In the last state elections in Uttar Pradesh (UP) the main poll plank for all parties was ‘Good Governance’ and Smajwadi Party (SP) edged out Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) and Bahujan Smajwadi Party (BSP) in style. One still wonders if the voters really believed that SP could give them ‘good governance’ since without a doubt their past performance in the state was pathetic to say the least. Did the state get good governance in last five years? Does it matter at all to the populace in UP whether or not it gets good governance? The answers to these questions while being important have possibly no relevance when it comes to votes. The votes in UP are cast on entirely different planks and ‘Good Governance’ is certainly not in that list. In 2012 SP won primarily because of three reasons. First it was Mayawati’s ineptness that resulted in part of Dalit votes being cast in favour of SP. Next a large part of the Muslim votes, traditionally Congress, too fell in SP’s lap since Congress was not in contention. Last but not the least it was the projection of a youthful Chief Ministerial candidate in Akhilesh Yadav who came across as a serious and matured leader that appealed to many voters. This time on SP cannot bank on any of these reasons since Mayawati is once again in the reckoning, some Muslim voters are disenchanted with SP and Akhilesh has hardly been able to establish himself as an effective leader. The recent father – son spat and bickering within the party may also cost SP dear.
Will Ramayan Museum and Ramleela Theme Park, both in Ayodhya, be the main issues in the forthcoming Uttar Pradesh (UP) elections? Or will these ‘lollipops’ pave the way for more intense Ram Mandir politics in a big way as the election dates draw near? These are the questions doing the rounds with no clear answers as on date. However a trend does seem to be emerging where BJP will possibly base its strategy on two main planks – effective leadership and governance of Mr Modi on one hand for the entire state and on the other a guarded build up of Mandir and related issues to corner the local Hindu votes. If this be so then SP would have no choice but to include Mandir politics in their poll agenda too while BSP will try and focus on Dalit and minority votes. The recent Ramayan Museum initiatives by BJP government at the centre and Ramleela Theme Park announcement by SP have to be seen in this context. Without a doubt this may result in a partial loss of Muslim votes for SP that may fall either in BSP’s kitty or go back to Congress. In all likelihood any large scale three way division of Dalit and Muslim votes is likely to benefit BJP. Whether this will be sufficient for BJP to succeed in forming a government in UP by itself is another question.
It is ironical that most opposition parties and their leaders invariably land up targeting Mr Narendra Modi, Prime Minister, in any debate on any subject that they participate in. UP political scene is no different. Tune in to any news channel at prime time and spokespersons of SP, BSP or Congress will invariably address their comments and ire at Mr Modi. Every political party as a whole and its leaders in their individual capacity seem to view Mr Modi as their sole opponent. Without a doubt those who have fallen from their high pedestals in last two years lay all the blame on Mr Modi for their misfortunes. To most of them it appears as if BJP is Modi and Modi is BJP. While this may be valid to some extent in connection with the central government, it may not be true for state politics. Therefore Modi fixation in state politics may not work well for parties like SP. They may be better advised to focus on their own election agenda than to just run down Mr Modi at all times. BJP too has to remember that it came a cropper when they fought Bihar elections by relying on projecting Mr Modi as the face of BJP. In hindsight it appears that a state focussed campaign would have delivered better results. For state elections the voter possibly views things from a different perspective and that must be understood by all parties in the fray.
A party President is a critical person in any poll campaign for any party when it comes to strategy and planning. But when a party president becomes an executive head for the poll campaign, particularly when he does not belong to that state and where the party has no local leader of stature, then he will always be viewed as an outsider. BJP’s President Amit Shah is certainly in this category. If Mr Shah and Mr Modi are going to be the faces of BJP in UP in the build up to the polls, then they will always be at a disadvantage against local leaders like Mr Yadav or Ms Mayawati for obvious reasons. In absence of a strong state leadership, minor BJP functionaries tend to act like loose cannon and their remarks on subjects like Ram Mandir and issues related to Muslims tend to hurt BJP, particularly when it comes to an educated voter and the undecided voter. If Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh voters gave their verdict in favour of BJP it was because the party had strong leaders at the helm in both states who were expected to become Chief Ministers. Unfortunately in UP the party cannot replicate the same model since they do not have any leader or leaders of stature who could be serious contenders to lead the state government. BJP appears to have no action plan to address this obvious shortcoming in their bid to come to power in country’s most populous state.
