Hard Options, Soft Choices
Will the efforts of the Congress and the emerging Third Front to convert the Modi vs Others battle into a ‘development vs secularism’ one succeed?
AK Verma Kanpur
Uttar Pradesh (UP) is again at the centrestage of the coming parliamentary elections in early 2014. A large number of the 80 Lok Sabha seats are at stake. There are four major players: the Congress, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), along with marginal players like Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) in western UP. For the last two decades, the key political players in the state had been the SP and BSP, but in the general election of 2009, the Congress was back with a vengeance, winning 21 seats (SP-23, BSP-20, BJP-10) that surprised everyone.
This time, the BJP appears to be heading for an electoral comeback in UP. And the credit for that must go to Narendra Modi, its primeministerial candidate who has marginalized the issues of caste, religion and mandir, and brought development to the front.
The Congress obviously must be worried. The worry comes from clear signals emanating from electors for a change; change from the pricerise, corruption, scams, non-inspiring leadership, mishandling of defence-related issues relating to Pakistan and China, and a plethora of others.
Overwhelmed, the party has lost the confidence to capitalize on its flagship programmes, which any other party would have sold to the electorate at a premium. Programmes like the mid-day meal, MGNREG, Pradhanmantri Gram Sadak Yojna, Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojna, National Rural Health Mission, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan, Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission, and so on, instead of bolstering the Congress’s case, has given it a bad reputation due to rampant corruption.
If some OBCs shift to the BJP and Dalits and Muslims move to the Congress, the SP is bound to be the biggest loser in 2014
The Congress must also be prepared to face the anti-incumbency factor as the UPA II has been in office for a full two terms. But its 2009 poll performance in UP is an additional liability. In that election, it lost six sitting MPs and retained only three seats (Amethi, Rae Bareli and Kanpur) out of the nine that it had won in 2004. Yet, the party captured 18 new LS seats, taking its tally to 21. Repeating that appears to be a Herculean task.
Then, there is the issue of selection of right candidates for 2014. In the last LS elections, the extraordinary performance of the Congress did not necessarily translate into victory. The personal connections of the Congress candidates were more important, proved by the party’s poor performance in the 2012 assembly elections in which candidates’ constituency visibility and voter connection were very poor. In spite of that, the party registered accretions in vote share in almost all social denominations and sub-regions of state. Many ‘backward-class’ voters, who had drifted away from the BSP in the wake of the Babu Singh Kushwaha episode (most backward caste BSP leader expelled by Mayawati), could not connect to Congress candidates, notwithstanding their preference for Rahul Gandhi, and voted for the SP that appeared to be winning.
The Congress has also failed to distinguish between the goodness of collective leadership in the party and the evil of multiple power centres in the government. Indian voters have a strong sense of approval and disapproval. They have probably not reconciled with the existence of multiple power centres and a meek Prime Minister whose domestic image does not synchronize with influence and authority that India commands at the global level.
With Modi successfully converting the LS elections into a Presidential-style contest, and the Congress bringing on Rahul to take him on without realising whether he understands the nitty-gritty of such a contest, the electoral battle is transforming into a contest between two prime ministerial candidates. Rahul not only refuses to gauge the potentials of his rival, but also refuses to rise to an image befitting the stature of a future prime minister.
For a comeback in UP, the Congress would need to expand and consolidate its Muslim and Dalit constituencies. After Muzzaffarnagar, Muslims are drifting away from the SP not only in UP but also elsewhere. Muslims feel that, with the Akhilesh Yadav government, when it comes to awarding contracts in the PWD, mining of sand, or plum postings in districts and so on, only Yadavs are favoured, whereas they are getting only a notional sense of empowerment.
But, where will the Muslims go, especially those who might be disenchanted with the SP after the Muzzaffarnagar riots? Perhaps they might choose the Congress over the BSP for two reasons: one, Muslims would like to vote for a party that has a direct bearing on the formation of the national government; two, the BSP appears marginalized due to Mayawati’s shift to Delhi, distancing herself not only from UP but also from Dalits.
What about the Dalits, then? How will they vote? Will the Congress be able to retrieve its Dalit base in UP? Has the party been able to mobilize the 56 per cent Dalit voters who had been consistently not voting in UP as per Election Commission data? The work done by Rahul earlier by visiting Dalit hamlets, eating and sleeping there, has not gone waste. A substantial section of Dalits is attracted to Rahul and has an inclination to vote for the Congress. But, why is Mayawati maintaining a low profile in UP? Is there any unwritten covenant between Mayawati and the Congress? The allotment of several bungalows to Mayawati in Lutyens’ Delhiand unfreezing of her brother’s Rs 400 crores fixed deposits add credence to that. Rumours are ripe that she has signalled to her cadres not to project her as a prime ministerial candidate for the 2014 polls.
