UP Assembly elections: a vote for change

It was a historic Ides of March in Uttar Pradesh (UP), when Akhilesh Yadav of Samajwadi Party was sworn in as CM.

Published: 18th March 2012 11:49 PM  |   Last Updated: 16th May 2012 06:38 PM   |  A+A-

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It was a historic Ides of March in Uttar Pradesh (UP), when Akhilesh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party (SP) was sworn in as the chief minister. At 38, he is the youngest ever CM of UP. His rival Mayawati, whose Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) took a drubbing, was 39 when she became the chief minister of UP in 1995. Akhilesh steered the SP to a 224/ 403 seats victory in UP — a clear majority for the party, when experts were predicting a hung poll. Akhilesh was the architect of a victory not seen in two decades in UP.

Why are UP Polls Important?

UP elections are the most keenly followed state elections in the country, and with good reason. The number of Lok Sabha seats each state gets is determined by the size and population of each state. With a population of 19,95, 81,477 (as per 2011 census), Uttar Pradesh is India’s most populous state. Geographically, it accounts for 9 per cent of India. UP has 80 MPs in the Lok Sabha and 30 Rajya Sabha MPs. Eight of the 14 Indian prime ministers have contested from UP.

Hindus constitute a little over 77 per cent and Muslims over 21 per cent of UP’s population.

The Seven-phase Poll    

Polling for the 403 seats in the UP Assembly was announced by the Election Commission in the last week of December 2011. Staggered over seven phases, the poll was held between February 8 and March 3, 2012. Results were announced on March 6. A total of 223 parties contested the elections — in 2007, 131 parties locked horns — but only 11 parties won seats this year.

Tense Match

Top brass of the ruling BSP, Congress, BJP and SP knew this election was going to be like an Indo-Pakistan cricket match. Mayawati, who came to power in 2007 with a massive mandate of 206 seats, was the first UP chief minister to complete a five-year term and was confident of a huge victory. Rahul Gandhi took on UP as a mission to usher in a Congress Raj. For the BJP, the election marked a shift — it went into UP without the Vajpayee or Advani calling card. For the SP, it was a question of reasserting itself after a dismal phase that began in 2007.

The Son Rise

The elections belonged to Akhilesh, son of former wrestler-turned-teacher-turned-chief minister Mulayam Singh Yadav. The young man singlehandedly rewrote the fate of the party.  Images of him riding a bicycle, clad in a white kurta, sporting a red cap and holding a cell phone catapulted him as the  new poster boy of politics. None of the other parties managed even 100 seats, including the BSP.

Dynastic Politics & Empowering the Youth

Crowning the victory, was Mulayam Singh Yadav’s decision to pass the baton to GenNext, as symbolised by Akilesh. India ranks high in the world as a country governed by ageing leaders. In February 2011, The Economist said most democracies had youthful leaders, but India and Italy were bucking the trend. While the median age of its population was in the mid-20s that of its leaders was almost 80.

Sons and daughters of political leaders regularly enter politics, but are often given a ministerial berth or a party post. Akhilesh is the exception.

Akhilesh, who studied engineering in Mysore, was groomed for a political career. Given the task of unseating the BSP and making the SP emerge victorious, he pitted himself against Rahul Gandhi. For the 41- year-old Rahul , the UP elections were a litmus test. For these reasons and more, the UP polls became one of the toughest battles of the ballots from the word go.

Akhilesh Yadav vs Rahul Gandhi

Although Rahul started his campaign in November 2011 in UP, targeting the Mayawati government, for Akhilesh the battle lines were drawn much earlier. In fact his work started in 2009, when his wife Dimple lost the Firozabad by-election to Congress candidate Raj Babbar, a former SP member. Akhilesh had vacated the Firozabad seat only five months earlier, and the party assumed that victory was a foregone conclusion. But Rahul mounted a strong campaign against them. Akhilesh had reportedly vowed to get even with Rahul by drubbing the Congress party.

In November 2011, Akhilesh decided to go all out. He set off on a Kranti rath yatra — but initially, it was not a crowd-puller. Rahul Gandhi, who addressed 211 rallies, was widely covered by the media.

Akhilesh’s Strategy

Undeterred, Akhilesh rode the cycle (his party’s symbol) into the heart of UP. He often made unscheduled stops and interacted with the common man, and soon his rallies too began attracting crowds. The young politician, nick-named Tipu Sultan, took some tough decisions. He promised to come down heavily on ‘goondas’ (the earlier SP regime saw a breakdown of law and order). He kept out Kalyan Singh, Amar Singh and other dubious ‘friends’ from the past. He chose candidates with care, unmindful if his decisions hurt party seniors. With freebies becoming a trend in all elections, he too offered free laptops to school students — although three years ago the party stated it was against computers. Akhilesh also wooed farmers by promising to waive loans. The masterstroke was the offer of 18 per cent reservation for Muslims. In a state where Muslim votes can tilt the balance in 140 of the 403 constituencies, this move was a decisive factor in getting caste equations right.

BSP, BJP and Congress

Incumbent chief minister Mayawati, adept at Dalit equations, had come to power in 2007 riding a wave of popularity, with 206 seats. Ahead of the polls, Mayawati said she would return victorious. “Look at the crowds in my rallies,” she said. But she was going to polls against the backdrop of a slew of corruption charges against her and her government. When two government medical officers were found murdered in broad daylight, a year before polls, other political parties said it was a sign of a breakdown of law and order.

Maya was also accused of self-aggrandisement — she erected a number of memorials to Dalit leaders and lined the way to them with life-size statues of elephants (the BSP’s symbol).

The BJP fielded Uma Bharti — she won (from Charkhari) — but the party lacked a charismatic figure to match Akhilesh and Rahul.

Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi was tipped to campaign in the state, but he stayed away. And the BJP, which had once been the ruling party in UP, won only 47 seats — four down from the 51 seats it had won in 2007.

The Congress went all out against Mayawati, and Rahul Gandhi spent 48 days covering huge swathes of the state. However, the party’s choice of candidates was poor — mainly rebels or rejects form other parties. Another poor strategy was the announcement by Congress that it would not extend support to the SP if it failed to get a majority to form the government, and that President’s rule would be imposed. Observers say that UP-ites, already tired of Mayawati’s apparent self-absorption, decided to vote for the SP.

Whatever the reason, the Rahul magic failed. His sister Priyanka’s visits too became futile. Congress lost all the seats in Rae Bareilly, Sonia Gandhi’s Lok Sabha constituency, and fared poorly in Amethi (Rahul’s own Lok Sabha constituency).

The Mandate and Challenges Ahead

Anti-incumbency and the Akhilesh magic seem to have given the SP a huge mandate. However, Akhilesh has to keep his promise of ‘cleansing his party of goondaism’ pronto.

Unfortunately for him, SP partymen reportedly went on a rampage when results were announced, and their candidates trailed. On March 15, at Akhilesh’s swearing-in, SP cadre climbed on the platform and became unmanageable. Another challenge he faces is to come down hard on crime and corruption. Akhilesh’s newly formed government has 19 cabinet ministers and 29 ministers of state. This includes Raghuraj Pratap Singh, also known as Raja Bhaiyya, and 28 other ministers who have a tainted record. The question is: Can Akhilesh keep his promises?

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