India Today - - COVER STORY -

Akhilesh take sole credit for these projects. What had be­gun as a fight for con­trol be­tween un­cle and nephew has now be­come an ego clash be­tween fa­ther and son. How much the SP will link these devel­op­ment projects with their re­elec­tion cam­paign, and who will get recog­ni­tion for them, is now an open ques­tion. This dis­tinc­tion be­tween leader and chief min­is­ter has now be­come even more con­fus­ing, be­cause a di­min­ished Akhilesh con­tin­ues to be the party’s can­di­date for the job. With no new path­breaking idea to fall back on, it is hard to see how the SP will at­tract vot­ers from out­side its tra­di­tional fold—back­ward castes and Mus­lims. In­deed, even these are at risk as both these vote­banks are be­ing wooed by sev­eral oth­ers in the fray.

The Congress is try­ing to at­tract Mus­lims by em­ploy­ing the message that it is the only party in the run­ning that is capable of tak­ing on the pro­Hin­dutva BJP on the na­tional stage. The BSP, on the other hand, is hop­ing for a shift in Mus­lim votes by pro­ject­ing it­self as the only party capable of win­ning enough seats to stop the BJP from storm­ing to power in UP. The BJP it­self is try­ing to win over a sec­tion of the back­ward­caste vot­ers by in­vok­ing a Hindu coali­tion sim­i­lar to the one it had man­aged to fash­ion for the 2014 Lok Sabha elec­tion, when it won a stag­ger­ing 71 out of 80 seats in the state.

Mu­layam be­lieves that Akhilesh’s ploy to over­whelm these caste com­pli­ca­tions with the ubiq­ui­tous prom­ise of devel­op­ment for all was never go­ing to work. His strat­egy, with which Shiv­pal and Amar Singh are in sync, is to am­plify these di­vi­sions rather than to sup­press them—to ap­peal to vot­ers from back­ward castes on the grounds that they are one of them, and to Mus­lim vot­ers on the grounds that the SP is the only party com­mit­ted to sav­ing them from the BJP’s Hin­dutva agenda. As ev­i­dence of this, it is telling the com­mu­nity that Mayawati had aligned with the BJP in the past, and could do it again if it is po­lit­i­cally ex­pe­di­ent. Mu­layam is also hop­ing that hav­ing Amar Singh in the fold will pull some Thakur votes away from the BJP to his own party.

Bank­ing on so­cial en­gi­neer­ing alone, given Ut­tar Pradesh’s con­vo­luted poll arith­metic, is a dan­ger­ous game to play at the best of times. The caste di­vi­sions are so in­tri­cate, and the num­bers game so tight, that a small shift ei­ther way can change a party’s for­tunes. In 2012, when the SP surged to power with 224 of the 403 seats, its vote share was 29 per cent com­pared with the in­cum­bent Mayawati’s 26 per cent. The BJP and Congress had man­aged to win just 15 and 12 per cent votes, re­spec­tively. But the scene changed dra­mat­i­cally in 2014, when the Modi wave got the BJP 43 per cent of the votes, while re­duc­ing the rul­ing SP to 22 per cent. The BSP, which got al­most 20 per cent of the pop­u­lar vote, could not even open its ac­count. Add anti­in­cum­bency to the mix and the equa­tion gets even more com­pli­cated.

Whether Akhilesh’s devel­op­ment mantra would have been enough to win the elec­tion is dif­fi­cult to say, but at the very least, it of­fered the party a par­al­lel agenda. Un­der no cir­cum­stances could it have ended up hurt­ing the SP’s chances. At a time when things were look­ing com­fort­able in the run­up to the polls, the party has un­wit­tingly made the game a lit­tle more in­ter­est­ing—not just for it­self but for the oth­ers as well.

Fol­low the writer on Twit­ter @_ku­nal_prad­han


Akhilesh Ya­dav at the Luc­know in­ter­na­tional cricket sta­dium

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