Thursday, February 23, 2012

[ZESTCaste] Star cast vies for popular choice award in UP

Star cast vies for popular choice award in UP
Arindam Sen Gupta, TNN | Feb 23, 2012, 04.29AM IST

Rahul is a distinct presence in UP polls. Apart from the fact that
he's a likely PM, young, good looking, and scorching UP with his
campaign blitz, he's invariably a subject of discussion and ridicule
at every BSP, BJP and SP meeting .

UP is in the midst of a democratic churn and will vote in the fifth
phase today. Arindam Sen Gupta captures the colours of the pollscape
as he scours the countryside taking a ringside view of the dramatis
personae hard selling dreams.

Akhilesh Yadav: The inheritor

One Yuvraj has hogged the media attention, the other oozes easy
confidence. Akhilesh Yadav appears disconcertingly like what his
father, Mulayam Singh Yadav, looked like 30-35 years ago. The same
nose, eyes, high cheek bones and smile. When we met him late at night,
he had done a dozen meetings and was still happy to talk - about the
BSP, the Congress and the SP's "impending victory" . How many seats?
"At least 207 seats (the majority mark is 202)," he said with a grin
broad enough to indicate he isn't completely serious.

Next morning we saw him in action at Salon, 40 km south of Lucknow. He
reached the qasba in erstwhile Amethi district (now a mouthful
Chhatrapati Sahuji Maharaj district) at 12.10pm, 10 minutes late, his
chopper raising a storm of dust and cheers from around 15,000 people.
The speaker before him was comparing the two 'yuvrajs' : "One yuvraj
(Rahul) has a cup of tea and jalebi with villagers. The media talks
about it for a month. Our yuvraj eats and stays with us. No one writes
about it." It's difficult to deny the charge.

Akhilesh's message was direct. If the SP wins, "false cases" against
the poor would be withdrawn; culprits in the NRHM scam punished;
farmer loans up to Rs 50,000 waived, free irrigation would be
provided, cycles would be cheaper, computer tablets too, and education
to girls would be free. Salon would move back from Chhatrapati Sahuji
Maharaj to Rae Bareli district. This drew the loudest cheer, must be a
big local issue.

The next morning, we met Mulayam, who too smiled. He smelt power, he
said, on being asked which way this election was going. Really,
despite people still recalling UP's lawlessness when he was the CM?
"Bogus," said Mulayam, "since they had nothing to attack my government
with, they concocted this thing about goonda raaj." Akhilesh differed.
He said the "image" must be corrected.

Over the next four days, we went from Lucknow, Rae Bareli, Kanpur, to
Urai and Jhansi, travelling around 500 km in central UP's Awadh region
and then to poverty-stricken Bundelkhand down south. Increasingly , it
became clear that local issues were likely to play a big role in this
election. Unless, the reality is very different in east and west UP
and Rohilkhand , areas we didn't visit.

There didn't seem to be a pan-state issue , barring, if you will,
Rahul Gandhi, who is seen as earnest. The goodwill for him doesn't
necessarily travel to his candidates . Rather, Rahul and Priyanka
appear to be marketing products (Congress candidates) in whom they
themselves don't have faith.

Corruption agitates people, but no party is seen as taint-free .
Hence, there isn't a clear political beneficiary of this. You can
sense at times an anti-incumbency sentiment against the BSP, but at
other times, enthusiastic support for it. It would be risky to imagine
a BSP meltdown. Support for SP is more vocal, perhaps more numerous,
but given that the BSP's lower-caste voters are usually subdued in
front of city journalists, it might be a folly to conclude that the SP
will romp home. It does appear to have an edge. But just an edge.

Dynamo called Priyanka

Priyanka Gandhi was campaigning 40 km away, in Rae Bareli. She is a
bundle of energy. She sets out at 10am and returns to the guest house
12 hours later. The day we saw her addressing a nukkad sabha
(street-corner meeting ) in Rae Bareli town, Priyanka had done 32
street-corner meetings/ jan-samparks , which mean whistle-stops to
shake hands, wave at supporters and speak a few lines. Nukkad sabhas
are 10-minute addresses to small gatherings. The schedule is
gruelling-no rest, no lunch break. You wonder what magic potion
energizes politicians during elections.

To say Priyanka is a "natural" is to repeat a cliche . She isn't awed
by crowds, doesn't stumble on her lines or appear uneasy in the bustle
of jostling humanity . She draws energy from crowds. She looks
radiantly happy, laughs easily, tackles over-enthusiastic workers,
breaks the security cordon to shake hands and impart advice. She
doesn't play the role; she seems to have been born into it.

