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Home > News > Columnists > T V R Shenoy

UP election: Who cares?

April 17, 2007

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In over four decades in journalism I cannot recall a greater exercise in futility than the ongoing Vidhan Sabha election in Uttar Pradesh.

Nor one better calculated to give 'democracy' a bad reputation!

Having spoken to the upper echelons of the principal parties in the fray, I found that none is in the least anxious about either the campaign or the results. Everyone is, however, already manoeuvring for the inevitable 'negotiations' that must follow the polls.

There is a simple reason for the nonchalance. Whatever their public posturing, in private the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party, and the Samajwadi Party alike concede that they will collectively win 320 seats, perhaps a little more than that. The catch is that those seats are going to be split between three parties, meaning that none of them can possibly claim a comfortable majority in the 403-strong Uttar Pradesh Vidhan Sabha.

So, forget all the tall claims of forming a government on one's own!

There are only three realistic outcomes to the elections in Uttar Pradesh. The first is to lay aside talk of ideology and form a post-poll coalition. The second is to form a government by inducing MLAs from rival parties to defect. The third is a long bout of President's Rule.

The Election Commission says there are seven crore, ninety-three lakh, ninety-two thousand, four hundred and twenty-three eligible voters in Uttar Pradesh. Assuming everyone votes, there are seven crore, ninety-three lakh, ninety-two thousand, four hundred and twenty-three potential exercises in futility and betrayal.

Please remember that every voter casts his vote in favour of a given party, having rejected the claims of the others in the battle. What is that poor deluded voter going to think when he finds that the same parties -- or at least some of the MLAs in them -- join hands soon after?

In talking to the three largest parties in Uttar Pradesh, I found that there is a second area of agreement. Not only do they privately concede that there is not a hope of a majority, they are all equally determined to oppose any lengthy bout of President's Rule. This, all three are convinced, will simply be Congress rule by another name, and none sees any reason to give the Congress a foothold in the state that was once its bastion.

The Congress will be lucky to win 40 seats in the Vidhan Sabha. There can be no greater blot on democracy than to have a party rule, through 10 Janpath's hand-picked governor, when 90% of the state has voted against it. But nobody sees any way out of the deadlock other than a rickety coalition (at best) or defections (at worst).

Truth be told, the voters of Uttar Pradesh have only themselves to blame for the mess. Let us forget all the talk of 'development' and of 'Bijli, Sadak, Paani'. Lay aside all the allegations of 'corruption' and 'criminalisation of politics'. In election after election, in a period stretching over roughly two decades, the voters of Uttar Pradesh have proved that one issue is king -- caste.

The Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party have carved out strong pockets of caste-based support for themselves, as, to a slightly smaller extent, has the Bharatiya Janata Party. But the efforts to cement caste-based vote banks has simultaneously alienated other caste groups. The result is the stalemate we have seen for almost twenty years in India's largest state.

When you think about it, the situation is similar to the one that prevailed in neighbouring Bihar. Lalu Prasad Yadav ruled the state, either directly or through his wife, for fifteen years. His secret was caste politics. Bihar had to be brought to its knees, law and order had to be all but destroyed and economic development stopped cold, before the voters of Bihar realised where blind allegiance to caste had led them.

Uttar Pradesh has not yet plumbed quite the depths of misgovernment as Bihar, so I assume it will take its voters just that much longer to spurn the siren call of caste and creed.

The fact is that Uttar Pradesh has been sliding backward on every socioeconomic index, not least when compared to the southern states.

Barring Ghaziabad and Gautam Buddha Nagar to an extent, both of which benefit from being suburbs of Delhi, which other part of Uttar Pradesh has reaped benefits from the economic boom? Towns like Kanpur, once a major manufacturing centre, are shadows of themselves; in some districts of Uttar Pradesh, the police claim the only flourishing industry is kidnapping.

Talk to individual voters, and they all claim to be concerned about rising crime and falling educational standards, about flickering power supply and the hissing of dry taps. But come election time, and it is back to voting as Muslims, or Yadavs, or Jats, or Brahmins, or Rajputs, or Kurmis, or whatever.

I notice that political pundits are already speaking of the 'fallout' of the Vidhan Sabha elections in Uttar Pradesh on the central government. Why?

The three major forces in Uttar Pradesh are the Bahujan Samaj Party, the Samajwadi Party, and the Bharatiya Janata Party. None of them is in the ruling United Progressive Alliance. (How many prominent faces in the Union Cabinet hail from Uttar Pradesh, the state that is home to one-sixth of India?) Whether the Bahujan Samaj Party has a few more MLAs or the Samajwadi Party has a few less makes zero difference in Parliament itself.

It might, I concede, make some difference in the Presidential election later this summer. The Samajwadi Party might be even more hostile to the Congress if the latter tries to play tricks through the governor. Or the Bahujan Samaj Party might be a bit more amenable to the NDA should there be yet another attempt at a post-poll coalition with the Bharatiya Janata Party. But these are marginal effects at best, merely confirming existing trends.

It is fashionable to curse political parties for 'divisive' tactics.

The truth is that politicians are merely pandering to voters' own prejudices. Caste combinations, not fancy talk of development, continue to rule the ballot box in Uttar Pradesh. The state has had five years of rickety coalitions and defections with occasional bouts of President's Rule. It seems prepared to enjoy five more years of the same. What a waste!

T V R Shenoy