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Perspective

UP for a makeover

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Long after the din has subsided and the dust has settled, the 2012 Uttar Pradesh assembly polls will be remembered for the remarkable reaffirmation of democracy in a state with a turbulent history of caste and communal strife. A peaceful campaign, without even stray reports of intimidation or violence, and a surging voter turnout (it has soared by an average of 11 percentage points in each phase) are only part of the story. The rest unfolds in village lanes and tiny semi-urban street corners where the politics of hate seems to have been replaced by the energy of aspirations and voters assert their preferences with the confidence of a mature electorate.

In the shade of a banyan tree on the edge of a golden mustard field in full bloom somewhere in Sambhal (now known as Bhim Nagar), two moustachioed Yadav farmers explain why Mulayam Singh's Samajwadi Party must come back to power. One of them, Mahinder Singh, is the pradhan of his village, a prosperous-looking neighbourhood of his clansmen. The other, Saudan Singh, is a medium farmer.

Mahinder Singh waves at the metal road winding past his fields. "This road was built by Mulayam Singh when he was our MP. We saw so much development under him - schools, electricity, water. Now we don't get electricity for hours on end, " he complains.
Just then, a cyclist materialises and intervenes. He identifies himself as Sanjay. "I'm a Jatav, " he announces, thrusting his chest out. Was it a gesture of pride or defiance? The Yadavs look on as Sanjay talks. Life has been good to him in the past five years.

He owns four bighas of agricultural land, two buffaloes and a small shop in his village. "I make enough to live comfortably" he says. He adds, "We may have got more electricity under Mulayam but I'm going to vote for the BSP. It's a question of biradari (community ). We don't count for anything in other parties. "

Mahinder Singh nods. "Yes, this is vote bank politics, " he remarks understandingly. "It's a fight between the Yadavs and the Jatavs and we each have to support our caste. " He says it without rancour, as if the battle for hegemony between two dominant, upwardly mobile groups is the most natural thing in the world.

In the 2007 elections, the Jatavs won. What if the Yadavs win this time? Sanjay says it won't make a difference. "We are no longer scared. We have our own party and they have theirs. We can live with each other, " he maintains. And then, he gives a cheeky smile, lightly punches Mahinder Singh in the arm and clambers back on his cycle. "But put it down in writing. Mayawati will win again, " he grins as he pedals away.

Mahinder Singh looks annoyed but to his credit he keeps quiet. He knows that the proof of the pudding is in the eating. In a democracy, scores are better settled through the ballot than with sticks and stones. Yes, he has come a long way since the hey-day of goonda raj under Mulayam Singh when the guns and lathis of the Yadavs spread terror among the lower orders.

The conversation is a fascinating vignette of the changing socio-economic landscape of UP, particularly in its western belt. Here, the assertion of the Jatavs under Mayawati echoes the rise of the Yadavs when Mulayam first came to power in 1989. If they are learning to make space for each other, it's because democracy is proving to be an effective teacher. "People tell us: yeh haathi ke hain (they belong to the elephant), " says Imarti Devi with a smile that's sheepish and proud at the same time. Sitting outside her spanking new brick-and-mortar house in an Ambedkar Nagar in nearby Ujjali village, she admits that this time, "people are upset with the haathi" but it doesn't matter to her. She's going to vote for the elephant anyway because it's become her brand.

At a street corner several kilometres away, a group of Muslims discuss the prospects of the BSP, SP and Congress. "We have nothing to do with any party, " says Rafatullah. "We are only bothered about the candidate. We will vote for someone who is accessible and available to us at all times, not someone who only shows his face during elections. "

Surprisingly, the BJP is no longer a reference point for them. They are not looking for the candidate best placed to defeat the saffron party. They simply want an MLA who will work for them and help them realise their aspirations for a better life. "We want education and jobs, not emotional blackmail, " says Iqbal.

Their comments are telling. Sambhal has been the scene of several major communal riots and Hindu-Muslim tension simmers at all times. Only recently, political parties tried to whip up communal passions over the Mayawati government's decision to change the name of this tehsil, from Sambhal to Bhim Nagar. The BJP harked back to the puranas where it is written that Vishnu's tenth avatar, Kalki, will be born in Sambhal. The SP and the Congress played to Muslim sentiments which want the town to be named after a missionary responsible for the spread of Islam in the area. But for Rafatullah and Iqbal, the issue had no resonance.

A little distance away in Gajraula, Asif had no hesitation in sharing his perceptions with a group of BJP voters. An electrician by trade, he ventured to break into a conversation between Jitendra, an employee in a local finance company, and Sachin, a government official. "The cycle is doing well, " he says. "And the Peace Party is also making waves. " For the first time, Asif says proudly, Muslims have multiple choices. "It makes me feel good to be wooed like this, " he smiles. Sachin felt that the BJP was on the wrong track by trying to communalise the Muslim quota issue but said he would vote for the party anyway. "BJP MLAs have served the people the best, " he insists.

In constituency after constituency, voters hammered out the same message of burgeoning aspirations. The politics of patronage no longer satisfies them. They want elected representatives who are accountable and who deliver on their promises. Yes, caste is important but only because it imparts a sense of identity and empowerment and opens doors in the quest to get ahead.

If the battle for UP has ultimately narrowed down to a neck-and-neck race between Mayawati's BSP and Mulayam's SP, it's because both the Congress and the BJP seem to have little voter connect. The BJP remains trapped in a historical communal faultline and the Congress has virtually no presence on the ground. "There are no workers for the Congress, " says Zafrul Islam who works as a mechanic in Hasanpur. "What can Rahul Gandhi alone do?" A classic comment came from a dhaba owner on the highway to Agra. "The Congress is a new party in these parts, " he said. "It still has to prove itself. " Perhaps he was referring to its invisibility in over two decades of domination by the BJP, SP and BSP.

The UP conundrum is as puzzling to the residents as it is to visitors from outside. Whatever may be the verdict when the votes are counted on March 6, even if it is a fractured mandate from which no government emerges, an unmistakable sense of optimism about the future infuses the state after two years of steady 7-8 per cent growth. It cannot be said any longer that UP is slipping off the map.

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