Is Mayawati up to some gameplan? Is she working to make the LS elections a Congress vs BJP affair by surreptitiously transferring the Dalit votes to the Congress in UP? If some OBCs shift to the BJP and Dalits and Muslims move to the Congress, the SP is bound to be the biggest loser in 2014. And, should that happen, Mayawati would succeed in politically killing her only rival in UP politics i.e. Mulayam Singh Yadav.
The BJP, on its part, has turned the upcoming parliamentary elections Modi-centric, forcing the Congress and the emerging Third Front to pitch their campaign against him, while he has occupied political space disproportionate to his size. Modi is the most criticized and venomized politician in India; political parties, including some big-wigs in the BJP itself, electronic and print media, NGOs, civil society groups, human rights activists, and Muslim outfits —all have consistently conducted campaigns against Modi since the Gujarat riots of 2002, but to little effect.
More important, he has gradually won over the Muslims in Gujarat and elsewhere. The recent claims by Maulana Kalbe Sadiq, vice-chairman of the Muslim Personal Law Board, and Maulana Mehmood Madani, Jamiat-i-Ulema-e-Hind chief, that other parties are creating a fear psychosis among Muslims through Modi’s name, and that Muslims can go with Modi if he changes his attitude, is a warning to ‘secular’ parties. Some time back, Maulana Ghulam Ahmed Vastanvi, vice-chancellor of Darul Uloom Deoband, also pointed to the positive impact of Gujarat’s development on that state’s Muslims though that cost him his job.
Is the Muslim perception of the BJP and Modi changing? The Muslim clerics’ expressions may not represent their community’s psyche, but, surely, are not their personal views either. Possibly, that indicates a shift in socio-political dynamics among Muslims nursing political ambitions. With the BJP trying to open up for Muslims, and Muslims looking at the BJP as a quick route to political empowerment, both seem to be entering a new, complementary relationship. The Muzzaffarnagar riots may have slowed down the pace of this, but elsewhere, it may not impact much as testified by the presence of Muslims in large numbers at Modi’s rallies.
But why are Muslims and others attracted to Modi, if at all? Modi as a politician excels in both ideas and rhetoric. As a prime ministerial candidate, he has something to offer: the Gujarat model of development, irrespective of some statistical aberrations in the model. But, those who have visited Gujarat know what he is talking about. The Internet has taken many young voters to Gujarat even without physically visiting the state. Even Modi-baiters and Congress-ruled states acknowledge this when they register their presence in Modi’s ‘swarnim Gujarat’ conclaves.
Modi has the advantage of starting the race early. His anointment as BJP prime ministerial candidate calmed down intra-party factionalism and all other aspirants, including LK Advani, reconciled to the fait accompli. While this remains an open issue in the Congress and the hazy Third Front, the BJP is clearly ahead on matters of political leadership and campaign orientation.
Will the efforts of the Congress and the emerging Third Front to convert the Modi vs Others battle into a ‘development vs secularism’ one succeed? This question is important because all those who stand for secularism are a bit puzzled to see faces of secularism and secularists on the ground. While Muslims are certainly not terrorists, all terrorists are mostly Muslims. How do we reconcile with this? How do we ensure that terrorists do not acquire ‘escape velocity’ from the launch pad of
The people are unhappy with the Congress-led UPA’s tackling of terrorism. The general perception is that the UPA fails to take strong action against terrorists, fearing it would annoy the Muslims in India. That is ridiculous. It is virtually tantamount to believing that Indian Muslims are not as nationalist as Indian Hindus, Sikhs or Christians. The Congress must unfreeze Muslims from this minority psyche and let them live like all other citizens.
With the SP and the BSP becoming a bit less relevant in the coming elections in UP, their supporters may vote for Modi. In many of Modi’s rallies, villages with strong SP or BSP affiliations have been demonstrating open support for Modi, believing he can bring change.
Modi’s stand vis-à-vis Pakistan and China is also getting the people’s nod. While the Congress may have matured as an insider by being in the government for long, people want a more dignified response befitting the stature of India. Modi’s influence has even been acknowledged by the Congress and its allies both – Jairam Ramesh, Omar Abdullah (NC) and Shivanand Tewari (JD-U, Bihar) and so on. The Congress faces the danger of underestimating Modi and overreacting against him.
Though Modi is sticking to the ‘development agenda’, he is slowly unfolding the OBC trump card (Modi is an OBC). As the Akhilesh government is indulging in ‘Yadavisation,’ and being unfair to the Most Backwards, a sizeable section of OBC voters in UP is turning away from the SP. His recommendation to the Union Government for transferring 17 OBC castes to Scheduled Caste category has further estranged them. Even some Muslim OBCs, viz., Ansaris, Kuraishi, Momins, Fakirs, Muslim-Kayasthas and so many, may shift to Modi as his OBC character of Modi gains more traction during election campaigns. Since the OBC population in UP is estimated to be about 54% (Hukum Singh Committee, UP, 2001), even a small OBC (both Hindus and Muslims) shift in favour of Modi may throw up a surprise, the same way the Congress surprised us all in the previous parliamentary elections in UP.
(The author teaches politics at Christ Church College, Kanpur)