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Down in UP

Friday, February 24th, 2012

As the feverish election campaign in Uttar Pradesh winds down, there’s only one question that is being asked around the city : Is Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party going to oust Dalit messiah and Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati from the throne of Uttar Pradesh?

The stakes are enormous. The reason Uttar Pradesh lies at the heart of India’s politics is because the state’s nearly 200 million population elects as many as 403 members to the state assembly, and significantly, sends as many as 80 people (out of 545) to the federal parliament. In this case, the numbers are so overwhelming that nothing else in the country comes close. Uttar Pradesh also has a 600 km open border with Nepal, and what happens here with the Dalit identity and the fate of the Congress party always has an effect across the border.

Besides Yadav’s home-spun rhetoric and Mayawati’s ability to rouse up the state’s Dalit population to passionate zeal, there is Congress dynast Rahul Gandhi’s experiment with the thrust and parry of state-level politics.

Even on the road, Gandhi looks a bit like a movie star, with his angular good looks set off by the ubiquitous white khadi kurta-pajama that is the uniform of the average Congressman, completed by a set of running shoes. He is a huge curiosity considering several generations of Gandhi-Nehrus have stood from Amethi constituency in Uttar Pradesh.

But the party has been routed right across the Indo-Gangetic plains for the last decades, ever since it mutely witnessed the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992. Simultaneously, as the genie of caste politics neatly divided up the state, the Congress was simply unable to provide either the leadership or the politics to overcome the challenge. It became an embarrassing also-ran, lying in the ground for the last 20 years, even as the world – and India – changed.

By most accounts the Congress and the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party is vying for the third slot in UP’s electoral race. Dalit leader Mayawati is backed by the solid chunk of the Dalit vote, although it is a moot point that some of that vote-bank is also split. Certainly, the rainbow coalition that she had so successfully created in the last election, comprising the upper as well as the lower castes, has withered. This has left Mayawati fighting with her back to the wall.

As for the Samajwadi Party, the reins are slowly being taken over by Mulayam Singh’s son, Akhilesh Yadav, member of parliament from Kannauj. Where Mulayam had once openly spoken out against the English language, son Akhilesh has sought to move the party into a new era by personally using a tablet computer.

Still, none of UP’s major leaders can match the vision and the leadership shown by the chief minister of Bihar next door, Nitish Kumar, who is in alliance with the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party in the state but refuses to let Narendra Modi step into his province. Kumar, whose credentials as a socialist leader are impeccable, says he will not get into a slanging match with Modi or his creed. That only further builds up the people’s respect.

Certainly, by improving the state’s notoriously infamous indices on female and child mortality, Nitish has shown himself to be a leader not only of national stature but also someone who can be an example to all of South Asia.

Earlier in the month, his invitation to Nepal prime minister Babu Ram Bhattarai, to attend the Bihar Global Summit as chief guest, was received with great admiration as far away as the capital, Delhi. Interestingly, Narendra Modi may be an outcast in Bihar, but he is being welcomed in Nepal next week for a business conclave.

UP’s politicians would do well to take a leaf out of Nitish Kumar’s book once they settle down to governing. Mandates are precious things and must be treated with utmost respect. Even in the poorest parts of the sub-continent, one thing is already clear: If the rulers don’t listen to the voice of the people, he will be changed by the people.

Jyoti Malhotra  in LUCKNOW

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