In the 2007 Uttar Pradesh assembly election, the Congress won 22 seats in a house of 403, with 8.61% of the vote. Two years later, in the Lok Sabha election, the party won the equivalent of 95 assembly seats, with 18.25% of the vote. It is reasonably expected the party will finish somewhere between those two sets of numbers in February 2012, when 112 million voters elect MLAs to represent them in Lucknow.
Where exactly will the Congress end up? This is the key question not just of the coming quintet of state elections but, really, of the year. It could determine the UPA’s longevity and party general secretary Rahul Gandhi’s future. Will the Congress finish in the 35-40 seat range or the 70-75 seat band? There is a world of a difference between those, between being a small player — and perhaps a target of poaching by other parties — and an important factor in putting together a potential coalition government.
Uttar Pradesh is a complex election to predict. A four-way split and the presence of spoiler candidates make forecast hazardous. Unlike, say, Goa or Uttarakhand — essentially straightforward bipolar polities — opinion pollsters face a formidable challenge here.
Early and first-person assessments suggest one clear verity. The rainbow coalition the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) had built so successfully in 2007 is crumbling and doing so faster than expected. Who is gaining as Mayawati’s party slips? The Samajwadi Party (SP) is on the comeback trail, even if nobody is willing to bet on a majority. In the urban areas, there is some hope for the BJP, though it is severely handicapped by infighting.
The joker in the pack is the Congress. Till a few weeks ago, the party seemed likely to finish fourth out of four. In recent days, there have been reports of it doing much better than anticipated. Is this a short-lived euphoria caused by the announcement of an alliance with the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) in western Uttar Pradesh and the fact that Rahul has had a few impressive public meetings — or is it a sustainable trend? The answer will be known only on March 4, when the votes are counted.
Nevertheless it is important to recognise the Congress is fighting a very different election from 2009. Its campaign and platform indicate an effort at winning a new social constituency, making an aggressive foray into the politics of Mandal and the OBC/intermediate castes. This may or may not work, but it needs to be noted that Rahul Gandhi is attempting a social engineering the Congress has shied away from in the past.
The Congress’ traditional constituencies in Uttar Pradesh comprised Muslims, Dalits and Brahmins. Since it lost power in 1989, it has tried to woo back these groups, making some headway with sections of Brahmins and Muslims in 2009. It was optimistic of a larger consolidation in its favour after that, but that did not happen.
Today, the Congress is trying something far removed. It has calculated the Dalits (especially the Jatav sub-caste) will not leave the BSP. That apart, the Brahmin vote is split among various parties. Like the Muslims (18% of the state’s electorate), the Brahmins will only back the Congress in constituencies where it seems viable. Otherwise, they will not waste their ballot. As such, without a core vote, the Congress cannot expect accretion.
For better or worse, Rahul has bet OBCs — the large swathe between the top-end of the historical caste hierarchy and the Dalits — will become that core vote. As a result, the Congress is wooing Kurmis and Lodhs from the BJP and trying to prise away MBCs — the so-called Most Backward OBCs, socio-economically closer to Dalits — from the BSP. Yadavs are the leading OBC constituent and loyal to Mulayam Singh Yadav’s SP. The Congress is putting up strong Yadav candidates even in SP bastions.
Rather than Pramod Tiwari and Rita Bahuguna, both party veterans but very weak Brahmin contenders, the Congress is subtly projecting Beni Prasad Varma, a Kurmi, as its mascot in Uttar Pradesh and a possible chief minister. Varma is a former SP man. As an OBC leader, he has lacked the pan-state appeal of Mulayam or of Kalyan Singh, the onetime BJP chief minister. Yet Rahul hopes he will emerge as Uttar Pradesh’s Nitish Kumar, at least in the eastern part of the state, and mobilise non-Yadav OBC voters for the Congress.
There are voices in the party that disagree with this strategy and feel the Congress simply cannot become an OBC-centric party. They are upset that Rahul is apparently looking at candidate selection and other parameters “through Beni’s prism”.
While it is a fact that OBCs have not been enthusiastic voters of the Congress for some 50 years, innovative caste coalitions are not unprecedented in Uttar Pradesh. In village structures, Yadavs and Muslims had an oppositional and mutually hostile relationship in periods of religious tension. Even so, Mulayam welded them together in the early 1990s and projected Yadavs as guarantors of Muslim security. The BJP was seen as a privileged-caste entity, but the incorporation of OBCs 20 years ago gave it the critical mass to thrust into rural areas and eventually rule from Lucknow. Five years ago, the BSP got Brahmins and urban middle classes to accept Dalit supremacy.
Can Rahul’s gamble work similarly?
( Ashok Malik is a Delhi-based political commentator )
The views expressed by the author are personal