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The victor and the vanquished in UP's political juggernaut.


March 8, 2012 - New Delhi

"Mayawati ka soopda saaf (Mayawati has been wiped off Uttar Pradesh), Congress-BhaajPa ka raasta napa (Even Congress and BJP have been defeated), Akhilesh Bhaiya ke saath bhai (With Akhilesh Yadav at the lead brother) and Phir jeeti hai SaPa! (The Samajwadi Party has won again!) -- these were some of the many fiery strains that reverberated through the air outside Samajwadi Party headquarters in Lucknow on March 6, as news broke about its performance in the recently concluded Uttar Pradesh elections.

Hundreds of ecstatic SP workers, activists and leaders broke into a loud applause with cheer and joy, distributing sweets, shouting slogans, as reports of the party's victory spread across the state like wildfire.

Undoubtedly, the Bahujan Samaj Party's rout in the UP polls is a stunner. Though most exit polls conducted over the past few months had revealed a pro-SP wave flowing through the state, most psephologists and pundits had not anticipated its true power.

In the 403-member State Assembly, the SP secured a majority 225 seats, comfortably crossing the 203-seat mark required to bag an absolute majority in the election - and gaining a comfortable victory over its principle political rivals in the state.

While the Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party could only secure 79 seats, the two main national parties contesting the polls- the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party-also faced major embarrassments.

The BJP-India's main opposition, that had hoped for a revival of fortune in UP in the polls-won only 47 seats, while the Congress-whose top brass, particularly Nehru-Gandhi family scion Rahul Gandhi had actively led the party from the front in the state-secured only 28 seats.

Two questions, naturally, come to mind. The first is why and how did the SP manage the miracle of sorts? The other, why didn't other parties, especially Rahul Gandhi's Congress, fail so miserably?

Till last year, the UP elections were thought to be a clear and obvious battle between the primarily regional SP and the BSP. Leaders from SP were mobilising their cadres at the grassroots, preparing grounds for consolidating the party's political vote-share.

The BSP-a party that claims to be representing the cause of the Dalits -o n the other hand, was constructing parks and statues of its leaders from public money, a gesture it said would be viewed as a symbol of a 'renewed Dalit consciousness and awakening.'

With the SP and the BSP emerging as the two main contenders, many people felt the polls were not a fight for the good party, but for choosing a lesser evil.

The SP-infamous for roping in criminals, musclemen and known goons into its fold-had been defeated in the previous elections due to its inability-and in many cases, for promoting or shielding criminals.

Mulayam Singh Yadav's penchant for minority Muslim votes-which earned him the nickname 'Maulana Mulayam'-also irked upper class Hindu voters.

On the other hand, the BSP's excessive indulgence in corruption and lawlessness was the last straw on the camel's the back as far as the people of Uttar Pradsh were concerned. Even the Dalits, whose cause the BSP claimed to be championing, were disapproving of the party's actions.

Ever since Mayawati-also known as the "Dalit Ki Beti", came to power in 2007, the BSP became a virtual money-guzzling machine, with hushed whispers in the corridors of power in Lucknow talking about how UP's public exchequer was being misappropriated.

Meanwhile, the BJP joined the battle, seeking to get a mandate in its former stronghold, UP. Raising the twin issues of corruption and crime-to take on both the BSP and the SP-the main opposition attempted to project one leader after the other in the polls, but alleged party infighting and a lack of consensus led to the BJP's failure to present its leading face.

The BJP put forward the names of several leaders-from former party president Rajnath Singh to veteran leader and failed Prime Ministerial aspirant Lal Krishna Advani and senior leader Kalraj Mishra to right-wing ideologue and BJP leader Uma Bharti-but the party could not get its permutations and combinations right to decide on who would lead it from the front in the state.

Rahul Gandhi made a determined effort to reclaim a state that had been his party's bastion for decades, upsetting poll calculations and projections. Armed with a brigade of Congress loyalists, a dream in his eye and fire in his heart, Gandhi set foot on unchartered territory, championing the claim that Uttar Pradesh had gone to the dogs in the 22 years since the Congress last ruled the state.

