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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 21 New Delhi May 11, 2019

Lok Sabha Elections in UP: A Sisyphean Task for Congress

Tuesday 14 May 2019

by D.K. Giri

In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was a king who was punished for his craftiness and was forced to roll a huge stone up a hill. The Indian National Congress seems to be in a similar position in this election, especially in Uttar Pradesh. Understandably, voters in this election would like a non-NDA government-led or supported by the largest Opposition party, the Congress. But, ironically, the Congress party is not rising to the people’s expectation. My study-visit to the Farrukhabad constituency where the Congress heavy-weight, Salman Khurshid, has locked horns with the BJP’s incumbent MP, Mukesh Rajput, and the gathbandhan candidate, Manoj Agarwal, confirms this premise.

We drove down from Delhi, only a six-hour drive, for about 450 kms, thanks to the excellent ‘Expressway’ built by the former Samajwadi Party Government. We talked to people as independent observers and freelance journalists. It took us sometime to comprehend the dialect of the locals and gain their confidence. Snacking and tea-drinking became handy for instant bonding.

Our first step was a tea-stall at Dhamdhama between Kaiganj and Samshabad. A couple of villagers were relaxing by chatting with the tea-stall owner. I asked a villager whose eyes met mine and who instantly smiled, “What is the election scene, brother?” He mumbled something that eluded my reception. Then, I ordered some tea and pakoras for six of us including me and my colleague that eased the atmosphere. My interviewee wheedled the tea-staller to respond to my general query. As if he has been doing this for sometime, the tea-owner said, “We would all vote for Modi.” I fired my second question in a split second, as I was perhaps expecting him to say gathbandhan. I asked, “Why? What has he done?” Without being rattled, quite calmly the guy said, “First of all, there will be no more terrorist attack; every household has a toilet, bank account, and gas cylinder.” He went on, “We could not dream of such things before.” He was also candid enough to say he does not have a new toilet, as he could not do the paper-work in time. I wonder if he was speaking under the influence of media propaganda, or stating the factual situation in his area. I asked the man, I had talked to first, “Brother, what is your caste?” He said, he would not tell me his caste, but then the next moment, he moved closer to me and whispered, “I am a ‘Saxena’, an OBC.”

We moved on our way to a meeting to be addressed by Salman Khurshid at Samshabad. Half-way to the venue, we stopped at a round-about in a small township called Farjau, another tea-stall, to gather some insights. We asked similar questions, but more particularly about Salman Khurshid. About nine people sitting around the ‘dhaba’ were unanimous in criticising Salman for paying little attention to development works in the constituency. They countered us by asking: “Can you find any development in Kaiganj, to which Salman Khurshid, his Governor-father, and President-grandfather belonged?” Salman’s is an illustrious family, but has not been of much good for the area.

On the gathbandhan, people were wary of goondaism under the SP Government. One could not even lodge a complaint then, if people fought, there was no one to help them compromise or reconcile. They were also unsure of Mayawati’s loyalty to any alliance. She is known for switching sides at the drop of a hat.

Our final stop was at Samshabad at some Nawab’s place—two huge worn-out, old havelis with a spacious ground in-between. The havelis reflect the old-glory of the Nawab, who has migrated to Lucknow, and his sons to Delhi. The Nawab extended to us an effusive welcome, when he learnt that we were from Delhi and friends of Salman Khurshid. He promptly introduced his two successful businessmen sons who made their father proud. The Nawab was eagerly searching for a speaker who could compare the programme and hold the crowd until Salman Khurshid came and spoke. Someone from the small crowd belched out the name of some Haji. He was said to be an articulate and spell-binding speaker. Later, we found out that, despite his oratorical skills, he was not a credible person. He switched sides one too many, and misguided people.

There were 50 odd people to listen to Salman. As he arrived in an entourage, the number swelled to perhaps 100 or a bit more. Salman Khurshid made a semi-intellectual speech for half-an-hour, became defensive about him not being much in the constituency, and partly unconvincingly explaining why the Congress was not a part of the grand-alliance in UP. In the process, he ended up attacking the gathbandhan candidate, and of course the BJP as well.

The impression we got by talking to people slightly afar the meeting was: “Salman Khurshid is a nice and capable man.” But he was in an uphill struggle in this election. If only the grand alliance included the Congress, if would have been a cake-walk for the non-BJP candidate.

A few discerning people gave us the caste arithmetic in this constituency: Rajputs are in a majority, followed by Dalits, then Muslims, Yadavs and the rest. If Salman could divide the Yadav votes and create confidence amongst the Muslims that he will win, then he may scrape through. One youngish guy Rizhwan said, “It is the Yadav and Muslim votes that would be the clincher.” They were also hinting at Shivpal Yadav making some dent in Yadav votes. Shivpal Yadav is the estranged uncle of Akhilesh Yadav who had formed his own party. Having been spurned by the SP-BSP gathbandhan, he was fielding candidates in as many constituencies as he could. Some people whispered that Shivpal was doing so at the behest of the BJP, to split the non-BJP votes.

My take from Farrukhabad, which may be extrapolated to the whole of UP and the rest of India, is that the Congress, outside the ‘gathbandhan’, may damage the non-NDA prospects. And for such an eventuality, it is the largest Opposition party, the Indian National Congress, that is to blame. As the biggest party, it should have been more accommodative and generous. Why could it not give a few seats to the BSP and SP in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh? Why did it not go with the AAP in Delhi, BJD in Odisha, TMC in West Bengal, TDP in Andhra and other smaller parties elsewhere? The Congress may be rebuilding the party, so it is not conceding ground to others, but is ending up building the BJP. The Congress strategy may be self-defeating as the Congress, or for that matter, democracy may not thrive if the BJP further tampers with the institutions and democratic processes. One cannot let a lion taste blood and then try to tame it.

Let it be said that the BJP is a Right-wing ideological party and such parties tend to be authoritarian, anti-democratic. The BJP under Narendra Modi has shown such tendencies as we saw the unsavoury and unnecessary internal wranglings in the major institutions of the country—the CBI, Supreme Court, and to a lesser extent, the Army. The government was run by a diarchy comprising the PM and BJP President. Even some of the vocal party MPs of the BJP have accused the government of over-centralisation of authority and the party of alienating the genuine party workers. The BJP may not change, and a second-term may be worse in terms of democratic behaviour. That is ominous. The Congress party perhaps smells and sees the portents, but their response smacked of lack of a meticulous strategy in carrying others on board. Hence they seem to be fighting a losing battle in UP and maybe in the entire country.

Dr D.K. Giri is the Director, Schumacher Centre, Delhi, which seeks primarily to contribute to revitalisation of rural India by training and the application of appropriate technology. Having done his MA and M. Phil from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi, he obtained his Ph.D from the University of Hull, England, where he was associated with the Centre for Developing Area Studies, and the Centre for European Union Studies. Dr Giri has done another Ph.D on the ’British Labour Party’, from the JNU, New Delhi. Having a brilliant academic record—first class distinctions and merit scholarships throughout his career—Dr Giri has taught in Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, and has been guest lecturer in the universities in India and abroad.

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