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The Many Uses of a U.P Election

April 2, 2012

I live in Noida, which is the child of an extra-legal union between Delhi and Uttar Pradesh. Noida is not-quite Delhi, not-quite U.P, not quite itself on most days. Living in a cusp has several advantages, however, the main one being that one can look either way, up at Delhi and right down over U.P’s scruffy head. I found myself doing both in the recently-concluded U.P election. Curiously it seemed, for Delhi people, U.P’s 2012 elections were flush with new meaning. For decades the favourite whipping boy of Delhi, U.P had overnight become its favourite gap-toothed angel. For Pratap Bhanu Mehta of the Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research, the U.P election was a historic battle between empowerment and patronage, the future and the past, performance and rhetoric, sincerity and cynicism, and (this is my favourite) ‘rootedness over disembodied charm’. Mehta believes that while voters ‘carefully assessed’ candidates through the ‘prism of local circumstances’, they were no longer prisoners of their identity. Most confounding is Mehta’s view of democracy, “In a democracy, where you are going should be more important than where you are coming from”. These U.P elections “redeemed that promise” according to Mehta, since they were “without a trace of community polarisation: no one felt on the edge or under siege, all could exercise options without being unduly burdened by the past.”

Never mind that I’m unsure if these dichotomies mean much in the mind of the voter. I’m wondering rather what it is about the past invokes such horror in Mehta’s view, not unique among political analysts. I mean, most people seem to carry the past as they carry their bodies, not as a bag of burdens one can leave behind when one enters the polling booth. The past is a living, breathing thing. It makes you who you are. Yes, often it is intensely painful, such as when you lose a loved one in a factory fire or a building collapse or a communal riot. But you still can’t and don’t want to leave it behind, you want redressal, you want justice, you want your past to count when the next election comes around. Yes, the past can be a volatile resource, mobilised for right or wrong, for peace and violence. But if a democracy requires that a state and its people leave their past behind, what is it asking of them? That since they are accursed citizens of an underdeveloped, volatile state, their political memories cease to matter? Maybe what Delhi people are saying to U.P people is this: listen, this year, while we are celebrating Delhi’s carefully airbrushed heritage of Imperial Durbars and Lutyens’ bungalows, YOU should leave YOUR past behind. YOU must vote for the future, for empowerment. Hmm, as if you need to be told  that being empowered is better than being dis-empowered. As if you were a simple ‘prisoner’ of your identity earlier, and as if identity simply ceased to matter in this election. Never mind that local and national leaders have always let you down, that you and your ancestors anyhow made the best possible choices under the circumstances. Never mind that you felt every time that a change of regime was the most rational choice, given the lack of change in your life chances under the previous regime – something that some people termed politically immature behaviour, as ‘anti-incumbency’. Never mind that as an average voter in a single constituency, it is often difficult for you to tell the overall picture in a rapidly changing political environment, so you decide to go with something known, like caste or local development.

But this election did have its uses for U.P people too. For many upper-class Noida residents, this election was a chance to throw Mayawati out. So they turned up in large numbers and brought the BJP to power. Congratulations, Noida, for rejecting caste politics and choosing the nation. It will reward you amply, as it always has. In Dadri and Jewar, adjoining constituencies in the same district, poorer and less urban, the election was a chance to reaffirm faith in local Gujjar and Thakur candidates, despite the hoopla over Rahul Gandhi’s visit to Bhatta Parsaul, part of Jewar. For the Congress the election was a chance to grab some moral ground against Mayawati and throw in its claims in the changed circumstances. Never mind that it lost, it gained enough publicity to hibernate in Delhi until the next election.

For the BSP, the U.P election was a space to re-evaluate its recent political strategies, as Shivam Vij has written on Kafila recently. In the run-up to the election, the local wing of the party had opened an office in a bungalow on the corner of sector 25 A and 34, a kind of last outpost before the planned layout of the sector ended and a vast barren lot of land began. For a few months before the election, the bungalow had become a hive of activity. Covered in the blue-purple banners of the BSP, its modest compound had begun to teem with men in white clothes fanning themselves with party pamphlets, while the ubiquitous white Scorpios and Indicas hummed outside. The mood had seemed feverish but grim. After the election, the bungalow has gone back to being quiet and dilapidated. A polite sign in Hindi directs visitors to another BSP office in Noida.

