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Ground report: Will Uttar Pradesh remain the BJP's fortress?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath. The BJP may look formidable on the ground, but incumbent governments haven’t got a second chance in Uttar Pradesh for many years.Premium
Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath. The BJP may look formidable on the ground, but incumbent governments haven’t got a second chance in Uttar Pradesh for many years.

  • A cocktail of nationalism, Hindutva, publicity and welfare politics may swing it for Yogi Adityanath
  • People of UP witnessed and suffered the consequences of the state’s inadequate health infrastructure during the second covid wave. And yet, many root for the incumbent government.

When Swati Pathak’s haemoglobin dropped a bit during her seventh month of pregnancy, covid-19 was the last thing on her family’s mind. “But the hospital had to get her tested before admitting her," says Rohit, 34, her brother-in-law. “She tested positive."

It was the first week of April 2021 when the second wave of covid-19 had begun to take an ominous turn. They found an oxygen bed at the Banaras Hindu University Hospital (BHU) in Varanasi, eastern Uttar Pradesh. But it all went downhill soon after.

Swati’s health deteriorated as rapidly as the caseload at the hospital increased. “She had an oxygen mask on and so she couldn’t speak," says Rohit. “She would write in her diary, imploring the doctors to tend to her. We could sense panic in her writing. On the fifth day, she started writing ‘sita-ram’, ‘sita-ram’."

The chanting didn’t work. About a week after being admitted to the hospital, Swati died on 10 April 2021. She was 28.

When the hospital returned Swati’s belongings to the family, her diary was missing. “We told them we won’t take the body until we get the diary back," says Rohit. “They were probably afraid that the diary would expose the chaos inside the hospital." The unpleasant altercation went on for a while. Eventually the hospital relented, and gave back her diary. “But the pages where she had been writing in the hospital were conspicuously torn," Rohit says.

Rohit, a Brahmin, is a farmer based in the village of Narayanpur–about 30 kilometres from Varanasi. His harrowing experience isn’t even a year old even as the state of Uttar Pradesh goes to polls in seven phases with results on 10 March. He personally witnessed and deeply suffered the consequences of inadequate health infrastructure and lack of forward planning by the state government.

Yet, he believes the state government led by chief minister Yogi Adityanath deserves a second term. “It is not like nothing has happened in the past five years," says Rohit. “In our village, the electricity supply is far more regular. Earlier, we would get electricity either during the day or at night. The roads have gotten better. We used to live in Varanasi city until about three years ago. But we shifted back to the village after the regularization of electricity and improvement in infrastructure."

When the second wave devastated the countryside, it didn’t spare a single state in India. However, the images from Uttar Pradesh—of mass graves and bodies floating in the water—were particularly scary, suggesting the state had downplayed covid death toll far more than any other state. Many thought this would be the downfall of the incumbent government. However, among the reasons why the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) would be difficult to dislodge in Uttar Pradesh is that many of the Hindu voters continue to repose faith in the incumbent, despite having faced or witnessed multiple tragedies.

The two main challengers to the BJP are the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) led by Mayawati and the Samajwadi Party (SP) led by Akhilesh Yadav. Mayawati, who became the chief minister in 2007, has since seen her voteshare erode consistently. Observers, therefore, believe it is largely a bipolar contest between the BJP and SP. In 2017, the BJP swept the state by winning a massive majority of 312 constituencies out of 403. It rose to prominence in the state by mobilizing the non-Yadav OBC votes and non-Jatav Dalit votes–on top of the Hindu upper caste that formed their core votebank. For Akhilesh to make a comeback, he would have to make a dent in this constituency, which would form his incremental vote on top of Muslims and Yadavs.

‘Law & order improved’

In the opposite corner of Uttar Pradesh, about 800 kms from Varanasi, a man requesting anonymity explains why the mismanagement during covid, rising inflation, or unemployment won’t make much of a difference. “We end up having more hope from leaders who come from our caste," he says. “Even if that leader is making our life miserable."

The man lost his brother in April 2021 to covid-19. He was a teacher. The state government had decided to go ahead with the panchayat polls in the middle of the raging second wave and teachers were being asked to attend schools. “They had also carried out training of teachers who would conduct the polls," he says.

His brother, who used to teach at one of the primary schools in western Uttar Pradesh, was among them. He was infected during one of those days, and soon died gasping for breath. “I was very close to my brother," he says. “He is survived by his wife and two little kids. I don’t earn much. I wonder how we will get back on our feet. But I don’t think it would have much of an impact on our voting."

He is a Thakur. The community has traditionally voted for the BJP, which has had Rajnath Singh as a prominent Thakur leader in the past. Currently, their Thakur face is the chief minister himself. “If I vote for someone else because this government didn’t provide jobs or oxygen, that vote won’t be valid," he says.

I ask him to elaborate. “Would an MLA from another party believe I voted for him if I said so?" he asks. “My community mostly votes for the BJP. Everybody knows that. So, we make excuses to vote for the person that represents our community."

“The state government could have done better during covid," he adds. “But at least Adityanath doesn’t have a corruption case against himself. Even if Akhilesh Yadav had been the chief minister, the state would have suffered equally during the pandemic."

