi-urban electorate. The Samajwadi Party’s high-voltage campaign including its populist poll sops like unemployment allowance, schemes for women and girl children, free saree distribution seem to have all failed in the urban areas. Yet, the Samajwadi Party feels that in a caste-ridden and polarised political set-up, it still has a strong chance to stage a comeback.
Normally, civic polls, or for that matter by-elections to state assemblies and the Lok Sabha, do not serve as indicators to the ‘big picture’, as it were. This is even more so in the case of UP’s civic polls, for the simple reason that the principal contender to power, Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party, was not in the fray.
Mayawati's decision to keep off the local body elections may have seemed strange, considering that her electoral base, the Dalits, are the worst affected when it comes to matters pertaining to civic issues. Civic polls provide the opportunity to assert party ideals at the grassroots level. But, like her mentor Kanshi Ram, Mayawati believes that now she has managed to hold complete sway over her constituents (Dalits), she can afford frequent political experiments. That’s the only way the under-privileged can have a bigger say. She believes that, come what may, she is the sole spokesperson for Dalits and backward Muslims in Uttar Pradesh.
Yet, Mayawati apparently took the decision to keep away from the civic elections for tactical reasons. One direct spin-off from the BSP’s absence was that the Congress was able to improve its image in the state. With a shared electoral base and the BSP’s known ability to transfer its votes to an ally, the Congress gained. The BSP leader is keenly aware that an alliance with the Congress in the forthcoming assembly elections will work to its advantage. With the Congress now experimenting in coalition politics at the national level, it would be a good bet for Mayawati to forge a formal alliance with the Congress in UP.
Then again, the Samajwadi Party’s survival and growth is completely dependent on the BJP’s Hindutva politics. Thus, it supported the BJP in the urban centres. Mulayam Singh Yadav as well as the BJP are aware that the split of votes on communal and caste lines could help them garner rich electoral dividends.
Mulayam’s Muslim-Yadav formula can work only when the Muslims feel threatened by core Hindu communalism.
One must remember that civic elections may not necessarily reflect voting behaviour in the assembly elections. Also, there are several minor political players in UP who play a significant role in determining the fate of the big parties at the assembly level. Such caste and regional groupings have a decisive say at the national level. Former Prime Minister VP Singh, too, is making a determined bid to provide an alternative platform with his Jan Morcha. He is expected to have the support of Lalu Prasad Yadav, Ramvilas Paswan and the Left. Even Ajit Singh, Mulayam Singh Yadav’s close ally in the government, may team up with VP Singh.
The UP civic polls have allowed a glimpse of the emerging equations that will cast their shadow on the impending assembly elections. The short winter between now and the UP elections is going to be an interesting one.
Email Prakash Patra: firstname.lastname@example.org