Gurjit Singh, a prosperous-looking farmer in the hamlet of Pithanpur, voted SP in the 2012 Assembly polls in which Mulayam’s son Akhilesh Yadav swept to power with a record margin. Singh claims he did so because his nephews goaded him into it to avail of free laptops in a populist scheme announced by the party. “No such mistakes anymore…. This time, there is also a wave around Narendra Modi,” says the talkative 47-year-old, emphasising that “who the local candidate was didn’t concern me”. SP Singh Baghel, who is of a ‘most backward caste’, was the BJP’s nominee for the Firozabad Lok Sabha seat, which Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav had won in 2009. Akhilesh had contested from Kannauj and Firozabad and later vacated the Firozabad seat only to field his wife Dimple in a by-election that she lost.
In the Firozabad-Etah-Etawah-Mainpuri-Kannauj belt, which Mulayam considers his fortress, his party has faced unprecedented heat this year thanks to a surfeit of factors. “The results on 16 May will reveal all that,” says an SP leader based in Lucknow, asking not to be named because he is not authorised to speak to the media. “Modi contesting from Uttar Pradesh was a really major factor,” he adds, “whether you want to admit it or not.” Then there is the split in Muslim votes among the BSP, Congress and the SP. Another factor, political pundits point out, is the alienation from the SP of non- Yadav Other Backward Classes (OBCs), especially those who belong to farming communities—despite historical clashes with Yadavs, they had looked up to Mulayam as a true inheritor of the late Prime Minister Charan Singh’s pro-farmer legacy.
The portentous trends in SP pocketburoughs reflect its troubles in the rest of the state, especially in the western and eastern belts, or Poorvanchal, where the BJP hopes to win a record number of seats thanks to Modi’s candidacy from Varanasi and the polarisation along religious lines following violent conflagrations in Muzaffarnagar district of western UP, notes Devendra Kumar, a Delhi-based psephologist who has tracked poll trends in the state for the past two decades. He also expects the BJP to exceed its strongest performance ever in the state: in 1998, the party won 57 of its 85 seats (Uttarkahand had not been carved out as a separate state).
Saifai, a beautiful village in Etawah district, is where Mulayam’s family shifted to from Rithauli in his early childhood. “The place is like a Mulayam fan club,” laughs a BSP leader from Mainpuri, Deepak Painter, adding that “Mulayam had been the CM of Saifai, not UP.”
A visit to Mulayam’s home village reveals much more. This is where, to borrow an analogy from RJD leader Lalu Prasad, the roads are as “smooth as Hema Malini’s cheeks”. It also houses several huge government buildings, paramedical colleges, a school named after Bollywood icon Amitabh Bachchan, a college in the memory of ‘Netaji’s’ early mentor, Nathu Singh, and an airstrip not far from the SP chief’s palatial home that always has a steady stream of visitors, including Bollywood stars, police officers, members of his extded family and so on. Mulayam was there a few days earlier, the police tell you. Akhilesh might land at the aerodrome and take a chopper from there to visit nearby villages. Maybe he would come home and take a few hours of rest. Maybe not. It is a matter of speculation.
Several police officers posted here have worked closely with the family—which now has at least 10 members in active politics. “Netaji will always call the shots in UP. He will always have his base intact,” says a police officer. Painter of the BSP wasn’t joking: it is a fan club indeed.
Rajiv Yadav, a resident of this ‘Mulayam country’, tries to peddle the view that “no other politician has done as much has he has done for UP”. When he reels out “development initiatives” churned out by the SP heavyweight and former Union Defence Minister, most of them have to do with what the former wrestler has done for his native village. The SP chief has often been under criticism for doling out project after project for the benefit of his village while neglecting the rest of the state. Early this year, Saifai Mahotsav, a grand carnival, saw performances by film stars such as Salman Khan and Madhuri Dixit. The celebrations drew criticism because such a glitzy show was underway even while children of riot victims were dying of cold just 300 km away in Muzaffarnagar’s relief camps.
The over-confidence and embarrassment of riches on full display at Saifai was in stark contrast with the mood elsewhere. In many parts, the state’s ruling party was accused of resorting to booth-capturing in desperation. Says a senior police officer, “Well, you can’t compare Saifai with the rest of UP. That is a village-town well-lit 24X7. You just drive down a few miles away, and it is pitch darkness in other villages and along the road.” Ram Laxman, a cow- herder who lives in Etawah town and travels across the district, agrees: “My friends and members of my community in various parts of the state have told me they would vote for the BJP and not SP in this election. The feeling I get is that when the results are in next month, SP will win much fewer seats in UP because of the Modi wave.”