Her motorcade drew into the bazaar an hour late. The crowd was still
there. Priyanka was up on the front seat window of her SUV, waving at
people, beaming like a victor. She apologized for the delay and got
down to business. She exhorted people to change the rules of local
politics: "You shouldn't be scared of the MLAs. They should be scared
of you. If they don't perform, boot them out." The speech was long on
gyan, short on what her party/candidate stood for. But people
listened, despite the swarm of dusk-time mosquitoes that came out
looking for dinner.

It isn't a cakewalk for the Congress in Rae Bareli, though. The seat
in which the town falls, seems to be going to Peace Party's Akhilesh
Singh, the sitting MLA. "He's one of us," said a dalit at Kallupura ,
a low-income district on the town's fringes. Elsewhere, too, it's a
tough ask for the party: It's said Congress MLAs have put up a dismal
show in the last five years. The estimate is that the party might win
three of the seven Rae Bareli seats and perhaps none in Sultanpur.

In the Congress, there's a growing sense of realism. You can sense it
in its talk. It's no longer talking as much of a jump in the number of
seats from the 22 it won last time as it is about an increase in vote
share. Last time, it got 9%; this time it will be happy with 14-15 %.
"Only when you reach 19-20 % does the vote share increase begin to
show up as higher number of seats. This will happen in the LS
election," explained a party neta.

Maya mystique

Kallupura is an unlikely colony. Dalits , Kurmis, Kayasthas, and
Brahmins live here side by side. They have pucca houses, but different
stories. A dalit widow stood before her two-storied house on land that
seemed less than 50 sq yards. "They've put us at the amiri rekha
because of this wretched house my husband-a cobbler in the chowk
area-built ," she complained. "We no longer get subsidized food,
although we've very little income now that he's dead."

Anil Verma, a Kurmi, lives in a bylane. He's a goldsmith. Business, he
said, was good. His wife Vidya said the kids go to a private
English-medium school. Some years back, goons beat up and robbed Anil.
"It's safer now, thanks to Behenji. I know the boys who threatened us.
There was a crackdown on them. They have moved out and some are doing
honest work now," she said. The Vermas will vote for BSP and the dalit
widow's family for Peace Party's Akhilesh Singh.

Such political inversion isn't the norm. Most dalits are solidly
behind Behenji . The day after we saw Mayawati's mammoth meeting in
Kanpur on Friday, some dalits in Erich, Jhansi district, explained
their support for Maya: "Our daily wages have gone up from Rs 50-60 a
day to Rs 120 in the last five years (possibly an impact of NREGA but
the credit went to Behenji ). Our streets are paved. We've electricity
. The BSP is good for us." A yadav standing next to them said: "That's
why we want Mulayam. If we pay them Rs 120 a day, our crop must fetch
a higher price. How else will it work?"

The reasoning is consistent both ways. The fault line lies in group
interests which often overlap with caste interests. The interesting
thing about the Erich chat was there was no apparent rancour between
the dalits and yadavs. The dalits had come from a Maya meeting in
Jhansi and were waiting to hitch a ride on a tractor to their village.
The yadav had come from an Akhilesh Yadav rally in Gusarai and was
similarly waiting for a ride back home.

Mayawati's Kanpur meeting was the biggest we saw in UP: Over 60,000-70
,000 people, intense, determined, enthusiastic , committed, different
from the crowds at the Congress or BJP or SP meetings. Maya doesn't
address too many rallies - two or three a day, one in a district ,
unlike Akhilesh or Rahul. The crowd gathers from different parts of
the district for Maya.

Her speech was a boring monotone. It's said all her addresses are
around 40-minutes long, read out from sheets. It was heard in rapt
attention. The content is lucid: that the SP, BJP and Congress will
trick dalits and other lower-caste groups of the gains they've made
(like with a Muslim quota within the OBC quota); how some of these
elements had infiltrated the BSP and given it a bad name (they've been
weeded out); and what she'll do in the next five years. In between,
there are barbs for Rahul, the BJP, SP and the Centre - for dragging
its feet over UP's fourway division which, she said, would give more
power to people.

"Chalega hanthi, udegi dhool/Na rahega cycle, na rahegi phool,"
shouted the crowd. (BSP's elephant will raise dust, drowning out SP's
cycle and BJP's lotus.) It's not a new slogan which possibly explains
why Congress's 'hand' doesn't figure in it. Speech over, Mayawati
greets journalists, gets into a car for the helicopter 100 metres away
in a large fencedoff field. Along the fence and on rooftops, people
had collected, waving at her. She got out of her car near the chopper,
waved back, and climbed on to the helicopter. Slogans ring out again.
A BSP worker taunts us: "Have you seen such support for any leader?
But you will write about Rahul Gandhi, not her."

Reckoning Rahul

We reached Rahul's meeting at Bhognipur in Kanpur Dehat on Saturday
just as his helicopter was landing, raising a churn of dried leaves,
polythene scraps and dust. He was an hour late, apparently because of
a meeting with journalists in Delhi that lasted two hours instead of
one. The beard was gone. Rahul was shaven clean, energetic , waving at
the crowd, a spring in his step. He briskly climbed the ramp leading
to the stage. "Rahul Gandhi zindabad," shouted party workers.

