Home / Politics / Policy /  Realignment in Uttar Pradesh identity politics may help BJP

Lucknow/ Kanpur: Rafulla Khan, a retired primary school master in Sitapur has always voted for the Samajwadi Party. “But 2014 is different," Khan said.

Seated in his friend’s jewellery shop in Sitapur town, around 90km from the state capital Lucknow, Khan, a dark lean man in his late sixties, spoke in a hushed voice about the growing fear among Muslims over the emerging political scenario.

“The minority community in Uttar Pradesh (UP) is confused as never before. They feel cheated by the party we believed would be soft to our concerns. The developments and the statements have left the atmosphere charged. We are scared, maybe unreasonably, about what is perceived to be emerging," Khan said, looking into the distance.

This time, the Muslim voter, a key factor in Uttar Pradesh’s electoral politics, is in a dilemma. A majority of the community, which plays a significant role in at least 40 % of Uttar Pradesh’s 80 constituencies, has backed Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party (SP) since the late 1980s. But discontent with the SP government led by Mulayam Singh’s son Akhilesh Yadav and anguish over last year’s Muzaffarnagar communal violence seem to have driven a wedge between Muslims and the ruling party. The communal violence that hit the western UP district in August-September, killing 40 and leaving some 51,000 Muslims homeless, has scarred Hindu-Muslim relations across the state.

A similar ferment seems to be occurring among Dalits and Other Backward Classes (OBCs) too—mainstays of both the opposition Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the SP. “It is no longer politics of empowerment, its time for politics of doing things for us," Ram Kailesh, a resident of Sadamau village in Barabanki district. “The number of Dalits who want to break away from the predictable lines and back developmental politics is increasing," Kailesh said.

These Dalits are now willing to look at political parties that can help them realize their aspirations, which they say can be achieved only by addressing inequalities in education, health and, of course, jobs. While the older generation of Dalits still swears by BSP leader and former UP chief minister Mayawati—popularly known as Behenji (sister)— the younger lot are willing to experiment with their vote.

This sentiment, which seems to be gaining momentum among the youth, is creating an undercurrent of support for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi.

Although a Modi wave, visible elsewhere, is missing in central UP, the shifting political sentiment among Dalits and OBCs, both of whom had backed the Congress in the 2009 general election, may be enough to offset a consolidation of the Muslim vote, claim BJP leaders.

The challenge within

Dharam Raj, a resident of Dhupki village, is a first-time voter in a general election. The 22-year- old has grown up like the rest of the Dalits in the village on the tales of Kanshi Ram and his protégé Mayawati, two of the tallest Dalit leaders. Yet on 30 April, he will break ranks and vote for BJP and Modi—“because the BJP has promised loans for the unemployed and Modi may change this country for the better. He has promised to create jobs for the youth. Everyone else also (has made promises), but they have had their chance."

For a section of Dalit youth, neither the welfare programmes offered by the Congress nor the caste-based politics of the BSP is sufficient. “The youth want the leaders who have proved their mettle in development," Kamlesh, a college student in Malihabad, said. Kamlesh has never been to Gujarat. But he wants to give the Gujarat chief minister a chance. “Modi’s speeches about the Gujarat model are really tempting. So let’s see. If he fails, voters can remove him after five years," Kamlesh was clear.

In UP, 51% of the total 126.6 million voters, is aged between 18-35. But caste politics remains a key factor.

For instance, mounting anger among some sub-castes against Chamars, who constitute more than 50% of the Scheduled Caste population and the main support base of the BSP, is likely to benefit the BJP. “Dalits are deeply divided now. The BJP is likely to get advantage," Kailesh of Sadamau village said. The division had helped the Congress in constituencies like Barabanki, Unnao and Kanpur in 2009.

Interestingly, although the BSP is considered to be a party with solid Dalit support, the party’s ability to win seats that are reserved for scheduled castes has been on the decline. In 2009, the BSP could win only two of the 17 reserved constituencies in UP. Political observers point out that the BSP’s dedicated voter-base may be impressive but not large enough to swing an outcome entirely on its own—in other words, it needs non-Dalit votes.

