UPsurge: There could be big gains for Rahul Gandhi, Cong

In the collective, institutional memory of young voters in Uttar Pradesh, Congress is the least demonical merely by being oout of power since 1989


Ajay Singh | February 29, 2012

The Gini coefficient, an index to measure wealth disparity in a society (developed by Italian statistician and sociologist Corrado Gini in 1912), shows that the gap between the rich and the poor has narrowed faster in Uttar Pradesh than any other state in the past decade. This was the rather surprising inference drawn by a World Bank study based on data collated from the national sample survey organisation (NSSO) between 1995 and 2005.

Statistics show that Uttar Pradesh has fared better in terms of social welfare schemes. The reasons are not far to seek. The state has shored up its revenue manifold thanks to VAT and a strong tax administration. It has spent huge funds not only on monuments but also on a variety of projects, like Ambedkar villages and monthly doles in cash to over 30 lakh beneficiaries under the Mahamaya scheme. These seem to have definitely reduced poverty levels in the state faster than in the rest of the country.

If, however, the clinking coffers and the big spending didn’t earn the state the laurels it deserved, it is because politics and governance, unlike economics, is not just about statistics which has as much or more potential to hide as to reveal.

The rising number of famishing farmers of Bundelkhand, the rising unemployment, the organised loot of public money and a declining human development index have created a public perception of total political and bureaucratic apathy as the country’s largest state braces itself for the assembly elections this month.

For instance, investigators of the national rural health mission (NRHM) scam have estimated its magnitude at Rs 2,500 crore. This implies that about 30 percent of money meant for improving rural health has been gobbled up by a strong politico-bureaucratic nexus. Much to the dismay of the comptroller and auditor general and other investigating agencies, the NRHM scam is not an aberration but a trend. “There will be at least ten scams bigger than the NRHM, which need to be probed,” said an official working with the state’s vigilance department.

In Lucknow, there are stories which bespeak monumental corruption. At times, there is strong evidence to corroborate them. For instance, the seizure of Rs 86 lakh by the administration in Kanpur Dehat on January 23. The money was meant to pay bribes to higher-ups in Lucknow to get candidates through in the teachers’ eligibility test. Even when the model code is in force, huge bribes are being paid for entry into various government jobs. “This is ridiculous, but true. Corruption and bad governance are being regarded as faits accompli,” said a district official when asked about the seizure of money.
But, it would be naïve to believe that misgovernment and corruption are the forte of the Mayawati regime only. Strangely, it coincided with the story of the state’s economic growth and continued in all regimes irrespective of the political denomination. Until 1996, the state was starved of funds to meet the establishment’s expenses. But the steep increase of revenue in the state coffers whetted the appetite of successive political executives which collaborated with a corrupt bureaucracy to subvert the principles of propriety and justice.

If the BJP inducted history-sheeters as ministers in the government, Mulayam Singh Yadav ran a government of cronyism with the help of Amar Singh and unleashed a reign of terror by giving legitimacy to criminals in his party. In 2007, the electorate gave a clear mandate to Mayawati—certainly not because her politics found greater acceptance but as an expression of anger against Mulayam Singh Yadav. The anger was so intense that even the BJP, which was seen to be on Mulayam’s side in that election, was scalded. Mayawati reaped substantial dividends and could have used it to fortify her expanded support base but decided instead to squander the opportunity.

Realising that the state coffers were full to the brim, her spendthrift instincts knew no bound. She bought a fleet of best planes and choppers. Her official residence was expanded and fortified on the pattern of the 7 Race Course Road (the prime minister’s residence). She rarely interacted with her cabinet colleagues and insulated herself with a set of bureaucrats who virtually ran the administration. She publicly wore a garland of currency notes and described it as empowerment of the downtrodden. Her authoritarian streaks and eccentricities are being explained as shrewd political manoeuvers by her apologists. The shady land deals in Noida and Ghaziabad running into thousands of crores and favouring a few builders and real estate agents, are being covered up by her bureaucratic coterie as nothing but the figment of imagination of those inimical to the interests of dalits.

It is in this context that lies, damned lies and statistics are being thrust upon people to perpetuate a conventional wisdom that Mayawati’s support base is intact and she is invincible. On the contrary, Mayawati is in the most vulnerable position today. Unlike the past when she was seen as an emerging dalit leader beleaguered by a hostile Mulayam Singh Yadav, Kalyan Singh or Rajnath Singh, her five-year stint of open corruption and misgovernance has taken the sheen off her political image. The “sarvajan” party of 2007 which promised to bring every section under its umbrella is back to being the bahujan party, the exclusive preserve of the dalits. Even among dalits, she is not a universal role model. At the same time, she is bearing the brunt of people’s ire in the same way as Mulayam had borne in 2007.