It will be naive to assume that Mandir politics will not be an issue in the poll campaign in UP. Whether by design or default this issue will come to the fore as the poll campaign picks up speed. If this be so then polarisation of votes may be a foregone conclusion. That Ayodhya, as a place, figures prominently in Indian mythology and Ramayan is not disputable and this dates back to 5000 BC. Frankly it is not important if there was a temple at the exact site under dispute since the heritage of Ayodhya cannot be limited to a few hundred square yards of land. Just like temples, there are lakhs of mosques in India. Barring a few iconic ones, most mosques or temples were built to provide a convenient place for worship with no historical or heritage perspective. The Masjid in Ayodhya too would fall in this category which reportedly was built around 1528 AD. In principle, if a temple was built at that site thousands of years ago, it possibly would have a lot of significance in terms of history, Hindu religion and Indian heritage. If at all any Masjid was built there later during Babur’s time, it will obviously have no such claims since Ayodhya as a place is not significant for Islam. But then such logical thinking will not work for narrow minded religious fanatics or for politicians seeking votes. Therefore this issue will continue to simmer for times to come. Even a well considered decision from the highest court in the country will not provide a lasting solution.
The current debate on Uniform Civil Code (UCC) too is likely to be used as an issue by some to seek Muslim votes. Many Muslim clerics and political leaders are already talking as if UCC is a done thing and all that is left is a formal promulgation. The opponents of UCC are also using the issue of ‘Triple Talaq’ that is in the Supreme Court to spread the fear of an imminent curtailment of religious rights of the minorities and establishment of a Hindutwa dominated nation. Enlightened souls and well wishers of the nation may argue that such fears are baseless and far removed from realities but unfortunately perceptions are more saleable than realities when it comes to votes. Without a doubt the debate on these issues is likely to become more vicious and base in coming weeks that will add to further polarisation of votes in the state. The issue of surgical strikes against Pakistan is not likely to be debated much in the future since BJP has already burnt its fingers in this regard with an over the top chest beating immediately after the strikes.
Is development an issue in the UP elections? Frankly it does not appear to be so at least from the past record of over three decades. A state that has not been able to develop and give a proper facelift to Agra in last 70 years, a city that boasts of the country’s number one tourist attraction in Taj Mahal, can hardly be credited with being concerned with development. Take any city or town in UP and without a doubt it will be worse today than it was a few decades back. The only exceptions possibly are Lucknow which did receive a partial facelift during the period from 2007-2012 under the BSP government and NOIDA which is part of National Capital Region. The rural and semi-urban areas have all gone from bad to worse in every possible way. The state’s administration and services are ineffective, riddled with corruption with an utter disregard for the common man. The state has one of the highest incidences of violent crimes in the country. Even today over 35% of the population in the state is classified as poor. Literacy level is just about 69% which places it at a lowly number 29 among all states and Union Territories in India. Agriculture is the mainstay of the state and it accounts for nearly 13% of nation’s production but its growth level at about 3.2% is one of the lowest due to lack of development of this sector. Infrastructure wise it ranks below most other major states in the country. Therefore UP has very little to boast of when it comes to development. Unfortunately in the ensuing elections too development is not likely to be a major issue since juicier and controversial issues like Mandir politics, UCC, caste and minority issues are likely to take centre stage.
BJP certainly wants to win the elections in the country’s largest state by population as it also accounts for 80 elected representatives to the nation’s parliament. Therefore the stakes are rather high and after the reversal in Bihar, BJP will go all out to seek a favourable mandate in UP. However given the deep roots and hold of SP in the state, the recent resurgence of BSP’s fortunes and the flawed perceptions prevailing within the minorities on controversial issues like UCC and Ram Mandir, this may not be easy. But then Indian voters have thrown big surprises in the past and who knows BJP may just get one – either way.
Saroj Chadha, an engineering professional, is a successful entrepreneur. Having retired from the Indian Army after having served for over 23 years, he has also been a consultant for leading Indian and Multinational electrical companies. He lives in New Delhi.