The Many Uses of a U.P Election
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.