For the hundreds of contractors – both big and small – that in fact run this country, the elections were a time to rest, evaluate their prospects carefully and make some phone calls. Elections create a lull in tender activity, so there is much backlog to take care of afterwards. Post-election, that empty lot across the BSP bungalow has become a sheer mountain of dirt, nearly two stories high; earthmovers and tractors are crawling on it like busy insects and glitzy hoardings on the Noida-Delhi toll freeway are announcing a new super-city in that place.

I didn’t have much use for this U.P election. I voted for the BSP for purely selfish reasons, as I believe everybody does. During the past five years, I had stopped being so afraid of the police in Noida, as I hear people had, at least in urban areas in the state. Plus the Nithari incident that took place a couple of kilometres from my home and made me feel suicidally depressed had been investigated, not defended by the  ruling party. Those seemed like good enough reasons to bring Behenji back, indeed in India I consider it nothing short of a miracle. But she lost and we have the SP now. Already a couple of lives have been lost in the post-election celebrations, leaving me wondering if this is what celebration is, then what the actual reign may look like. Never mind. I did discover one, tiny use for this U.P election. Noida is slowly being swamped with hoardings showing the SP’s election symbol, the bicycle. Perhaps, I think, as usual along un-national, un-future oriented lines, that this will subliminally create a demand for more cycle and rickshaw tracks in the hundreds of expressway plans that are going to be tendered and awarded in the next five years. Perhaps this will mean that those who actually use cycles as daily transport can lead a future-oriented life, one in which their disempowerment is a thing of the past. But then again, perhaps not.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. amita kanekar permalink
    April 2, 2012 3:24 PM

    Good article, thanks. Am disappointed too with the UP election — though I do like Shivam Vij’s analysis — expected/hoped the BSP to come back; she had certainly done some good work and more than anybody else recently. Unlike the situation here (Goa) where the choice was really more limited, between a super-arrogant and nepotistic Congress that refused to even remove its scam-tainted CM, and the BJP that is, well, the BJP.

  2. April 2, 2012 5:03 PM

    You surely are being ironic about the cycle bit?!

  3. Ram Sharma permalink
    April 3, 2012 1:58 AM

    Mr Shivam’s report on the UP election was good journalism, based on observation of the ground realities. You scared me when you started with Mr Mehta’s words on the topic, as they seemed to be transmitted from a world, far beyound Milky Way, the one that I can never understand. I come from the real UP, the eastern UP, where the people live the SP culture. SP/Mulayam Singh was their past and will remain their future for some time. I do not consider Mulayam S Yadav or Miss Mayawati the worthy leaders for my large, backward and unfortunate State. But I would always vole for Mayawati, as you did, as I have disliking for the most anti-Social Socialist Party of Mulayam. Except for Mr. Mehta, most Indians believe that SP came to power in UP on the shoulders of Muslim vote bank. If Mulayam himself wanted to play a vital role in Delhi, the CM’s post should have gone to a deserving Muslim. Akhilesh Yadav could be in Cabinet, or atmost given the Deputy CM post. By becoming a vote block, and siding with SP, the Muslims have agreed to play the second fiddle to Yadavs Muslims cannot recover from this situation, if they blindly append to Mayawati’s Dalits or Mulayam’s Yadavs. They must ask for the price of their support, whereever they go. Then only they will find who are true well wishesrs of their community. Keeping them confined to Madarasas and tied with Urdu will not be good in long term. I would not send my children to a school where Sanskrit is the medium of instruction for the same reason.

  4. Sunalini Kumar permalink*
    April 3, 2012 5:42 PM

    Amita, thanks. It’s distressing, what has happened to Goa politics. Shivam, totally non-ironic! And Ram Sharma, I don’t believe there was a single ‘Muslim vote bank’ or bloc in this election. Many competent commentators have shown that the SP won due to some clever micro-campaigning that gave them a slight majority in each constituency. I do wonder why you are so worried about who the ‘real’ well wishers of the musalman or dalit are. Surely, there are various kinds of well wishers, and surely the musalmans are capable of seeing what they like. I agree with you, they should be able to put their demands forward with confidence, but there is no reason to assume that in places which have not witnessed severe polarisation, they are unable to do so. As for madrasas, they are of all kinds, not all ‘confining’. By the way, the Urdu-Sanskrit equivalence is a false one. Urdu is a living language, Sanskrit not quite. Further, neither do all Muslims speak Urdu, nor do all Hindus wish to learn Sanskrit.