Initially, his frequent visits to UP villages-he ate bland chapattis cooked by a Dalit woman, drank water from the wells, slept inside thatched huts of the poorest of the poor, walked his way into villages hoping to secure a place in peoples' hearts-started getting reams of newsprint and precious television minutes on 24*7 news channels. Rahul Gandhi was loved and hated at the same time-he was loved by villagers, including young girls, who swooned over his 'charm,' his 'smile' and his mannerisms, while his detractors and political opponents termed him an immature politician.

Gradually, however, the love and awe turned into disillusionment and disappointment, with the people of in UP's severely underdeveloped rural interiors doubting Rahul Gandhi's ability to bring about the 'promised change.'

The Congress spoke in different voices and the image of the party suffered, following the disclosure of multi-billion dollar scams, the price rise, and a perceived governance deficit by the Congress-led central government.

In the village bylanes, Rahul Gandhi's detractors coined jokes like "Patakha liyo to Rahul Gandhi jaisa Kaka, chamak hai, chaundh hai, par na hai koi dhamaka!" (If you buy a cracker, uncle, but one like Rahul Gandhi, which has lots of light, but no sound!)

Sensing the peoples' mood, his political detractors' too began to see Rahul Gandhi as a target of scathing jibes that reeked of sarcasm. Many termed him 'yuvraj' (prince), while others lambasted him for traveling in a cocooned, air-conditioned security cordon, being totally inaccessible, sometimes to the party's own workers!

With Congress' Rahul Gandhi entering the fray, the SP, BSP and the BJP smelled trouble. The election was now transforming into a four-way battle royale, with the four leading contesting parties gnawing at one other like piranhas.

The Congress' perceived failure of governance at the Centre-with price rise and scams becoming the party's Achilles heel-the BJP's lack of solid agenda, leadership or focus, the SP's support to criminals and the BSP's corruption became the main issues for the local voter, already sensitised by Anna Hazare's anti-corruption campaign.

In UP, considered to be one of India's most politically complex states, it is quite easy to decode the voters' preferences only if one knows where to look for it.

Face-to-face interviews and door-to-door surveys seldom reveal the voter's real political affiliation. However, candid conversations with locals in quaint, dingy roadside dhabas and tea shops; with co-passengers in trains and buses; with the rickshaw-wallah and the auto-wallah, and others can reveal interesting reactions and trends.

These are first stops for seasoned psephologists, sociologists, researchers and journalists wishing to know how and for whom will a particular community of an area vote in the elections.

Many months before February 2012, when voting in UP began, the Samajwadi Party and the slow rise of its scion, Akhilesh Yadav started to become buzzwords in local parlance in the aforementioned 'stops.'

The auto-wallahs and rickshawallahs were raving about the SP, more 'intellectual' debates among locals and community elders at tea shops and dhabas disclosed a positive support for Akhilesh Yadav.

With the BSP's Mayawati losing ground among the youth and their parents due to corruption, farmers' woes and underdevelopment, and the BJP's sloppy stance on issues, the only options, claimed the 'local intellectuals,' were the SP and the Congress.

Despite the white-kurta-rugged-stubble-look, Rahul Gandhi's image-that of a protected, urban, mega rich and cocooned politician with nothing but dreams to sell and verbal venom to spew at critics and opponents-became his undoing.

People of Uttar Pradesh-one of India's worst-performing states in socio-economic indices-who have been battling poverty, unemployment, gross underdevelopment, lack of opportunities, illiteracy, abject dearth of education and healthcare infrastructure, found it hard to accept Rahul Gandhi's claims of bringing about a change in the state.

Considering that the Congress has been in power in the state for more years than the combined tenures of other parties since independence, Rahul Gandhi's speeches, never touched upon the Congress' repeated failures at the Centre.

They felt that Rahul Gandhi only promised change, but never revealed how he planned to achieve it.

Understandably, the poor and middle class people were stung by skyrocketing prices of food and fuel, and they saw through Rahul Gandhi, the man and the image.

