Amid the sound and fury of the hype around the BJP in UP comes this interesting bit of news. Local authorities in Lucknow and NOIDA have ordered Mayawati’s Ambedkar parks to be spruced up.
For the past several days now, workers have been busy washing and polishing statues of Dalit icons, repairing chipped ones, trimming trees and shrubs, and generally erasing all signs of neglect to which these parks were condemned after the Samajwadi Party came to power five years ago.
The contractors have been given a tight deadline to finish the facelift: 10 March, the day before the UP assembly poll results are declared.
Have the UP Babus Sensed the Direction of Wind?
Is this a straw in the wind? Has the UP bureaucracy sensed something the media and pollsters have missed in the noise over the polarising kabristan vs shamshan ghat discourse – the BJP’s great OBC-EBC game and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s last burst roadshows in Varanasi? Or are bureaucrats in Lucknow and NOIDA simply doing what babudom does best – take no chances just in case Mayawati upturns all predictions to zoom ahead of her rivals?
Even if officials are simply playing safe, they are probably wiser than the pundits who have rushed to call the elections in favour of the BJP before the last vote has been cast. Unlike some of us, who make snap judgements based on straw polls conducted at tea shops and dhabas along highways, bureaucrats know from long years of experience that nothing should be taken for granted in a state, where a complex caste and community matrix has managed to throw up a surprise in every election since the Congress ceased to be the dominant pole of UP politics.
Babus usually have their ear to the ground, if only for sheer survival. A regime change can hit them hard as new favourites replace old ones, and scores are settled for real and imagined slights. It is significant, therefore, that they have not ruled Mayawati out of the ‘Battle for UP 2017’. Although she barely figures in opinion polls – media reports and even satta bazaar rates – the bureaucracy clearly believes that she is very much in the race, and has decided to hedge its bets.
Ignoring the Dark Horse
Mayawati is undoubtedly the dark horse in this election. The BJP may appear to be surging ahead on a Modi juggernaut that claims to have overtaken the SP-Congress alliance pedalling furiously on Akhilesh’s cycle, but the elephant is plodding along silently without much fanfare, but in dogged pursuit of its opponents.
Some reports even predict that it may pull ahead in the finishing laps to pull off a surprise. Certainly, those who have mapped elections in UP at ground level, warn that we can only ignore the BSP at our own peril. But ignore we have.
In fact, Mayawati has been missing from the UP narrative, which has, almost entirely, been dominated by Akhilesh Yadav and Narendra Modi. Conversations in roadside tea shops and dhabas revolved largely around Akhilesh’s youthful appeal or Modi’s personal charisma. Mayawati was mentioned mostly as an afterthought.
Also Read: Inside Mayawati’s Quest to Unite UP’s Dalits
Core Strengths of Behenji
It is unfortunate that in the Akhilesh versus Modi paradigm that has been sought to be created, Mayawati’s core strengths in this election have been overlooked. Consider these.
1. First to Announce Name of Candidates
She was the first off the block with her candidates list and campaign.
While Akhilesh was caught up in working out the details of his alliance with the Congress, and the BJP was busy dousing protests over ticket distribution, Mayawati had already started her rallies and fanned out her coordinators and activists for ground-level campaigning.
In contrast to her opponents, her campaign was well-oiled and smooth, without hiccups like rebel candidates and angry workers. Both the SP and the BJP continue to be dogged by these problems. Akhilesh is fighting a silent battle against an uncle who is determined to sabotage him, while the BJP is struggling with sullen workers and rebels, who have refused to withdraw from the fray.
2. Wooing the Pasis
Having suffered a depletion of Dalit votes, both in the 2012 assembly election and the 2014 Lok Sabha poll, this time, Mayawati worked hard to consolidate as many Dalit communities as she could. While the Jatavs, who are roughly 14-16 percent of UP’s SC population, remain her core base, she has succeeded in wooing another influential and important community, the Pasis, for this election.
Although the Pasis and Jatavs are traditional rivals, Rohith Vemula’s suicide and the thrashing of Dalits in BJP-ruled Gujarat seem to have brought them together in a show of Dalit solidarity. At a Mayawati rally on the outskirts of Allahabad, a Pasi organiser did the unthinkable by referring to her as “ hamari Behenji’’.
Only Jatavs were known to voice this sense of ownership. It is quite conceivable that with Jatavs and Pasis solidly behind her, Mayawati could bag as much as 90-95 percent of the state’s 22 percent Dalit vote. This gives her a huge starting advantage as Dalits are present in large numbers in every constituency.
3. Muslims Drifting Towards the BSP
While the BJP is hoping that with its efforts at polarising, the electorate will consolidate the Hindu vote in its favour, the saffron campaign is only serving to spook Muslims. If Muslim votes were divided in the first two phases before the BJP lit the polarisation fires, since then, they have moved in a sweep towards the BSP.
This becomes important in the last three phases in eastern UP where Muslims are present in large numbers. A Dalit-Muslim combination is a winning one in many constituencies here as the BJP has discovered, the OBC groups have too many contradictions among themselves to unite in one bloc as Hindus.
4. Strategic Alliance
Mayawati has shown amazing flexibility, tweaking her strategy to keep pace with a fast changing scenario. She went out of her way to accommodate rebel leaders from SP like Ambika Chaudhary and Narad Rai, giving them tickets to fight from their traditional seats in eastern UP.
She also allowed Mau don Mukhtar Ansari to merge his QED party with the BSP to beef up her Muslim support in the last two phases where Ansari has considerable influence. The Ansari move is unusual as she is not the one to play a political gambit like this. She has clearly decided to go for broke.
There is NO Wave in UP
The 2017 election in UP is a unique one. Unlike the last two assembly polls and the 2014 Lok Sabha election, there is no wave in any party’s favour, despite claims to the contrary. In fact, the narrative kept shifting as the election moved from west to east. It began with advantage Akhilesh, moved to advantage BJP, and now before the final lap, the BSP has started figuring in the discourse.
With Modi treating his three-day campaign in Varanasi like slog overs in which he must score sixes and fours to win, the BJP may well prove pollsters and media pundits correct. But it may be wise to also look at the elephant trudging alongside, silently but surely. This is an election in which constituency-wise arithmetic will decide the winner. It’s impossible to get the maths right. The race in UP is still wide open.
(The writer is a Delhi-based senior journalist. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)