Politics in India
UP, down, sideways
A series of state elections have national bearing
Feb 4th 2012 | DELHI AND GORAKHPUR | from the print edition
Rahul in fly-blown corner
THE famous speaker draws a hefty crowd, but little enthusiasm. Farmers
and residents of Gorakhpur, a scruffy, fast-growing market town in
eastern Uttar Pradesh (UP), have waited for hours in a wintry wind to
hear him, weather-beaten old men huddling for warmth at the front. "I
have no expectation," says one of these. "I've only come to see."
Rahul Gandhi's stump speech (brief and earnest) earns few cheers. The
heir both to the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty and the ruling Congress Party
pledges a state government for UP of all castes and tribes. Rolling up
his sleeves and jabbing a finger in the air, he talks of fighting
corruption. He gets a single chuckle by telling of an elephant that
chomps government money meant for the poor—a blunt reference to
Mayawati, the charismatic teacher-turned-chief minister, whose wealth
has attracted as-yet unproven accusations of massive graft.
It is hard-going for any politician in this fly-blown corner notorious
for organised crime, smugglers and tense Hindu-Muslim relations.
Gorakhpur made headlines late last year for an outbreak of
encephalitis that killed over 640 people, mostly children. Alongside
signs of new prosperity—the temptations along its clogged streets
include the "He Man Hair Parlour"—abject poverty persists.
Mr Gandhi hurtles through three other rallies, then four the next day
farther south, and so on. He has campaigned in UP for much of the past
year, promising more welfare and land rights for the rural poor and
talking up "Mission 2012": reversing Congress's meagre fortunes in
India's most populous state, with 200m residents. An election for the
state assembly rolls out over the coming four weeks.
Congress had largely floundered in UP since the rise in recent decades
of Ms Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party, which appeals to low-caste
dalits and (for a time) upper-caste brahmins feeling squeezed. Today
Congress wants to repeat its performance in the 2009 general election,
when it nabbed 18% of votes in UP, a decent share given fragmented
voting in the state, partly by talk of dishing out rural welfare. This
time round, such a result would probably return Congress to state
government, after 22 years away, as a needed junior partner to the
Samajwadi Party (SP).
Led by Mulayam Singh Yadav, a political gadfly and former defence
minister, the SP (backed by lower castes, but not the lowest) might
then return the favour by allying with Congress at a national level. A
tempting cabinet post in Delhi would sweeten the deal. It would give
the government of the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, desperately
needed legislative clout, and fresh sway over some troublesome allies.
Just possibly, it might cause some long-stalled policy reforms to
If that sounds optimistic, consider that at least one political
figure, not in Congress, expects the party to spring an even greater
surprise in UP. On this analysis, Mr Gandhi's dogged campaigning,
especially among young, first-time voters, will win the party a
notably higher share of votes than before. In that event, calls will
only grow for Mr Gandhi to take on a bigger job, such as Mr Singh's.
Much is uncertain. The main national opposition, the Bharatiya Janata
Party (BJP), seems to be making little impact. Its member of
parliament in Gorakhpur, Yogi Adityanath, a surly man in woolly hat
and saffron robes, prefers to talk about the desperation of his own
party (for accepting a corrupt defector from Ms Mayawati's camp)
rather than bash his opponents.
Nor is it clear how far Ms Mayawati's star has fallen since her clear
victory in 2007. Educated, high-caste types relish her setbacks. The
Electoral Commission told her to shroud many of the statues of
elephants (her party symbol) and of herself that dot the state. On the
eve of the polls, she sacked several ministers as officials exposed a
shameful $1.2 billion scandal in a rural health scheme. Tens of
millions of people remain stuck in a sink of feudalism, repression and
She can point to some gains, nonetheless. Her biographer, Ajoy Bose,
says that dalits, whom he suggests are "prone to totemism", feel their
dignity lifted by the many statues of dalit symbols. Violent crime and
communal tension are down sharply since the early 2000s, when hoodlums
of the then-ruling Samajwadi Party took over police stations. A man
from western UP, now working in Delhi, says Ms Mayawati has brought
electricity to his village and has done more than anyone for the
"depressed and suppressed".
The state economy has also done pretty well, growing by some 7% a year
recently, roughly India's average (though gains per person lag
behind). Public finances are improving, and Ms Mayawati has overseen
the building of 200,000 homes for the poor, free bicycles for
schoolgirls, extra power stations and the construction of India's
Formula 1 racetrack.
Though the chief minister may have lost sway among brahmins, she can
still probably expect loyalty from her core dalit backers, a fifth of
the state. That is despite efforts by Mr Gandhi, who likes to be seen
eating with the low-caste and who tries to break off sub-castes among
them with targeted promises—for example, by offering to set up special
institutes for boatmen, fishermen and carpenters.
Uttar Pradesh is only one of five states—though by far the
biggest—holding assembly elections. Turnout of over 80% was reported
as Manipur (in the north-east) and Punjab and Uttarakhand (both in the
north) voted early this week. It suggests Indians are far from tired
of electoral democracy, despite some excited commentary in the
aftermath of street protests last year against corruption. Tiny Goa
will also vote on March 3rd, with all results due on March 6th.
These results in turn will feed other big elections. In April a new
clutch of 58 members of the upper house of the national parliament,
the Rajya Sabha, will be elected (by the state assemblies). Then in
July, both houses of parliament, plus all the state assemblies, must
elect someone as India's president, with a five-year term.
Some speculate that Mr Singh might also step down as prime minister
before long, leaving the way clear for a younger leader to battle for
Congress as campaigning looms for the next general election, in 2014.
Just maybe, somewhere between all the campaigning, there will be time
for some governing too.
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