Nearly 20 years ago, film star Amitabh Bachchan took on political stalwart Hemwati Nandan Bahuguna on battlefield Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh. Bahuguna was scornful of his rival, calling him by a typically local word ‘nachaniya’ (street dancer). To even imagine that Allahabad would vote for an actor was insulting its electorate’s intelligence, was Bahuguna’s take. But Bachchan drew the crowds. He had a ready script and his lines were rehearsed. When he spoke, his baritone made the crowds hysterical; when he spoke about how he had carried Indira Gandhi’s body in his arms, women wailed.
As against this, Bahuguna tackled real issues; reiterated that crowds were no indication of voting pattern; and decried the Congress’ attempt to trivialise politics through filmdom. But he did not make it. It was a last minute turnaround that came when Bachchan’s wife Jaya positioned herself as the bahu, demanding a wedding gift in the form of votes for her husband: muh-dikhayee in common parlance. This worked and Bachchan won hands down. Then Bachchan and Rajiv Gandhi were buddies and the Congress wrested complete control of Uttar Pradesh.
Today, Rajiv Gandhi is no more and Bachchan has quit politics. Now Jaya Bachchan is an MP and Sonia Gandhi leads the party that her husband once headed. Today, UP is nobody’s bastion. The Congress lost it years ago and the BJP failed to retain it after the temple frenzy died down. If Mulayam Singh is in control today, Mayawati could move in tomorrow.
With regional parties moving in and caste politics dominating, there is a focus shift, which has elbowed out national concerns and macro politics. The trend, which started in Bihar, is now in sway in Uttar Pradesh. The Muslim-Yadav combine, of which Mulayam continues to be a beneficiary, helped Lalu Yadav rule Bihar for 15 years. Once the cracks appeared, he was toppled.
Mulayam Singh needs to read the writing on the wall. His unpopularity is at its peak. It is not about unkept promises or the absence of development; and it is not about corruption or the incumbency factor. Mulayam’s albatross is the criminals he has on board. If, in Lalu’s Bihar, criminals had a free run because they were Lalu’s caste brothers, in Mulayam’s land, they call the shots. In Allahabad, for instance, the land mafia has grabbed prime property and it is fear that gags the city which, pre-Mulayam, was politically volatile.
It is against this backdrop that the electorate is desperate for options. As a consequence, both Sonia Gandhi and Mayawati assume significance. Sonia represents a cultural shift from the throes of caste, corruption and non-governance in UP. She has credibility and the will to change the destinies of an electorate stung by communal and caste politics. Mayawati demonstrates grit in taking on a bureaucracy that cringes and crawls when asked to bend. In this context, the case of a district magistrate lying prostrate before her is often cited. Add to this her ability to get things done and she easily fits the description of an ‘iron lady’. Mayawati cannot be absolved of encouraging corruption and casteism, but she is yet a lesser evil to Mulayam.
As far as popularity votes go, Sonia Gandhi would win hands down in UP. If her son Rahul promises to lead the state politics, the Congress’ fortunes will most certainly improve. While it will take a few years, and perhaps another election, before the party can be in the reckoning, the Gandhis can rejuvenate the rank and file, end factionalism and shake the state leadership out of its inertia. This would mean a ‘reconnect’ with an electorate that has written off the Congress.
But the Gandhis cannot perform miracles overnight. They can, at best, add some seats to the party’s dismal representation in the state assembly: in some cases their campaigning can tilt the scales in favour of candidates poised for a win and in others, margins can improve. The party calculation also seems to be to get enough seats to be in a bargaining position at the time of government formation. Given its present status in the electoral arena, this is more than the Congress can hope for.
But with the electorate divided on caste, even this may not be easy. It can only hope to crack the caste stranglehold if it effectively sells a crime-free UP over the cracks created by caste politics. If it gambles with the development card, it will hit a roadblock because the electorate in UP, as in most other parts of India, has accepted non-performance and corruption as a way of life. This is, perhaps, what makes Mayawati’s acceptability quotient rather high among the people. Her followers find that ‘she takes money but delivers’. Her bid to include upper castes in the party has helped the BSP shed its Dalit image. In any case, as compared to the militant Yadavs, Dalits in power are a safer bet.
But for any party to move in — the Congress, the BSP or any other — Mulayam Singh Yadav’s government has to move out. With him in the saddle, fair elections are a far cry. Apart from rigging, the criminal elements in the SP may unleash a reign of terror to immobilise voters — so that genuine voters remain indoors. This is what the people want changed more than anything else. While the Congress would like to use this as an excuse for the imposition of
President’s rule, the electorate wants criminals at bay.