One can be forgiven for thinking that the Congress is the main opposition party in Uttar Pradesh. Going by the ‘Rahul Gandhi versus Mayawati’ bouts made all too visible by the media, the figure of 22 seats that the Congress gathered in the last assembly elections — down from 25 in the 2002 assembly polls — may seem like a typographical error by wicked conspirators. It is not.
The real battle over which not much ink is being spilled is the jostle for the second spot. The Samajwadi Party (SP), without the trappings or weapons of incumbency, is reaching out to recover its traditional Muslim support base. This cooked-and-ready anti-BJP support was seriously disturbed when former BJP chief minister Kalyan Singh was enlisted as an SP campaigner during the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. Mulayam Singh Yadav’s plan was to broaden the Yadav-Muslim votebank by putting Kalyan Singh out as a bait that upper caste Hindus would bite.
Things didn’t quite work according to that script. Instead, the disastrous move saw Muslims jump the SP ship and look out for lifeboats.
Which is where we find the Congress, through the frenetic, school prefect-style moves of Amethi MP Rahul Gandhi, sending off a letter to Union minister for commerce and industry Anand Kumar ‘asking’ him to quickly implement the roll-out of a central package of R3,000 crore to help the predominantly Muslim weavers in eastern UP. A local Congressman, upset over Gandhi’s “How long will you beg in Maharashtra?” gaffe made in Phulpur, told me that he is sure that the Congress general secretary must have dashed off this letter as damage control immediately after making the blunder. Both gaffe and letter were made and written on the same day.
While no amount of lunching in at Dalit households may make Mayawati’s core electorate confuse politeness for votes, floating groups like disgruntled Muslims may be looking for nuanced seduction. And no one does deft seductions — although it may look a bit over-the-top for those who don’t much care for her — better than chief minister Mayawati who has shown herself to be the politician in the run-up to the 2012 assembly polls.
While Mulayam Singh and son Akhilesh feel the pinch of the absence of master facilitator Amar Singh on the ground, while LK Advani and his giant perambulator spread the message of something that we can’t really make out, and while the Congress still prefers a ‘face’ to launch its UP campaign over rolled-up kurta sleeves and building a political workforce from the ground up, the BSP leader has gone on an expansion drive while retaining her base.
Her latest move of announcing the process of carving out four states from existing Uttar Pradesh has the advantage over other pre-poll promises and demands of being tangible and sketchy at the same time - tangible because unlike, say, ‘getting rid of corruption’, this move isn’t an abstract proposal; and sketchy because in the end it will have to be the central government of the day that will have to decide on such a division of a state. (Yes, did you also sense the future trajectory that Mayawati has embedded in the proposal? “As chief minister, I’ve started the ball rolling. If you make me prime minister, I can stitch the deal.”) The noises from the other camps have been along predictable lines. While Mulayam Singh has responded by saying that his party will oppose the breaking up of UP with all its might, the Congress has called it a “poll gimmick” and the BJP “politics of votes” — as if all the rabbits that others pull out of their hat are vicious while those they themselves pull out are cuddly, fluffy pets.
At least going by the opening round of UP poll preparations, it’s Mayawati staving off folks whose real challenge is one another. Which, of course, doesn’t mean that when the hurly-burly’s done and Battlefield UP’s lost and won, the challengers and opponents of the current government in Lucknow can’t suddenly become friends after trading numbers of assembly seats they’ve managed to win. Because everyone is well aware, as they dash from one rally to another, that politics is essentially about choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable. Something that the UP voter, already flexing his EVM finger, knows by instinct.