    • Raghu permalink
      April 3, 2012 7:49 PM

      Whether there was “a single ‘Muslim vote bank’ or bloc in this election” every one (from 4.5% Rahul Gandhi, 9% Salman Khurshid and 18% Mulayam Singh Yadav) would like to shed crocodile tears for the Muslims. Stop dividing the citizens of our country into minorities and majority and pitching one against the other for narrow electoral gains.

      • April 3, 2012 10:16 PM

        You say every party was wooing Muslims but don’t name BSP and BJP. You have no problem with Yadav or Dalit or Brahmin or Kurmi votebank. The politics of votebanks is the politics of communities asserting themselves to get what every voter wants. Sadly, because there are parties which are inherently against some communities – such as SP for Yadav against Dalits, or BJP for upper castes and lower OBCs / against Muslims, other parties exploit the other votebanks. But you single out only the Muslim votebank. What is it that irks you about it? Are you advocating, like Subramanian Swamy, that Muslims should be disenfranchised?

    • Ram Sharma permalink
      April 3, 2012 8:25 PM

      Sunalini, you must be right on most points. It just happens that English has been helpful to most of us, particularly those in the fields of science and engineering. Urdu is sure a living language, and spoken Urdu and spoken Hindi are hardly distinguishable. I am myself fond of Urdu love poetry. But my concern is with script when used as medium of written instruction. Having said that, I must point out that Urdu language and script, and not Hindi and Devanagari, were used for official purposes in UP in British India. May be, in due course, the Urdu script and vocabulary will beocme sufficiently good for expressing technical words. But I am sure you will agree that it will take time. From that perspective, someone educated in Urdu medium will have disadvanges. But I may be wrong. When it comes to VOTE BLOCKS, I was writing what most people saw in the election, before and after, and not what the competent commentators analysed later on. Every political party was trying to lure Muslim voltes, in their own ways. You are righ that every Muslim does not speak Urdu. In Eastern UP they mostly speak Bhojpuri. Urdu was born as an Indian language. But the English educated founders of Pakistan, who mostly came from UP or Maharashta, associated it with Muslims. The farse was one of the reasons why Bengala Desh got separated from them. I am all for teaching Urdu at every level, and it has been so in all UP Universities. But I want Muslims to progress, prefer to send their children to Convent schools, and produce enlightened intellectuals like you.You may be right that every segment of society suppoted SP in election. Now they have them and can enjoy the progress the SP brings.

  5. Raghu permalink
    April 4, 2012 12:03 AM

    @ Shivam Vij, what irks a liberal Hindu more than the Muslims airing their grievances (whether perceived or real) is the so-called “Secular Hindus” trying to take up the “Vakalat-nama” of the Muslims. Indian Muslims are also Indians first and last. They have as much right as I have in this Country. Nothing more, nothing less.

    You call yourslef a “Leftist” but have no qualm in dividing the society into Yadavs, Dalits, Brahmins, Kurmis, Muslims etc etc!!!!!!! When our Comrades and now into Caste-struggle instead of Class-struggle, what can we expect from the other parties?

    • April 4, 2012 12:16 AM

      Raghu, I am happy to see societal divisions bother you, as they should bother us all. However, please introspect to see how you also divide society as Hindu and Muslim, liberal Hindu and secular Hindu (whatever those terms mean, I don’t know), Leftist and whatever-you-call-yourself. I have never called myself leftist, but you ascribe me an identity, and thus other me, and create more divisions. As for caste divisions amongst Hindus, I have not created them, the Hindu religion has. This UP election we did see some articulation of caste amongst Muslims too. I did nothing to make that happen, you see. Good luck with uniting the world sans identities!

  6. Sunalini Kumar permalink*
    April 4, 2012 12:05 AM

    Raghu, it’s lovely that you have a pre-recorded tape marked ‘Raghu’s opinion on the world at large’ and you like to press ‘play’ ever so often, but once in a while, commenting on the actual post and its contents might be nice. Look forward to it.

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