For the UP voter then, three of the four principal parties in fray have only delivered duds in the last 23 years. There is little to choose among them.
Professor Kashi Nath Singh, a noted Hindi litterateur of Varanasi, put it best when he pointed out the electorate’s dilemma: “Nobody knows for sure as to who they should vote for. Everybody wants Maya out. They are cagey about Mulayam Singh Yadav given his past association with criminals. There is no future for the BJP. Rahul Gandhi is definitely making an impact on the voters but his party in Delhi is involved in bigger scams.”

But for all the heat the Congress is taking on corruption at the national level, one fact needs to be borne in mind. Uttar Pradesh’s young voters (18 to 40) are supposed to pack a punch in this election. In the collective, institutional memory of UP’s young voters, it is the Congress which is least demonical merely by being out of power in the state since 1989. And if that party’s campaign is being led by a young, caring, hardworking, eager and a relatively transparent leader who happens to be a Nehru-Gandhi, it is not illogical to think that he could the best candidate for the benefit-of-doubt vote. But is he?
We searched for answers to this question and many others in Varanasi where the social and political life is so full of paradoxes that any oversimplification is risky. Our queries were simple and journalistic. Is Rahul making a mark on UP? Has Mayawati lost ground? Would Mulayam Singh be able to live down his image of the bully, what is the mood of the Muslims, is Rahul breaking into Maya’s bastion or will dalit pride prevail, which way are the upper castes, disillusioned with the BJP, swinging or is there evidence that UP’s electorate will think and vote beyond known positions of caste and community?
Shahid Jamal, 30, a young graduate from the weavers’ community of Aurangabad (Varanasi), outlined his political priority with a clarity that is indicative of the subterranean shift in the people’s mood. “I am a graduate and jobless. I wanted to study more, but could not do so due to lack of funds,” he said while recounting his travails about getting into what is called the mainstream of society.

Instead Shahid was forced to join the family’s weaving business to assist his father Abdul Qayyum, 70. That the corruption is eating into the vitals of society is one major issue that worries Shahid and his father. “I have applied for government jobs by filling forms and attaching drafts worth thousands of rupees, but tests are cancelled without explanation and the money is never refunded. Where is all the money going?” he asks. Qayyum’s native intelligence does not allow him to be impressed by the Congress’s announcement of loan waivers for weavers. “Don’t give us loans, give us a market,” he says. Obviously, experience, education and exposure are making this family think differently and ask serious questions. Shahid’s plight is shared by thousands of jobless Muslim youths in his neighbourhood, similarly educated, despondent but more demanding of their political benefactors than ever before.

So who is their political choice? Shahid and his elder brother Majid say in a chorus: “Any party that addresses these issues.” By all indications, their choice falls between Mulayam Singh Yadav and Rahul Gandhi. But for both of them it is not going to be a walk in the park this time.
The drive from Varanasi to Lucknow affords an opportunity to meet voters in Jaunpur, Sultanpur, Amethi and Lucknow. In Jaunpur, Yadavs seem to have thrown their lot with the Samajwadi Party even though the upper castes are intriguingly silent. Just outside Jaunpur city, there seemed, however, a consensus among the upper caste voters that the BSP and the BJP are out of reckoning. A local Rajput villager admitted that he would have opted for Mulayam but for his image of the protector of criminals. “The Congress is the only party which does not promote casteism or communalism,” he says, indicating that the Congress might make the most of the upper castes’ shift from the BJP.

Throughout the journey people are echoing Kashi Nath Singh’s views which seem to confirm a few outcomes. One, Mayawati is unlikely to return as chief minister. Two, BJP is firmly out of the equation. Three, Mulayam is best placed to ride the anti-Maya wave but will be considerably stymied by the horrible memories of the Yadav goonda raj he unleashed on UP in his last stint. And four, Rahul Gandhi is bringing the Congress party right back on to UP’s centre stage after more than two decades of political oblivion.

Rahul is the only campaigner with a positive appeal (Akhilesh Yadav, the other fresher, is tainted by his father’s image). But if one thing stands between Rahul and a stupendous win, it is that the party is bankrupt of leadership in UP. They will vote for Rahul but can’t keep him. A party poodle will substitute him after the election.

Rahul, thus, is the star of this special edition on the Uttar Pradesh election. Our bet is that he will be the star of the election, too.      




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