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Mainstream, VOL LV No 9 New Delhi February 18, 2017

Lucknow to Delhi: Why UP Elections Matter

Tuesday 21 February 2017


by Navneet Sharma and Divyanshu Patel

“Whosoever rules on water shall rule upon the earth”

If the speaker would have been aware of the politics and demographics of India he would have said something similar about the rule in UP and at New Delhi. In this commentary the argument is not only demographic but political rhetoric also. We will not only be looking at statistical reflections of the slated UP elections but the making of the popular mood and response to the governance by Modi at the Centre as well.

The State of Uttar Pradesh not only cons-titutes one-sixth of the population of India but also casts the major dye for the making of the ‘cow belt’ and Hindi heartland. The elections and electoral results of UP are like árdh kumbh reflecting on the fate of the ‘mahakumbh’ of the national elections. The best ever tally of 71 seats out of 80 in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections catapulted the BJP to power with the formation of a majority government at New Delhi after a gap of 25 years. The result of the 2009 elections had similarly helped the Congress-I (20 seats from UP) to retain power in New Delhi. The coalition politics in the 1990s at UP also had its effect on the New Delhi dispensation in the 1989, 1991, 1996 and 1998 electoral results. The NDA Government feels the pinch in the Rajya Sabha for not having full majority as UP alone decides about 31 seats in this House. The presidential elections in June 2017 will also be influenced by the UP results. The present NDA ruling in New Delhi cannot get its presidential candidate elected unless it gains an upper hand in the UP results. The UP election results will not only send tremors to New Delhi but also decide about the occupancy at Rashtrapati Bhavan.

The Demographic Importance 

As India’s most populous State, UP contributes 80 seats out of a total of 543 seats in the Lok Sabha. As history reveals, the Prime Minister’s Office has been occupied by eight candidates from UP out of a total of 13 men and one woman candidate till date. With a peculiar behaviour of its kind, a UP voter, while casting her/his vote, does not pay much attention to the State level rivalry; instead she/he has always shown preference to a national level party and leadership. The UP State elections have always had a national perspective. The State has all along presented a four-party competition unlike other States where it has been a clear-cut two-party struggle at the constituency level.

Former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee declared: ‘The road back to power at the Centre lies in the BJP’s victory in India’s most populous State.’ Mayawati and Mulayam Singh have always had the Prime Minister’s Office included in their political ambitions. The leaders have been aware of this fact and hence the election campaigns in this State have been different compared to those in other States.

In UP even small vote-shifts have been known to create miracles. This seat-vote disparity yields an unexpected outcome by shifting the balance because of the multiparty struggle; for instance, in the 2007 and 2012 elections, there was a clear two-party competition between the SP and BSP: whereas in 2007 the BSP won over the SP with a very small percentage of votes, in 2012 the result was just the reverse—the SP won over the BSP with a slight difference of votes.

In the 1989 Lok Sabha elections, V.P. Singh’s Janata Dal obtained a winning figure of 143 seats, of which a handsome number of 54 seats was obtained from UP. In 1991, the Congress won 91 seats from Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. In the 1996 elections again, UP gave its huge contribution of 52 seats to the BJP. Again in the 1998 parliamentary elections, the BJP won with 57 seats from UP. In 2004 and 2009, the BJP could not do well here and hence lost the game. In 2004 the BJP-led NDA could manage to get only 28 seats out of 310 seats and lost in UP, Bihar, Andhra, West Bengal and Maharashtra.

In the 2014 elections too, with a dramatic upturn, the BJP came to power at the Centre. The party did miracles and demolished many myths about it. It received support from almost all social groups and classes. It surpassed all other parties. It won votes from all castes, classes, religions, genders, literate or illiterate masses. Irrespective of whom they supported earlier, Jats, Muslims, Dalits and many Congress supporters voted for the BJP that time looking forward to an expected change—growth and development; of course it is for Modi to show what he does for the nation after his successful ‘governance’ in and ‘development’ of Gujarat.

