UP still a preserve of the satraps

Judging from the political signals emanating from Uttar Pradesh, the country’s largest state which is in the process of electing a new legislature, the toss-up is between the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Samajwadi Party (SP). And if the record voter turnout in the first two rounds of the seven-phase polling is any indicator, the contest is going to be tough and a close one.
It would appear that the country’s two major national level parties — the Congress and the BJP — have largely failed to resonate with Uttar Pradesh’s 111 million voters.
If the BJP gains a substantial number of seats, it would be by default, mainly due to the anticipated split in Muslim votes and not because there is any positive swing in its favour. The two parties in electoral focus are the BSP and the SP, both essentially regional parties run by satraps with huge ambitions and provincial mindsets.
The national-level parties seem to have lost their way and increasingly appear to be interlopers in a provincial space. Rahul Gandhi, the Congress protagonist, no matter how appealing his personal countenance might be, remains an outsider.
Even though Mr Gandhi has claimed that his aim is not electoral but to ensure the economic development of the state, not everyone in Uttar Pradesh is convinced and most know he will not be around for too long. And as response, the state’s Congress campaign chief tried to assure the Uttar Pradesh’s electorate that the fact that Mr Gandhi could not be chief minister would not amount to total disassociation or disinterest. Mr Gandhi, the minister went on to explain, would see to the state’s progress through remote control, meaning he would interfere from afar without really being accountable and would treat the country’s largest and
most complex state somewhat like a model aeroplane. Hardly inspiring stuff.
The BJP, too, has been unable to find a suitable leader from within the state’s 199.5 million people and has been compelled to import Uma Bharti, a feisty leader from neighbouring Madhya Pradesh, to head its campaign. Although she was initially projected as the chief ministerial candidate of the BJP, the commotion within the Uttar Pradesh unit of the party, especially by miffed leaders such as Rajnath Singh, Kalraj Mishra and Vinay Katiyar has virtually ruled out that
possibility.
It is not just party infighting that has depressed the BJP’s electoral standing but also its lacklustre agenda. The party’s fortunes had peaked at a time when it had most aggressively pursued its agenda of building a Ram temple on the site of the disputed Ayodhya-Babri Masjid site. Currently, the party is floundering because of ideological drift.
The two regional parties, on the other hand, remain highly relevant to the state and can boast of a fundamental connect with the electorate. For the leadership of both the BSP and the SP, the primary concern is Uttar Pradesh; this is where their political present and future lies and they know it.
So do the state’s canny voters.
Moreover, state elections in India have always been about competition between different social, communal, economic and caste groups. Voters continue to vote as interest groups and favour parties and leaders whom they see as representing their group interest. Today, it is the regional parties and state satraps who are able to address specific group interests and thereby claim relevance. Rhetoric, promises and sarcasm can never match this fundamental dynamic.
Thus Mulayam Singh Yadav, the SP supremo, knows he does not have to sport a trimmed beard and skullcap to convince Muslims of his sincerity regarding their cause; what he does have to convince them about is his ability to win and thereby protect their interests.
Similarly, Mayawati, the all-powerful BSP chief and current chief minister of the state, does not have to don saffron to convince the minority Brahmin community to vote for her party; her sincerity will be judged by how much she has done for the community in the past five years and what the other parties have to offer.
Electoral politics in Uttar Pradesh is immensely complex not because of any convoluted thought patterns of its voters but because of the multiplicity of interest groups. It is an arduous task for analysts to identify the myriad groups and then ascertain their interests. Successful politicians, on the other hand, despite their many failings usually understand group interests and know how to pander to them.
This is perhaps why the so-called mainstream national level parties have been losing ground in recent decades not just in Uttar Pradesh but in other parts of the country as well.
Today, many major states have a provincial satrap in command: Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal, J. Jayalalithaa in Tamil Nadu, Nitish Kumar in Bihar, Naveen Patnaik in Orissa, N. Rangaswamy in Puducherry, Pawan Kumar Chamling in Sikkim, Parkash Singh Badal in Punjab, Sharad Pawar in Maharashtra and Omar Abdullah in Jammu and Kashmir.
These leaders know they have to ally with one or the other “national” party at the Centre but they also know that their bargaining powers are disproportionately high. They can extract concessions, lucrative ministries and block legislation that do not suit them. This decline of national parties is not altogether a good thing — we know what happened to the country when the Mughal rule went into decline and provincial nawabs began to assert
themselves.

The writer is an independent security and political risk consultant

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