Despite the blitzkrieg of campaigns addressed by Rahul Gandhi across the length and breadth of the state-more than 200 rallies as per an estimate-somewhere in their hearts, the voters of Uttar Pradesh were not convinced that they should vote for 'the family.'

On the other hand, SP's Akhilesh Yadav was on a slow, but steady rise. As he went about constituencies, interacting with local youth-increasingly frustrated with unemployment and lack of opportunities-he sensed the peoples' aspirations, the local needs, the villagers' pain.

He was 'one of them,' an insider, a local boy, who was now ready to take the plunge into state politics. He was never an outsider, like Rahul Gandhi; he stuck a chord with locals, and the latter were not awe of him, as they were in the case of Rahul Gandhi.

This enabled him to get a closer and deeper access to the locals' hearts, and was able to reach out to them.

As Fatima,an elderly woman in a village in Mathura district said, "Rahul Gandhi toh ajooba hai. Aata hai, hamare ghar mein rehta hai, khata hai, aur chala jaata hai. Par isse hamein kya munafa? Arey, usko chahiye ki hamein dilli bulaye, khana khilaye, madad kare." (Rahul Gandhi is a strange man. He comes to our village, he stays in our home, he eats with us, and goes away. But, how does it benefit us? Instead, he should take steps to make sure we can come to his house in Delhi, eat with him, and he can help us.)

Akhilesh Yadav mobilised the youth to an extent that 'bhaiya'-a word meaning 'elder brother' and a term of affection in the Hindi speaking belt-was suffixed to his name.

He became Akhilesh Bhaiya, while Rahul Gandhi remained 'Rahul Gandhi,' a significant development that triggered the Congress rout.

Akhilesh Yadav also announced a clear list of plans and promises that the SP would do if it was brought to power -such as waiving off credit up to Rs 50000 taken by farmers, providing employment to the youth, and to the unemployed, an allowance of Rs.1000, among others.

People found a credible and strong alternative to the Congress in the state in SP.

Though the SP has won an absolute and historic majority, Akhilesh Yadav has a tough job on his hands-to live up to the peoples' overwhelming expectations.

Uttar Pradesh has been in a state of utter disarray for several decades due to steady bouts of misgovernance by all major parties-including the SP.

Civil and democratic institutions are languishing due to endemic corruption; healthcare facilities, schools and other infrastructure are in shambles; roads are in total disrepair.

A popular joke doing the rounds in Uttar Pradesh is there are no potholes on roads, but roads are made on potholes.

Crime is rampant; labour migration is common due to the lack of opportunities for skilled workers; industry and factories are on the brink of breakdown; there is a dearth of cleanliness and sanitation facilities are a glaring crisis in the works; poverty; unemployment; pollution; traffic woes, among others, are the looming problems across the state.

However, the SP has generated excitement and unexpected support for itself this time. As one of the many local slogans that have come up in SP's support goes-"Toot gaya haath aur haathi ki hui maat, Murjha gaya kamal par cycle chali farrat!"-which can be loosely translated as: the Hand (Congress symbol) has been broken, and the Elephant (BSP symbol) has faced a rout; the Lotus (BJP symbol) too has been crushed, now only the Cycle (SP symbol) is running with speed.

To ensure his name is etched in the state's politics, Akhilesh Yadav needs to pull up his socks and get the work done.

He needs to reinvigorate a sense of the Lohia-ite passion, intensity and integrity his party's ideals were so renowned for.

He needs to maintain his base and connect with the masses at the grassroots, and emerge as a leader who works for rural and urban development.

Above all, Akhilesh Yadav needs to remember what must be a golden rule for politicians today-with power comes responsibility.

Meanwhile, for Rahul Gandhi, this defeat will certainly not mark the end of his political career, as has been propagated by several analysts.

In India, the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty is still the 'first family' of politics, and cannot be written off with merely a defeat.

Rahul Gandhi needs to ensure that he moves away from the image of being a weaker reflection of his dynamic father (Rajiv Gandhi), grandmother (Indira Gandhi) and great grandfather (Jawaharlal Nehru) to creating a separate niche for himself in the country's politics. By Samarth Pathak

ANI

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