A recent survey by a prominent TV channel forecast that the BJP would win half of the 80 seats in the country’s most populous state that accounts for more Lok Sabha seats than any other. The party’s impressive showing in UP will, without doubt, come at the cost of three other major players: the SP, BSP and Congress- RLD combine. The last of these, which won 26 UP seats in 2009, is predicted to win 12, while SP is expected to decline from 23 to 13 and BSP from 20 to 15.
Notably, such forecasts come at a time when many of Mulayam’s former supporters have begun to question his socialist credentials and his right to describe himself as Charan Singh’s successor. “Mulayam is known as a socialist, but he has done [his utmost] for his family and caste, not for others. He has nothing left in him of Charan Singh’s values,” asserts Onkar Singh, 52, whose village is in the Mainpuri constituency. He belongs to the MBC Gadariya community. Some SP leaders claim that such views are common in UP where Yadavs have always had a “distinct identity and ways” that don’t endear them to other ‘backward castes’. “There is nothing new about non- Yadav OBCs’ resentment against Yadavs,” says a Mainpuri-based party leader. But the resentment this time is deeper, and it is against Mulayam and his party as well, interjects a bureaucrat, expecting a major shift in vote dynamics in the state.
While OBCs taken together constitute 35.5 per cent of UP’s population, most of them—26 per cent of the population— are non-Yadavs. Among the powerful non-Yadav OBCs are Kurmis, who account for 4 per cent of the state’s population. Lodhs account for 3 per cent of that count, Mauryas 3 per cent, Nishads 3 per cent, Jats 1 per cent and other OBC groups 11 per cent.
In the dark and stormy world of UP politics, Mulayam’s rise in the 1990s was nothing short of meteoric. And it coincided with the Congress’ rapid slide as an electoral force. At its prime, the Grand Old Party stood unchallenged—with minor setbacks in 1967 and 1977—in the state for decades, thanks to its loyal voter base of Muslims, Dalits and Brahmins. Until the late 1980s, no other social coalition could end that dominance. In 1984, riding a political wave after Indira Gandhi’s assassination, the Congress won 83 of the state’s 85 Lok Sabha seats, securing a staggering 51 per cent of all votes polled in the undivided state.
According to psephologist Kumar, three events of the mid to late-1980s radically altered the state’s political landscape: the emergence of the BSP, which swayed Dalits away from the Congress, introduction of the Mandal Commission Report that empowered OBCs and left them asking for more, and the Ram Mandir Movement that loosened the Congress grip on ‘upper castes’.
The new era was marked by Dalit and OBC dominance, Kumar says. “The Dalits who had remained staunchly aligned with the Congress prior to 1989 started demanding their share in power thanks to ‘identity politics’ championed by Kanshi Ram. On the other hand, VP Singh’s Mandal politics was hijacked by Mulayam, and he launched the SP with the strong backing of Yadavs in 1992. The Mandir Movement of the BJP [catalysed] social realignments and political shifts in Uttar Pradesh,” he says, adding that the new equations were reflected in the 1991 Lok Sabha polls in which the BJP garnered 32.8 per cent of all votes polled, thanks to communal polarisation and the support of ‘upper castes’, non-Yadav OBCs and some sections of Dalits.
Mulayam lost no time in striking friendships with Muslim political leaders who were also seeking their pound of political flesh in the highly-polarised 1990s: this resulted in the formation of what rivals called the ‘Mullah-Mulayam’ combine. In 1996, the Congress won just 8.1 per cent of the state’s votes polled, a huge crash from its 1984 figure of 51 per cent. The SP won 20.8 per cent, the BSP 20.6 per cent, and the BJP consolidated its 1991 gains by polling 33.4 per cent.
It is that glory that the BJP is looking to revive to return to power at the Centre after a gap of 10 years. In a departure from its image as a Brahmin-Bania-Thakur party, it has fielded several OBC candidates to widen its appeal and shore itself up across a vast variety of caste groups.
Indications of the SP’s decline in its strongholds were evident as early as 2009 when Dimple Yadav suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of actor Raj Babbar of the Congress in the Firozabad by-election— something that Mulayam took as a personal humiliation. Nothing could actually be more dangerous than wounded pride. Netaji soon blamed his lieutenant Amar Singh for the resounding reverse, and, angry about Dimple’s defeat, he expelled his long-time confidant from the party. Mulayam later ensured a Lok Sabha seat for his daughter-in-law in the 2012 Kannauj bypoll at the time that SP won a landslide victory in Assembly polls and Akhilesh unseated Mayawati to become Chief Minister.