In 2014 the BJP had its highest vote-share in Western UP while in the 2004 and 2009 elections the party could only manage to get one seat there. Similarly, it won four seats from the Varanasi (purvanchal) region in 2004 and 2009 whereas in the 2014 elections, it won all the 12 seats from there. In Eastern UP, of all the 29 seats, the BJP won 27 seats. Since the last so many years Dalits, minorities and poor were spoken of but the backwards were neglected by Mayawati, Akhilesh and Mulayam Singh Yadav. This section found in Modi a suitable candidate to opt for owing to his OBC origin. His popularised image and brand as an OBC, who was earlier a ‘chaiwala’, had been widely projected.

State vs National Issues

The Assembly elections are generally fought on local and State level issues. The simultaneously held Punjab, Goa, Uttarakhand and Manipur elections are hovering around issues such as drug abuse, desecration of the holy book (Punjab), outsider vs native (Goa), corruption and disaster management (Uttarakhand), AFSPA and its revocation (Manipur). Though the national issues are making people anxious in these States, the reverberation of surgical strikes, demonetisation, inflation, unemployment (due to demonetisation) are echoing most in the nooks and corners of UP. The issues of Dalit Bahujan identity, minorities and their appeasement, Hinduisation of the national culture are being fiercely debated and the electoral battle fought around these in the UP elections.

The ruling dispensation at the Centre is making noises appropriate to its own agenda. The Centre talks about the law and order situation in the State but fans communal tension in Western UP, its speaks of the Kairana exodus but skips the Muzaffarnagar violence. The issue of Triple Talaq is also being raked up and the uniform civil code raised not in reference to gender but religion. The issue of Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid is again being brought to the fore.

The votaries of development are falling back on ‘Hindutva’ aggression. The chief and chieftain are again talking about the ‘macho Hindu’ response in the context of Kashmir, Islam and Pakistan. The chieftain has expressed concern about the safety of women and promised to initiate an ‘anti-Romeo campaign’. The hero ‘Romeo’, who drank poison to meet his beloved, and Shakespeare both must be turning in their graves. What is being propagated is not about safety and freedom for women but the subterfuge to ‘control’ women. It is more akin to ‘love jihad’ whereby it is not jihad for love but to strangle Muslims and women. The ‘Lok Kalyan Sankalp Patra-2017’, brought out by the BJP, has pictures of Modi and Shah and four other chief ministerial wannabes. The manifesto smacks of subtle Hindutva which is woven across the text. As this manifesto suggests, if elected the government will look into the matter of wage disparity of Sanskrit teachers, a welcome move (!) but why is the concern only reserved for Sanskrit, what about teachers of Urdu and other subjects? Or does this political party believe that only Sanskrit teachers have been discriminated against on wage issues by the present or earlier pro-Muslim or pro-Dalit governments? Similarly, Dalit women have been given representation by naming police battalions after them (Avanti Bai, Jhalkari Bai and Udadevi) but this too is a rhetorical move without any groundwork on women’s issues, and Dalit women in particular.

Rhetoric and Popular Mood

Uttar Pradeshrepresents a curious case of continuity and change in political rhetoric and shaping up the popular mood of the country. The State with its vast geographical and cultural diversity becomes a perfect case to sense what is going to happen in the country in a larger perspective. In this piece we are focusing upon the slogans and issues which are being repeatedly voiced in public debates. They have substance and the capacity to mould the national debate after the declaration of results of the State Assembly elections.

When we talk about the rhetoric in elections we usually speak of political slogans that undoubtedly provide a push-factor to political parties for their prospects in the elections. But there is another side of this rhetoric. It is called batkahi in the Hindi heartland; it literally means common talk among the people at various gathering-points such as tea shops, barber shops or nukkad in villages. The importance of batkahi in the political arena can be sensed only on the basis that every candidate in the Assembly elections takes keen interest to know what is the direction of these talks and what are the issues that are commonly floating or being discussed in each constituency’s batkahi.