Rahul is a distinct presence in these polls. Apart from the fact that
he's a likely PM, young, good looking, and scorching UP with his
campaign blitz, he's invariably a subject of discussion and ridicule
at every BSP, BJP and SP meeting . The opposition attacks have only
added to the Brand Rahul buzz. Everyone we met had a view on him, good
or bad, but never indifferent. That's probably why a crowd of
20,000-25 ,000 waited for him at Bhognipur , a crowd possibly larger
than what we saw for Sonia the next day in Jhansi.

Rahul's pitch was for a higher morality and accountability in
politics. He attacked the SP, BSP and BJP - parties that have been in
government in UP for the last 22 years - for doing nothing for people.
"You've the same problems, don't you? No water, electricity, school or
hospital," he asked. "Your brothers are still migrating to Bombay and
Delhi for work, right? I want to change this. I want to make UP
India's best state. They say I'm being theatrical when I talk to you,
eat with you, stay with you. I promise to continue this drama."

There's fluency in his speech, practised pauses, rhetorical questions,
sarcastic references to opponents - the young man has worked hard on
his oratory. This carries the crowd along as he speaks. But you wonder
how long the impact would last. Won't people see the contradiction
between his promise of political morality and the tainted Congress-led
UPA government at the centre? Won't that Rahul's team in UP isn't
exactly lily white or has an edifying record?

Frayed lotus

The BJP says more or less the same about Rahul's campaign. That
despite his enormous effort, it isn't washing. People realize Rahul
won't stay in UP. The lot he'll leave behind are pathetic. Therefore,
the disaffected voters-mostly upper casteswill vote the BJP. Rajnath
Singh took time off from a nukkad sabha to talk to us. Is Babulal
Kushwaha's induction hurting the party? "Not really ," said Rajnath.
"People think corruption of Rs 5 crore, 10 crore or 100 crore isn't
big. It can be done by ministers without the CM getting to know. But a
scam worth thousands of crores like 2G is different."

It's another matter the 2G scandal is rarely discussed publicly. The
only reference we heard was an imaginative description of it by
Akhilesh Yadav at Salon: "Hawa mein theka kar ke bech diya" (They sold
off contracts in thin air.) It's a moot point whether smaller scams,
the ones Rajnath Singh spoke about, will be ignored. The thumb rule is
if corruption hurts, it'll agitate people, never mind its size.

The BJP's suave and articulate Arun Jaitley was in town. He said
Congress's support was scattered, organization weak. This wouldn't
help the party. "This election would've been different had the two
national parties, BJP and Congress, stuck to the development plank.
But Congress spoilt it by bringing in Muslim quota and going back to
caste and community politics . We were forced to react," he said. He
was sure BJP would gain the most from the voter disillusionment with

Neither Rahul nor Sonia had referred to Muslim quota in their
speeches. But the message has been amplified by Salman Khurshid and
Beni Prasad Verma for it to be talked about. Some Muslim students at
Derapur, in Sikandra constituency, said they would vote Congress .
"The job quota will help us," said 20-year-old Mohd Aamir. A straw
poll at the Derapur haat (market), however, indicated that the SP was
ahead, followed by the BSP.

Sonia's speech in Jhansi was combative : "When you were in the grips
of a drought, when people weren't getting enough to eat, Rahul wrested
a Rs 7,000-crore package for you in Bundelkhand. Most of that money
hasn't reached you. There's theft even in NREGA, the scheme for the
poorest. Neither the BSP nor SP cares for you. You must teach them a
lessponsive . Sonia waved and left. As the cheers grew louder, a
Congress version of 'Jai Ho' began to blare from loudspeakers , and
some young supporters broke out in a dance.


Despite EC's crackdown on poll expenditure, cutting the colour out of
elections, the carnival lives. The dancing boys in Jhansi, animated
dalits at Erich, discussions at Kallupura, packed campaign meetings,
indicate a vibrant engagement with the dance of democracy. It's
perhaps not so in-yourface, but it's intense. People see elections as
a rightful process to wrest a greater share of political power. That,
they feel, would have a positive impact on the lives (unlike the
chatterati of south Mumbai). But where is it all leading to in UP?

Four days, 500 km later, it didn't seem much clearer than what it
looked when the journey started. But still some strong impressions: No
party seems to be headed for majority (this much was, in any case, the
given wisdom); even the party placed the strongest, the SP, could get
stuck at 150-155 seats, a good 50 seats short; BSP doesn't seem a
washout-far from it, the distance between the cycle and the elephant
may not be more than 10-20 seats. BJP and Congress could get stuck at
50. What does that add up to?

A truly hung house.

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