This year, Mulayam has sought re-election from Mainpuri, and Dimple, again, from Kannauj, a city known for its ittars (perfumes).
Party leaders are worried that the poor image of the two-year-old Akhilesh government will likely impact its poll prospects. “The poor record of our government in handling law-and-order and a lack of cohesion within the government and the party over several crucial matters have resulted in a very bad image of an otherwise brilliant leader like Akhilesh. The anti-incumbency wave is very strong,” says the SP leader from Lucknow. Besides, the SP has earned the displeasure of Muslims as well as Yadavs in the state after the Muzaffarnagar riots, which polarised preferences along religious lines in many parts of the state. Political analysts believe that the SP government’s reported mishandling of the situation has especially upset Muslims. While Kumar and a few others believe that UP’s ruling party has attracted Muslim ire across the state, University of Lucknow Professor Sudhir Panwar feels that the phenomenon is restricted to western UP alone—and that the party may yet draw Muslim votes in eastern and central regions of the state. “I don’t think Mulayam is under much threat from anyone,” he argues.
However, many members of the minority community that Open spoke to— in Firozabad, Mainpuri, Kannauj, Etawah and Farrukhabad—do not share Panwar’s analysis. Seated near Mainpuri’s sprawling vegetable market, Anwar Alam, a fruit wholesaler, puffs away at a cigarette in between sips of tea. He has no doubt that Mulayam will win Mainpuri, but he is sure that the SP leader will not get his vote. “The BSP has increasingly become the preferred choice of many Muslims in the state,” he declares. Just a day earlier, BSP chief Mayawati had addressed a rally in Koravali, which lies between Mainpuri and Etawah, and he had attended that. Though her primary motive in the region was to wrest back Etawah, the seat represented by her mentor Kanshi Ram in 1991, she also had in mind the Muslim vote. “The BSP will definitely eat into the SP’s Muslim vote base,” claims BSP’s Painter.
Oxford University Professor Faisal Devji says that he has reason to believe that Muslims might turn to the BSP in UP and to Nitish Kumar’s JD-U in Bihar. “The Congress will be attractive only if there’s a general feeling that they can increase their vote share among other constituencies as well, thus making them capable of offering protection and privileges to Muslims in particular,” he says.
INSECURITY OR CUNNING?
Meanwhile, SP leaders keep insisting that the disquiet is only on the western front. “We face challenges in western UP because of the dirty games played by the BJP led by Amit Shah. But in the rest of the state, Muslims have voted or will vote for us en bloc,” believes the Lucknow- based SP leader. The next two phases of the Lok Sabha polls in UP are scheduled on 7 and 12 May.
This ‘logic’ runs deep within the party, SP leaders aver. Which also explains why Mulayam chose to contest two seats: Mainpuri and Azamgarh. As publicised widely, the man the late PM Charan Singh is said to have called ‘the little Napoleon’ has been going all out to counter the so-called ‘Modi wave’ (which, ironically, he claims doesn’t exist) in eastern UP by strengthening Muslim-Yadav ties across the entire belt. A section of political commentators argue that this move only betrays Mulayam’s insecurities, as in 1999, when the SP strongman contested both the Mainpuri and Kannauj seats. Back then, he had feared likely ‘Muslim anger’ over his attempt to ruin Sonia Gandhi’s chances of forming a ‘secular’ government in April 1999 after Atal Behari Vajpayee’s government failed to win a confidence vote in the Lok Sabha once AIADMK chief Jayalalithaa withdrew her support to the BJP-led coalition at the Centre.
“I don’t think Netaji, who has galvanised a movement for the uplift of the poor, is contesting from Azamgarh out of fear. He is a brave man. He is contesting to strengthen his position,” says the SP leader without elaboration. Mulayam, who has made expedient noises by promising to amend the Constitution to offer Muslims greater affirmative action, is also known for his political cunning; rumours are rife that this could be a ruse to groom his son from his second marriage, Prateek Yadav, in politics. In 1999, he had vacated Kannauj to make way for Akhilesh. “History might repeat itself. You never know,” the SP leader guffaws.
The ‘Napoleon’ of UP—who recently kicked up a storm over his outrageous comments seeking soft laws for serial rapists—is soon expected to lay his cards on the table vis-à-vis Prateek. But, by then, will this Mahabharat of 2014 already have spelt his Waterloo?