Establishing the fact that political outcomes of slogans and batkahi are interrelated and distinct at the same time, we can try to get an idea of the current situation in Uttar Pradesh which is not only one of the most influential States in terms of seats in Parliament but also has a population with a very high degree of political literacy in the country. Now in this section we divide our analysis of popular debate and rhetoric into two parts, that is, in the first part we will talk about the political slogans given by the various parties in these Assembly elections and their distinctiveness from each other; also the focus will be on the changing character of slogans given over the years. In the other part we will try to present an analysis of batkahi or popular debate which is going on currently in Uttar Pradesh and how it is different from the slogans of political parties and to what extent geographical and sociological factors are deciding these debates.

To begin with, the political slogans chanted by the leaders and workers of various political parties in Uttar Pradesh have one thing in common among all of them, that is, the aspirations of these slogans are tilted towards development and law and order issues in the State. Though traditional factors such as caste and communal identities do have their impact on seat-sharing and manifestos across parties, it is interesting to see that a State, known for an aggressive caste and communal division, is being exposed to slogans and rhetoric promising development, jobs, better infrastructure, law and order in the election campaign.

If we take the case of the major stakeholders in these Assembly elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) comes first in our mind for obvious reasons as it is the ruling party at the Centre having a clear majority in the People’s House of Parliament and desperately wanting the same in the Upper House too. For the BJP, it is again Narendra Modi’s charisma on which its whole campaign rests with the repeated rhetoric of “ab ki bar Modi sarkar” getting converted to “UP ki yahi pukar, ab ki bar BJP sarkar” (this time UP wants a BJP Government). Another slogan given by the BJP is “ab ki baar teen sau paar” (this time let’s cross 300) which denotes their target-number of seats in these elections. There is some other rhetoric going around on the lines of parivartan (change) and the workers of the BJP can be seen chanting or putting up hoardings stating that “parivartan hi ek vikalp” (change is the only option).

It is very interesting to see that a party, which had swept almost the entire State in the wave of a single brand name, that is, brand Modi, created by the media and crony capitalists, is facing serious challenges not in terms of local leadership crisis alone but also in the appealing character of slogans as they are drawing people as they did about three years back. That is why in recent rallies Narendra Modi has started all over again his usual style of giving abbrevational rhetorics like SCAM denoting Samajwadi Party, Congress, Akhilesh and Mayawati, or VIKAS which denotes Vidyut (electricity), Kaam (employment) and Sadak (roads). This shows the desperation of a party which was looking invincible three years ago. Now it is making every possible attempt to get a chance to return to power in the State which is most important for its future prospects.

Another major player in these elections is the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) which is facing a double-faced crisis at the same time. The first is its shrinking vote-share across the States, especially in Uttar Pradesh, since the last three elections, and the second is a leadership crisis as there is not a single mass leader left among the BSP cadres except Ms Mayawati (neither in UP nor in other States). That is why this time the BSP has come with a changed tactic and given a slogan “Behenji ko aane do” (Let behenji be elected to power). It tries to assure the people about sound law and order, riot-free administration in the State thereby aiming to get minority votes in large numbers. There was a time when the BSP gave slogans like “Hathi nahi Ganesh hai, Brahma Vishnu Mahesh hai” or “Brahman shankh bajayega, hathi Dilli jayega” to woo the upper-caste voters, especially the Brahmins, but its disastrous performance on this line and waning support-base among Other Backward Classes due to overemphasis on Brahmins forced Mayawati to rethink her strategies in these elections. Meanwhile, in response to Modi’s 56 inch chest rhetoric the slogan doing rounds is ‘chadh chappan inch ki chaati par, button dabega haathi par’ (trampling the 56 inch chest the vote shall go to the elephant—BSP).

