This is not the first time that Uttar Pradesh has upset the calculations of national politics. Both in 2014 and 2017, the state gave resounding, almost ‘abnormal’ mandates. UP voters made BJP look invincible. But the same electorate handed out a humiliating verdict on Tuesday. Suddenly, it appears BJP’s downward journey has begun.
UP’s ‘odd’ political behaviour is actually dialectical. It has roots in the unique socio-economic structure of the region and its history. But more of that later; first, let’s crack the mystery of how impregnable Hindutva fortresses collapsed in a single day.
There are two extremes here–one that sees a larger Modi-RSS gameplan of ‘losing battles to win wars’. In this, it is believed that Modi sacrificed Gorakhpur and Phulpur to either undercut Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and Deputy Chief Minister Keshav Prasad Maurya or to deceive the opposition with a sense of pyrrhic victory.
Still, the adventurous souls would say, that the bypoll victories were engineered to divert attention from EVM malfunction. And that a pattern of BJP losing by-elections and winning full-fledged assembly or Lok Sabha polls is becoming way too obvious.
While the EVM issue is genuine and requires a detailed explanation, more important perhaps, is to dispel the notion about Modi as the ‘master strategist’ of Gorakhpur and Phulpur.
However tempting, this notion needs to be rejected. While Modi would want to clip the wings of Yogi, he might not have wished the same for Keshav Prasad Maurya. Secondly, BJP would not risk settling of personal scores or political brinkmanship in the bypolls, the symbolic message of which impacts the BJP directly. After all, more than Yogi and Maurya, defeats in Gorakhpur and Phulpur imply defeat of Modi and the BJP. Ordinary voters here were voting as much against Modi’s policies as on local issues.
UP’s socio-economic structure is both its bane and boon. The Bengal type Zamindari system was never applied to the whole of UP. The area had its own, home-grown Talukedari system. But Pattidari-Biswadaari-Hissedaari vyavastha(system), a sort of ‘joint’ holding of land, remained the norm. This gave a communitarian, dynamic, non-static character to UP peasantry. It also created a political space where the ‘landlord’ was more like a chieftain, a custodian of common values, with a responsibility to pay taxes to the government on behalf of the community, but without exclusive rights over land.
The chieftain, therefore, enjoyed cultural-caste continuity with the peasants. He was ‘their’ man who dealt with the State, not an official who represented the State. Any narrative on UP is incomplete without the reference of 1857 mutiny and the reason why UP fought till the bitter end, almost village by village, lies in the ‘notion’ of common ownership of land. The East India Company’s Bengal Native Infantry soldiers, who triggered India’s first Independence war, were pattidari peasants, communitarian, ‘bhai-bandhus‘ in uniform. The Talukedars of Awadh who fought till the end, were acting under tremendous pressure from their own folks they represented.
‘Pressure from below’ is a stand-alone UP feature
If you compare 1993, the last time the SP and the BSP were together and 2018, when the two forces came together to defeat the BJP in a stunning verdict, there is a marked difference.
The 1993 alliance was stitched by Mulayam and Kanshiram from the top. The Dalit-OBC unity and slogans like ‘Hawa Men Ud Gaye Jai Shree Ram’, were generated from the top. In 2018, the pressure of subaltern forces to unite came from below.
Caught in 93′ mould, the BJP too took Mayawati’s support for Akhilesh lightly. It simply failed to read the ground situation. Modi and the RSS were unable to grasp the tremendous reaction, at the grassroots level, particularly among the poor, against Modi and his policies.
This time, the slogan Haathi-Lathi-786 signified the emergence of Dalit-OBC-Muslim alliance out of ordinary voting public, during the course of the campaign.
Tuesday’s results are being termed as the rejection of Adityanath factor. But, it was more than that. The BJP’s defeats in the two constituencies were a result of an impromptu reaction by the poor including minorities against the rightwing ideology, professed and propagated by Modi and his ideological mentor, the RSS.
Modi, the politician, had sensed the urge for a change among the downtrodden, especially their disgust against the nouveau riche, who shot to prominence in the state politics in the 1990s. Modi’s demonetisation was perhaps announced keeping UP in mind because it was here that the issue played out like a pin-striped class struggle, where the poor gleefully clapped at the discomfort that the note ban had caused to wealthy thekedaars, driving in Toyota Fortuners- expensive SUVs.
In 2017 UP assembly polls, Modi was able to create a new constituency of Hindu poor. In caste and class terms, this translated into a huge power block of Most Backward Castes, lower rung of OBCs, the middle class of the upper castes etc. This Hindu poor was assertive; it squeezed the Muslims out and indulged in mass religious hysteria.
The poor have always been at the center of UP politics. But Modi communalised the majority of the Hindu poor. Then he gave them the license to bash the ‘other’– the Muslims. Modi gave them Yogi–a mendicant-politician, capable of engaging the poor in mass religiosity.
Modi-Yogi gameplan was clear, to keep the Hindu poor, the youth and peasantry busy through small pageants so that the loot of resources, the political betrayals on loan-waivers, the drop in subsidies, the whittling down of the PDS system, acute distress of the farmer, unemployment, do not become issues of agitation.
But the ‘Hindu poor’ were not satisfied with ‘Kanwariya yatras’. ‘Cow protection’ degenerated into stray cattle ruining crops and fields of farmers. The swelling up of rural anger against the BJP and Modi could be seen in local body results during November-December 2017, in which BJP saw a downfall of 10% vote.
Analysts would be tempted to see BJP’s defeat as accruing through the sheer size of SP-BSP (Dalit+OBC) alliance. But, the leaders of this alliance were themselves shocked by its scale. They were simply taken aback by the assertion of their people!
Another argument being put forward is that how on earth the BJP could allow such massive defeats when they could potentially resort to EVM tampering. Critics wondered if the EVM tampering allegations had no basis afterall. Source code EVM/firmware tampering is fact, but you need either a certain threshold and margin level for the process to kick in. The beneficiary should be trailing by a wide margin, say 20,000 votes, for the ‘tampering’ or ‘stealing the votes of others’ to be effective. Unless the margin is significant, any tampering could be counter-productive. In Gorakhpur and Phulpur, the margin never became wide at least till the 25th or 28th round of counting.
What about 2019?
Well, it is obvious that mere stitching an alliance at the top will not serve the purpose. The bypoll verdict is clearly anti-communal and anti-government in nature. Behind Tuesday’s verdict lies subaltern anger, but, and this is crucial, the Samajwadi Party and the BSP do not have intellectuals or a programme that can offer an alternative to Modi’s socio-economic agenda. The ideology and the policy alternatives are with the Left forces. But, the masses in the crucial Hindi heartland are with the non-left forces, who’ve often been accused of suffering from nouveau riche syndrome.
Once upon a time, by espousing and practicing Left of centre and secular politics, the Congress had resolved this contradiction. Congress’ left-democratic politics in UP was singular, as it stood on a framework, not of atheism or western liberalism, but socio-religious pluralism, cultural syncretism (Ganga-Jamuni Tehzeeb) and a pro-justice, pro-poor plank based on the underlying unity of Sanatan Dharma and Islam. This was also the legacy of 1857 mutiny.
Will the Congress rise to the occasion? Or is Modi going to come up with a new weapon to once again polarise the ‘Hindu poor’ against the Muslims? Or is UP going to see the rise of new forces with a vision and ideology suited to the state’s current needs?
2019 cannot be fought on the old plank.
(Amaresh Misra a Lucknow-based social activist. Views expressed here are author’s own. Janta Ka Reporter doesn’t endorse them)