At the end of this day, the results of Uttar Pradesh’s assembly elections will be known. ‘Caste’ and ‘religion’ are the dominant words used to describe UP’s politics. But, as any reporter on the UP trail will tell you, its politics is also about another word -‘opportunity’.
In the absence of a business sector, a vibrant intelligentsia or a society where talent is recognised, politics is the only status-provider in UP. Politics is played for basic livelihood, upward mobility and good salaries. How to become the village daroga? How to get a son into a government school? How to arrange a suitable match for a daughter? Politics provides the linkages that oil one’s daily existence. Politics is to UP what the private sector is to other states. Politics is UP’s largest industry, it is the state’s corporate sector and it is a key avenue for employment. Because politics is the private sector, ‘opportunity’ becomes the key determinant of political behaviour.
In a state without an Infosys or a Wipro, and with an industrial growth rate at a dismal 4 per cent, it is the Bahujan Samaj Party Pvt Ltd, the Samajwadi Party Pvt Ltd and the Bharatiya Janata Party Pvt Limited which are the aspiration of millions. Whoever forms the next government in UP will thus be driven by the desire to raise the profitability of the company, attract new shareholders and pursue as many joint ventures as possible. It’s not fair to judge the politics of UP by how far it conforms to the standards of public life. In fact, party behaviour should be judged by how far political parties serve their stakeholders and how far they are able to remain successful brand names.
Mayawati’s bold gambit of transforming the BSP from the party of Dalits to the ‘sarvajan samaj’ or ‘samta muluk samaj’ is the biggest story of this year’s state assembly elections. The BSP, once the hater of all suvarna castes, is now open and welcoming of not only Brahmins, but also Thakurs, Rajputs and Banias. What does such a transformation imply? It implies great opportunities. Today in the BSP, there are party tickets on offer (for a cash transfer, of course), ministerial berths on offer, Rajya Sabha seats on offer and the additional benefit of a vast loyal votebank that will faithfully ensure that the company never goes under. The BSP in UP is a newly-opened company, with plenty of jobs available. Only the post of CEO is taken; second-rung posts are all empty and up for grabs. So, if you are educated and of an upper-caste, the BSP offers a rewarding career. After all, Mayawati badly requires educated people to run her ministries and once (and if) the BSP acquires the Lucknow gaddi, educated BSP members will be a valued asset.
Satish Chandra Misra, the Dalit party’s new Brahmin face and arguably number two in the BSP, is perhaps the latest political entrepreneur in UP. Till a few years ago, Misra was a senior lawyer with political ambitions. Had he joined the Congress, he might have been waiting in a long queue for a darshan of Rahul Gandhi. In the BJP, he would have been marginal to the existing party hierarchy.
In the BSP, on the other hand, he has within the space of two years become the party’s key strategist, even being given his own helicopter to go on the campaign trail, a privilege reserved until now for the party’s supreme leader. The entire Brahmin alliance strategy was, and is, Misra’s brainchild. He came up with it just as a far-sighted new managing director might come up with a new business strategy. As long as a party continues to provide opportunities for all, it will keep growing. Hardcore loyalists might crib about ideological dilution, but a growing business offers its own rewards.
Today, a Dalit youth can get a job with the Bahujan Volunteer Force, or the BSP’s private law enforcement security agency, and even carry the parallel rank of an SP or a DCP. Becoming a karyakarta with the BSP means a fixed responsibility, membership of an ‘organisation’, maybe a stipend, hours of work and a source of insurance during trouble. Why then should a young man not choose this career? Raju Pal, the assassinated BSP MLA from Allahabad West, was a Samajwadi Party loyalist and only defected to the BSP when he failed to get a ticket. It’s a story replicated thousand-fold across UP. Most legislators change their parties at least twice, if not thrice, in the quest for a ticket. No ideology or belief systems or loyalty to a leader ties them to a party. What motivates them is purely the calculation of future opportunity.
The BJP’s Ram Janmabhoomi movement in the late 1980s and early 1990s attracted UP’s youth. The footsoldiers of the movement
were not the Brahmin ideologues of Hindutva, but the backward caste armies mustered by Vinay Katiyar and Kalyan Singh, the
OBC leaders of the BJP. Ram mandir may not have been the final destination of the caste armies. It was simply a symbol of
future careers. This is seen in the fact that the BJP, which reached the very peak of its organisation in the early 1990s, collapsed very quickly afterwards. The party of opportunity rapidly became a failed business once it began to weaken in the face of competition. The competition for political opportunity came from the lower caste SP and the BSP. With the rise of these two parties, BJP cadres drained away to the ‘companies’ offering even better futures.
Opportunity is in woefully short supply in UP. Aside from the narrow strip of western UP, industry has yet to be born in the rest of the state. Despite being a VIP constituency, Amethi is in ruins. Malvika Stainless Steel, Amethi’s only sizeable manufacturing plant, no longer functions there. Samrat Cycles has shut down. Vast numbers across UP are unemployed. The state has the lowest labour costs in India and is the largest source of foodgrain, but in eastern UP, for example, in the entire belt stretching from Allahabad and Varanasi down to Roberstgunj, every family has at least two members who are migrants. They have fled to become taxidrivers in Mumbai or Kolkata.
In Basti district, villagers journey to Gujarat for their daily bread. A large majority of the Muslim labourers who died in the Best Bakery fire during the Gujarat riots of 2002 were UP Muslims from a village called Bhaggowar in Basti, where the aunts and cousins of Zaheera Sheikh still live. In Lucknow, English language classes are mushrooming. At one of these classes, students said they were keen to get out of UP as fast as possible. To learn English is to gain an escape route and a chance at employment outside the state. Without English, there is only the language of politics.
Those who expect a ‘political’ outcome of the UP elections, in terms of ideology and party loyalty, are invariably disappointed. What emerges, on the other hand, is a ‘business’ outcome, a final result where the opportunity levels within a party are displayed in public. The saying in UP is “Ugta suraj ko sab salaam karte hai”. Everyone from a Brahmin to a Dalit salutes the rising sun, and everyone also wants to join a new, successful company.
The writer is Senior Editor, CNN-IBN