Monday, March 05, 2012

Uttar Pradesh is on the cusp of change

My atomic theory is seriously outdated, but from what I remember, one electron and one proton gave you hydrogen, two and two add up to helium, three and three lithium and so on. In other words, a quantitative increase in protons and electrons leads to a qualitatively different element. The same, of course, happens in the case of molecules where a simple combination of carbon and hydrogen gives you butter, but another, more complex will yield dalda.
How does this connect to politics? Simply, the quantitative changes that have taken place in the country in the past decade are on the verge of taking on a qualitative shape. The signature development of this period has been economic growth— notwithstanding, or indeed in spite of turbulence in the global economy. This has led to a transformation in the way our countrymen think and act. The positive development has been the individualisation of identities which were, till now, forged in the fires of caste.

This differentiation has been evident in cities, where the baleful forces of caste identity, or, in all fairness, its security blanket, have frayed. Given the economics of living in the big city, it is each man and family for itself, and may the devil take the hindmost. The pull of the extended family will still be there, but not so much of the caste. In any case, making ends meet is tough enough, and maintaining kinship ties an expensive proposition.
In the countryside it has unleashed the revolution of rising expectations that has swept and maintained Nitish Kumar in power in Bihar. Now it is threatening to upend the existing power balance in Uttar Pradesh. The one state, paradoxically, where nothing seems to be happening is Punjab whose politics seems to be stuck in a groove, much to the detriment of a state which deserves better.
In UP, a congruence of disparate events are creating the opportunity for a tectonic change. First, Mayawati’s rule may have solidified her Dalit base, but it has frayed the electoral alliance between the Bahujan Samaj Party and the upper castes in the state that led to an unprecedented majority for the party in the 2007 state assembly elections. Second, the rapacity of the rule has alienated the influential middle classes who live in the ever growing tier II and tier III towns of the state. Just one manifestation of this has been the NRHM scam where an astounding Rs 3,000 crore may have been embezzled over the course of ten years or so. The people do not resent the monuments made by Mayawati, but they most certainly are fed up of the extent of money the political and bureaucratic class is skimming off into its pockets.
Second, the crisis in the Congress-party led United Progressive Alliance government in New Delhi probably forced Rahul Gandhi to shift gears and put down his own stakes in the ongoing state assembly elections. This act has led to an injection of resources and effort by the party to revive its moribund unit in the state. The going is uphill, but the effort is bound to yield positive results in the future.

Third, Mulayam Singh began feeling the effects of age in the past couple of years. People who know him and interact with him know that Netaji is no longer the man he was. Instead, we have his son, educated abroad, married outside the close-knit community, and fluent in English, a language that his father abhorred. Fortunately, young Akhilesh is not alienated enough to be apolitical. When it comes to politics he is very much Netaji’s son and that, and the energy and perspective he has brought into the Samajwadi Party politics in recent times will pay the party back in spades when the results are announced.
Fourth, the early focus on the Muslim vote in the contest has led to a revival of the fortunes of the Bharatiya Janata Party. Initially, the BJP appeared deadbeat, and the entire attention was focused on Rahul Gandhi’s activities and the Samajwadi surge. Narendra Modi’s refusal to campaign only underscored the perennial leadership problem of the party. However, the constant refrain over the importance of the Muslim vote has led to a polarisation of votes in favour of the BJP and the party is likely to do better than expected.

Just what will be the new plate tectonics of UP is somewhat difficult to assess. In the multi-phased elections there have been ups and downs within the matrix we have outlined above. In any case, in a multi-cornered contest, it is not easy to predict the way the seats will be gained or lost. And don’t forget that 163 out of the 403 seats are new constituencies since they have come up as a consequence of the delimitation process.
There is another factor we should consider. Just as at the national level, elections to the state assembly often end up shifting the paradigm. This was manifest in 2007 when Mayawati and the BSP won with a clear majority, for the first time since 1991. Does it mean that the voter is likely to give the winner a clear mandate, rather than the fractured ones that were a feature of the state before the 2007 poll? Even though sometimes it appears that the more things change the more they stay the same, the truth is in history there is no going back.
But, there is always the worry. Remember the lesson from the chemistry of making hooch from denatured spirit: Ethyl alcohol distils over at 78.3 degrees centigrade, and methyl alcohol at 64.7 degrees. A little error leads to the poisonous methyl alcohol contaminating the distillate, causing tragedy. Unanticipated shifts could always transform UP’s seemingly upbeat scenario into a political disaster.
Mail Today February 29, 2012

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