In the village of Partapur in Hapur district’s Dhaulana block, Aadesh Singh, in his 40s, says the state lacks resources, which caused the chaos during covid. He lost three elderly members of his joint family during the second wave. He couldn’t find an oxygen bed in his district, or the neighbouring ones. “We made calls, ran from pillar to post. It didn’t matter," he says. “But with limited resources in the state, you can only do as much."

Aadesh, who is also a Thakur, says Uttar Pradesh wasn’t the only state that suffered. “Even developed countries had people dying in large numbers," he adds. “Compared to that, Uttar Pradesh handled it quite well."

Aadesh is a finance professional who works in Noida–50 kms away. He says the highway’s condition has improved considerably in the past five years. “I reach the office in under an hour," he says. “The law and order in the state has also improved. The police operates more independently, and is receptive to people’s complaints. That was not the case under the previous government."

Those are among the most common lines heard on the ground but activists differ. Ever since Adityanath has taken over the state of Uttar Pradesh, they claim, the law-and-order machinery has become an extension of the radical right-wing outfits. Muslim vendors and cattle traders have been attacked. Fake encounters have been on the rise and human rights violations were reported during the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC) protests.

‘New welfarism’

Savitri Verma, 60, who belongs to the Sonar community among the Other Backward Class (OBC), sits on a charpoy outside her hut in Ghazipur’s Jalalabad village. She declares she is a fan of Adityanath because of his Hindutva politics. “The BJP built Ram Mandir," she says. “It didn’t happen under any other government. We waited for it for so many years. No other party looks after Hindus like the BJP does. If Adityanath loses, it is difficult to find a chief minister like that."

The rise of Adityanath has marginalized Muslims in the state like never before. Mohammad Imran, an Ola driver from Ghaziabad, says that passengers have cancelled the ride after seeing his name. “The first few months after the outbreak of covid-19, Muslims were treated like superspreaders," he says. “The media and several right-wing outfits here demonized us after the Tablighi Jamaat incident. We have been relegated as second-class citizens." (In March 2020, Tablighi Jamaat, an Islamic missionary movement, held a congregation in Delhi despite of a ban on public gatherings. More than 4,000 covid cases were subsequently linked to the gathering. )

The BJP’s rise in the state has been through a cocktail of nationalism, Hindutva, publicity and welfare politics. According to the recent findings of the National Family Health Survey, people’s access to clean cooking fuel, sanitation and drinking water has significantly increased since 2014, while reversing the progress made in education, healthcare and nutrition. Calling it “New Welfarism", former chief economic advisor to the government Arvind Subramaniam wrote that the centre’s focus is on delivering tangible goods over intangible ones.

It has certainly secured Channar Ram’s vote.

A 70-year-old Dalit man from Jalalabad, Ram lost everything after the lockdown. He would go from door to door, colony to colony, cleaning up people’s goods or working as a labourer. “With the lockdown, that stopped entirely," he says. “For two years, I have had almost zero income. My kids work as labourers too. But they can’t look after their own families properly. How will they look after me?"

Strangely, Ram doesn’t blame the state for the lack of employment for him and his kids. But he is grateful to the state for “helping him survive" during this period. “We got free ration from the government during these tough times," he says. “This government also doubled the senior citizen’s pension from 500 to 1,000 per month."

‘Give us work’

However, as formidable as the BJP might look on the ground, it is important to note that the incumbent has not gotten a second chance in Uttar Pradesh for many years. In 2022, that change could be ushered in from two quarters: disgruntled farmers and unemployed youth. It took over a year’s protest and alleged 700 deaths for the central government to repeal the three farm laws introduced in September 2020.

The farm bills sought to reset the way farm produce is traded within India— farmers would have had the freedom to sell their produce to any buyer outside the state-regulated wholesale markets.

A huge chunk of the protesting farmers were from western Uttar Pradesh, where the BJP had done exceedingly well in the 2017 assembly elections.

Vaibhav Verma, 27, a farmer in Bulandshahr, and a member of the Bharatiya Kisan Union–among the organizations at the forefront of the protest–says the BJP will pay a heavy price for how it treated farmers for a year. “If they feel they can get our votes by repealing the farm laws, they are wrong," he says. “We have all supported the BJP in the past. But we can’t get behind this dictatorship. This government hasn’t created any jobs either."

In March 2017, when Adityanath took over as the chief minister, the state’s unemployment rate, according to CMIE, stood at 2.4%. In December 2021, it doubled to 4.9%. The data is visible on the ground.

Every morning, battling the biting winters, labourers from in and around Bulandshahr gather at the Numaish ground, in the hope of landing a day’s work. On most occasions, they go home disappointed. “I spend 25 every day to come here," says Deepak Kumar, 25, a labourer from a nearby village of Baral. “I feel if I just sit at home, I would at least save 25. Because there is no work."

The moment someone walks in to Numaish ground wanting to hire labourers, a bunch of them gather around, hoping their faces would be noticed. “This has meant that the employers end up exploiting us," says Deepak. “They know we have no work. So, they end up paying 300 for a job that would normally get us 800."

Deepak, who studied two years of computer science before dropping out due to financial reasons, says the state government has done nothing to help the unemployed. “They are taking us for a ride," he says. “Instead of giving free ration, give us work so that we can buy our own ration."

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