Assembly Elections 2017: Uttar Pradesh

The Voodoo Vote

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The unopposed candidacy of superstition

DECEMBER 20TH, 2016 was a busy day for Akhilesh Yadav. He had a series of inaugurations lined up. Among the early ribbons to be cut was one for a new wing of Lucknow’s Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital, where he also inaugurated a Primary Health Centre for Faizabad district. Over the next six hours, the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh was on a ceremonial spree of laying foundation stones and opening new facilities within the state capital. In some places, multiple plaques were unveiled with a single tug of string. At the end of it, having spoken at 13 different spots, he had announced thousands of public projects—worth over Rs 50,000 crore—for 59 of the state’s 75 districts. With Assembly elections due to start in February, he was short of time. Once polling dates were fixed, the Election Commission’s model code of conduct would block him. Seen this way, it made sense to claim credit for all those projects regardless of their state of completion, and he made no bones about it. “Most of these projects would be complete and available for public use in the next few months,” said Akhilesh Yadav, “But since it would be after the election notification, the government won’t be able to inaugurate them. We are doing it now so that people are reminded of our efforts and commitment to development of the state.”

Why that particular date was chosen, however, had an entirely other ‘reason’. “After a long time, tripushkar and sarva sidhhi yog coincided on a Tuesday, which is rare. Such a muhurat is very auspicious,” explains Arvind Mishra, a Lucknow-based astrologer, referring to a specific period of time with a special conjunction of stars and planets in the sky that’s said to act on human affairs as a tripler of good deeds. “All the inaugurations were done between 11 am and 6 pm. Anything done in this phase would allow Akhilesh Yadav to do it thrice in his life, which means he will be Chief Minister for another two terms.”

Yet, there is nothing official about it. Akhilesh’s Samajwadi Party denies any such consideration taken into account, though if pressed, party members say ‘there is no harm’ in starting something at a time blessed by heavenly bodies as per Hindu tradition. “This will make Akhilesh more popular in the coming days as per astrological calculations,” says Radheshyam Shastri, another astrologer who politicians of all major parties visit in Lucknow.

In election season, it seems nobody in UP wants to take a chance. With the stakes so high, what’s a little superstition? This also happens to be the state with India’s most infamous chief ministerial curse: the so-called Noida jinx. Any chief minister who visits this industrial outgrowth of Delhi located in UP, goes the old suburban saying, loses power in the next polls. The record seems to confirm it. Veer Bahadur Singh, Narayan Dutt Tiwari and Kalyan Singh have in the past fallen victim to it. In 1995, SP founder Mulayam Singh Yadav visited Noida as Chief Minister and lost the elections held soon after. In 2011, BSP’s Mayawati made light of the curse while going there towards the end of her term to open the Dalit Smarak Sthal, but lost power within a few months at the hustings of 2012. Many observers expected Akhilesh Yadav, the next Chief Minister, to break the jinx in an effort to portray himself as a progressive leader, but he too has stayed away from Noida.

Superstitions in UP cut across party lines. Take the BJP. Aiming to end what it calls its ‘14-year vanvaas’ (forest exile) in the state, it appears to be counting on both supernatural and electoral rolls for victory. What worked for it in the General Election of 2014, it hopes, will come good again. Before those polls, in a renovation of its office in Lucknow at 7 Vidhan Sabha Marg, its main gate was shifted from the southeast to face the east on astrological advice. The old entrance is now used only for VIP movement. After the party swept the state’s Lok Sabha seats, the rest of the office has been redone for every room to have an eastern entrance. Even the chair on which the state BJP president sits at his desk has been arranged to face the direction of sunrise. “In Sanskrit, there is a shloka, Purvanumukh, which means an entry from the east is always good,” says Hriday Narayan Dixit, chief spokesperson of the state BJP. “It is up to you whether you believe in it or not.”

Dixit says his own life experiences have convinced him that many such beliefs are valid. “For a few years, I studied various superstitions and tried to contradict them with real-life happenings, and more or less I found them to be true,” he says, “But there are times when what happens is the obvious outcome.” As an MLA, when Dixit was appointed a minister in Kalyan Singh’s cabinet, he was allotted Bungalow No 13 on Mall Avenue in Lucknow. “Everyone said that whoever gets this bungalow loses his ministerial berth in the next term,” he says, “In the next elections, BJP lost its mandate and hence I lost my ministry. But this was not because of the jinx. The political scenario changes every five years now and it is difficult to hold onto power in state like UP.”

The focus of the party’s appeal to mystical forces, however, is a wooden chair used by Narendra Modi to address the BJP’s Vijay Shankhnad rally—literally, the blowing of a conch shell for victory—at Kanpur’s Indira Nagar ground on October 19th, 2013, which kicked off its campaign in UP with him as the prime ministerial candidate. For another rally in Kanpur, at Koyla Nagar, Modi was given the same lucky mascot to sit on. “It has now become a holy chair for us,” says Surendra Maithani, Kanpur BJP president, “since the Prime Minister started his election campaign using this chair and went on to win a majority for the party.” The BJP’s rise to power at the Centre was enabled by the 71 Lok Sabha seats it won in UP, cause enough to turn the chair into a kind of museum piece. On display in a case of unbreakable glass in the party’s Kanpur office, it is only for special use. “Any senior party leader who comes to Kanpur makes a point to see the chair,” says Maithani. Rajnath Singh, Dr Harshvardhan and Varun Gandhi are among those who have done so.