The third most important player in this field is the alliance of the Samajwadi Party and Congress and the two are campaigning with the slogan of “hamare ladke banam bahari Modi” (our own boys vs outsider Modi). Facing charges of family feuds and poor administration, Akhilesh Yadav cleverly moulded his campaign only on the lines of his developmental projects such as Metro in major cities, highways, 1090 helpline for women etc. For this a slogan stating “no confusion no mistake, Akhilesh Akhilesh” is getting popular day by day among the public. Another interesting but modified rhetoric is “jiska jalwa kayam hai, uska baap Mulayam hai “ (the one whose craze is maintained, his father is Mulayam). This seems to be an attempt to please the old patriarch of Indian politics, also the angry father, Mulayam Singh Yadav, after the much-hyped family drama lasting over three months. The alliance of the SP with the Congress (INC) is being propagated with the slogan ‘UP ko yeh saath pasand hai’ (UP likes this companionship between Rahul and Akhilesh) based on the lyrics of a popular Bollywood song.

Coming to batkahi which is more important for us to serve the purpose of this analysis, it forms the genuine opinion of the masses in a given area or community. Due to the vastness and vividness of geographical and cultural factors, it is evident that the core of the popular debate or batkahi cannot be the same all over the State and that makes it more important. For instance, to begin with, in Western UP, where the elections are scheduled in the initial phase, the main features of the batkahi are the price of sugarcane, Jat reservation, effect of notebandi, threats of communal riots, atrocities on Dalits. These issues are instrumental in forming the opinion of the masses and have their distinct identities as well. For the Jats, it is the issue of sugarcane price, poor state of the agricultural economy, while it is the reservation issue for Dalits and minorities which are impacting their respective opinions about the voting pattern.

Coming to Central and Eastern UP, a region known for its sensitive language and communal harmony over the years, it is getting charged up for the much-hyped Assembly elections. Here the subjects of batkahi are influenced by the national issues such as notebandi or developmental promises made by PM Modi earlier but much emphasis is on the local or State issues that shows the political alertness among the people. It highlights that they can easily differentiate between the prospects in the Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha elections and make their choices accordingly.

For example, the issue of vast corruption and undue advantage to one particular caste in government jobs is the main point of reference among the youth, especially from the Other Backward Castes. The poor handling of communal riots in districts like Gonda, Faizabad etc., which are known to have a culture of Ganga-Jamuna tehjeeb otherwise, is also impacting the popular perception. It is interesting to find that though people are not much averse to Akilesh Yadav’s developmental work, this is not a guarantee for votes because their grievances are based on identity-based issues which also hold as much importance as developmental work in a democracy.

It would suffice to say that political rhetoric in the State has two contrasting realities. While one faction is exhibiting its strength by road shows, slogan-chanting and assuming that by covering the footage of television it is going to win the elections, another significant factor—which we have discussed as batkahi—points to quite a different dynamic which is drastically at variance from what has been showing in surveys on television. That is why it is going to be an interesting election that will set the mood of the nation for the coming Lok Sabha elections as well. All eyes are set on March 11, the day the results will be announced, to see whether UP (and the other States) votes for a corporatised radical Hindu Rashtra or an inclusive socialist Hindustan.


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Verma, A.K. (2002), ‘UP Assembly Elections: Caste Dominates Ideology’, EPW, 1975-1979.

Verma, A.K. (2004), ‘Uttar Pradesh Caste and Political Mobilisation’, EPW, December 18: 5463-5466.

Verma, A.K. (2007), ‘Mayawati’s Sandwitch Coalition’, EPW, June 2: 2039-2042.

Verma, A.K. (2012), ‘Why did Mayawati Loose’, EPW, Vol. XLVII, No. 18: 17-19.

Verma, A.K. (2014), ‘Development and Governance Trump Caste Identities in Uttar Pradesh’, EPW, Vol. XLIX, No. 39: 89-94.

Navneet Sharma, Ph.D, is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Teacher Education, School of Education, Central University of Himachal Pradesh, Dharamshala.

Divyanshu Patel is presently doing his Ph.D from the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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