There is a visible shift among OBC voters too.

“A large number of Kurmis, who had backed the Congress, and a section of Yadavs will also support Modi. They want to give a chance to Modi," said Kailesh Verma, a resident of Masauli in Barabanki. The strategy to project Modi as an OBC leader and a chaiwallah seems to be working in favour of the BJP.

Modi’s campaign for change and development has also gone down well among the young voters, who feel that alleged corruption cases against SP leaders and the party’s inability to create jobs for the youth have spoiled its chances.

“The Congress had 10 years and people like us haven't experienced any change in our lives. Now Modi is promising change. We want to see if he delivers," Suraj Kumar, son of a farmer in Malihabad, said.

Kamlesh and Neeraj, who works in the telecom department and lives in Orhar village, also admitted that the polarization that took place in the aftermath of the Muzaffarnagar riots has led to a greater emphasis on religious as opposed to social identity. “People have become communally sensitive. They start looking at Modi as a person who will save their livelihood as well as religion," Neeraj said.

Pointing out that caste identity had been stronger in the state’s politics, Roop Rekha Verma, a social activist and former vice-chancellor of Lucknow University, said: “...we always thought caste has much stronger emotional appeal. But I am not surprised at a change in this attitude."

“Certainly the type of discourse, campaign materials and the state machinery also, by deeds and their speeches, have sharpened the focus on religious identity. The probability of conflict between the sharpened identities are heightened.... there has been an atmosphere to encourage the divisive tendencies, polarization on the basis of religious identities and the partisan inaction by the state machinery, caste identity has become subdued," Verma said, adding that much will depend on the type of candidates the parties are fielding in their area.

Tactical voting

Saliha Raju, a widow who has no means to bring up her seven children, lives in a dilapidated mud house with a makeshift door, depending on handouts from a cousin for daily meals. A resident of Orhar village that falls in Unnao Lok Sabha constituency, she has no ration card, no Below Poverty Line (BPL) card, not even a job card that would have fetched her 100 days’ job at the minimum wages. Yet Saliha has a voter identity card.

For Saliha or her 19-year-old daughter Mariya, election means nothing. “I don’t bother to find out what’s happening on the political front," she . However once she is comfortable, she reveals that she will vote with the rest of her community.

Others in the village are equally fearful about voicing their preferences. “We cannot vote for certain parties. But why should we reveal our cards?," asked Shakir Ali, a daily labourer in the neighbourhood said.

This is a trend that is playing across the state. In Unnao and Sitapur, two Lok Sabha constituencies where Muslim constitute around 25 % of the population, and in Kanpur as well, the community is reluctant to disclose their political leaning.

But some, like Yousuf in Sitapur, are vocal. “The ruling party (SP) has antagonized Muslims in the state. Generally voters are upset with the performance of the government. Its goonda raj here," Yousuf, who runs a shoe shop, said. “The only good thing the government did is to introduce an ambulance service: when the SP goondas attack you and leave you on the road, the ambulance will take you to hospital."

“So the Muslims will vote against the SP and the BJP," Yousuf argued. The Muslims do not trust the BJP, he said. “What’s the point? Even if we vote for a BJP candidate, who is going to believe us?"

Neeraj said, “The political re-alignment is in such a way that Hindus, cutting across caste lines will vote for a change while Muslims will end up voting tactically—they assess seat-by-seat and take a decision and will prefer the party that can defeat the BJP in that constituency."

Some are tired of being constantly viewed as a vote bank. “Whether it is SP or Congress or BSP, everyone promises stars for us before elections. We do not want any special gifts. Just like any ordinary Indian citizens we also want peace, basic amenities and progress for our children," said Qasmi Ayub, a jeweller in Sitapur.

A desire for change has displaced identity politics, at least for youngsters. But the voting pattern of the Muslims has been very different from others. In states like Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, Muslim apprehensions about a BJP government has come down. Political observers and sociologists have noted that Muslims seem to be influenced by other communities, believing in the party that projects itself to be a feasible and credible alternative. The Congress as well as the BSP bank on the fears and anxieties of the Muslim community, which, they think, would make them vote en masse against the BJP.

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