The most recent occasion for which the chair was pulled out, cleaned and polished, was for Modi’s Parivartan Rally on December 19th last year as a part of the BJP’s Assembly campaign. “It will bring luck for us in the UP elections too, like it did in 2014,” says Maithani. But the Special Protection Group team guarding the Prime Minister didn’t allow it to be placed on the dais for security reasons, and this came as a let-down for many party leaders. “We understand that now as a prime minister, there are several restrictions on him,” says Maithani, “Nevertheless we expect to do well in UP.”

THE RIVAL CONGRESS is no better. In Lucknow, it is said that a UP Pradesh Congress Committee chief gets the party office whitewashed only at the risk of getting straw-brushed out of the post within six months. In 1992, Mahavir Prasad had the structure painted as PCC president and lost the position. In 1995, Salman Khurshid did likewise and met the same fate. In 1998, it was Sriprakash Jaiswal. The most recent victim is Rita Bahuguna Joshi, who had been urged by senior leaders not to have the office whitewashed, but she went ahead anyway in defiance of the curse. Nirmal Khatri, who replaced her, left the main building untouched—only having a new media conference room built— but lost his post to Raj Babbar anyway.

There is also an Ashoka tree in the Congress office compound whose height partymen have an eye on. If it grows taller than the building, some say, the party will be in deep trouble in UP. As if this isn’t already the case, the tree is routinely trimmed and pruned to size. “These are all rumours circulated by some office bearers of the state Congress,” says Nirmal Khatri. “I never take these considerations into mind before taking any decision in the party. I don’t believe in all this.”

Near the UP border in the state of Madhya Pradesh,there is a temple over which no politician hoping to win an election lets his helicopter fly. This is a temple atop the Kamadgiri Hill of Chitrakoot, which has mythological significance as the place Lord Rama is believed to have spent eleven-and-a-half years of his exile. On leaving, Lord Rama is said to have blessed the hillock with the power to fulfill the wishes of anyone who walks around it in a ritual parikrama. A part of the 5 km walkway is in UP, whose Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav had visited the place by chopper in 2007 and lost the state polls right after that. In April 2013, when a BJP state executive meetingwas scheduled in Chitrakoot, LK Advani, who was to address the delegates, opted to have his helicopter land in Gwalior and travel from there to the venue by road. “There is also a belief that whoever comes to Chitrakoot has todo a parikrama of the hill,” says Mahant Divyanand Maharaj of Peeli Kothi, Chitrakoot, “Leaders of different political parties come here for this to fulfill their wishes.” After the BJP meeting, he recalls, all members of the state executive had done so, praying for the success of the party in the 2014 General Election.

The SP’s Raghuraj Pratap Singh, alias Raja Bhaiya, a UP minister, is said to perform this parikrama once every month. Congress leader Digvijay Singh also used to frequent the place when he was Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh. The state’s current Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan too makes it a point to do the ritual once in a while. Akhilesh Yadav has twice visited Chitrakoot, once in 2013 to distribute laptops, and again last year to inaugurate some projects for the drought-afflicted region. “He did take out time to visit the temple, but has not performed a parikrama,” says Divyanand Maharaj. He refuses to say if this could be a bad omen for UP’s Chief Minister, but other priests attribute the turmoil in his party to this neglect. “[Akhilesh Yadav] should come and complete his visit by performing the parikrama,” says one.

If Chitrakoot has a self-imposed no-fly zone for politicians, Balia town of UP has a no-go chowk. While Balia was the home of Mangal Pandey, whose rebellion set off the 1857 Uprising against British Raj, its other famous freedom fighter Chittu Pande, a prominent face of the 1942 Quit India Movement—he was called ‘Sher- e-Balia’ by Jawaharlal Nehru—has a statue erected in his honour at a crossing named after him near Indira Market. However, Pande would have never imagined that politicians would develop a fear of his sculpted public presence. No leader garlands the statue or leads a procession past the chowk, even though it’s the shortest route to the town’s election nomination office, lest it ruin his chances at the ballot. “I don’t remember when it started, but everyone follows it,” says Bachcha Pathak, a former state minister and Congress leader. “I don’t know about new generation leaders, but people say no one dares to defy [the belief]. Former Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar was a socialist leader and he didn’t care about all this, but even he avoided the chowk during elections.”

“As a society, we Indians are very superstitious,” says Professor AK Verma, a political scientist based in Kanpur. “Politicians are products of our society, and hence, like we have our superstitions, they have theirs. It only becomes stronger over the years when these new generation leaders don’t try to break the myths.” Over a period of time, he adds, it takes the shape of a local folk tale. And like in electoral politics elsewhere, para-narratives in UP often take precedence over rational appeals.