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On arrival at Patna Airport on Friday, the notice of prohibition in the State at the entrance of the baggage claim area was a stark reminder – not of the day of abstinence lying ahead, but the reports of the Gopalgunj hooch tragedy arrests that were in the morning papers. There have been more than 30 reported deaths by illicit liquor since declaration of prohibition in April. In the light of this news, Lalu Prasad Yadav’s advice to drink toddy did not sound appealing or amusing at all.
After a few initial misadventures that invited exemplary consequences (like some well known businessmen arrested from a leading hotel in town where they had checked in for a private tippling session) the city gentry has largely reconciled to the reality of a long dry spell at home. But, what seems to bother them more are these incidents, which they see as symptoms of underworld resurgence in the State, where law and order is on a visible slide with political killings, shootouts, kidnapping and rape making a rapid comeback.
Oddly, among the people I met, mostly from the business community coming from upcountry towns and the rural belt, one sensed more a spirit of sad surrender to their fate rather than angst on the Government or any political party. The spirit was one of “yeh toh hona hi tha” (it had to happen). They blamed the situation on circumstances, saying it was a product of an alliance of disparate ideologies with the sole purpose of keeping the BJP out of power. It is the same motivation that will keep JDU, RJD and Congress together till 2019 despite their inner conflicts and contradictions. No one I came across expected a disintegration of the Government even if it continued to under-deliver on governance.
How would that manifest in BJP’s prospects in 2019? Much would depend, of course, on how “Brand Modi” fares in the second half of his term. If his ratings continue to remain high, Biharis may be inclined to vote very differently from how they did in the Assembly election, overriding caste equations. That is when the role of local dons and warlords will become critical. With Nitish Kumar making no secret of his ambition to shift court from Pataliputra to Indraprastha, it is doubtful whether his administration can come down too heavily on them as they had done during his first term.
Coming to Awadh, driving down from the new Chaudhary Charan Singh Airport (swanky in comparison to Patna’s modest Jai Prakash Narayan Hawai Adda) one cannot miss the election billboards and poll-kiosks already heralding the elections. Considering the polls are still at least six months away, one may think the political parties are peaking too early.
The most visible are of course Mayawati’s BSP (who have declared majority of their candidates) and Samajwadi Party. While the BSP hoardings prominently feature their supreme leader with the local candidate, Shivpal Yadav vies for space with Mulayam and Akhilesh Yadav in Samajwadi Party signage. Congress too is seeking its share of voice with Sheila Dikshit’s photo tucked below the foursome of Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi, Raj Babbar and Ghulam Nabi Azad. Significantly, Priyanka is so far absent in the deck.
Compared to the other three parties — BSP, SP and Congress — BJP’s visibility is practically nil. One can attribute it to two or three reasons. First, it is yet to finalise the CM face of the party. Second, it could be that it is keeping the powder dry for later use. Third, may be it is waiting for the dust to settle down after the Dalit controversy. Till now, BJP is making more news for defections from the BSP to its fold.
One common thread running through the three campaigns (of BSP, SP, Congress) is all have an eye on the Muslim vote. Among them, Mayawati has replaced a large number of her “upper caste” candidates with Muslim faces, hoping to dent into Mulayam’s stronghold. Congress has tried to add a further twist by ‘importing’ the “Brahmin Bahu” Sheila Dixit, which many people scoff at as a declaration of political ‘bankruptcy’.
What this connotes clearly is that as in Bihar, BJP is also the common “Enemy No 1” in Uttar Pradesh. Even three months ago, people were unwilling to bet on the BJP. Now they feel BJP’s prospects have perceptively improved. What has shifted the needle is the likely division of the Samajwadi Party’s Muslim base in favour BSP and at some places even the Congress.
This will not only result in greater consolidation of the upper caste vote but also create cracks in the core constituencies of BSP and SP for a number of reasons. First, voters are beginning to see through and become wary of the number games of caste and community in which they feel “used”. Second, there seems to be a fatigue in five-year cyclical rule of SP and BSP. This could go in favour of SP too, especially given Akhilesh’s publicity over drive on the performance of his Government – claiming transformation of ‘Uttar Pradesh’ to “Umeed O Ki Pradesh” – but some of it could accrue to BJP as well with appreciation in Narendra Modi’s political stock in coming months.
But, six months is a long time in politics and much can and will change in the coming days. A crucial decision point will be the declaration of BJP’s CM candidate, if and when they chose to go public with a name. But, there are also many surprise elements– such as flash points among Dalits or minorities – that can dramatically change the course of the match in its slog overs. Though it is still wishful thinking that a section of the Muslim vote will switch to BJP in the bargain.
Finally, in Jaipur one senses a clear change in mood of BJP from incipient despondency to renewed determination. The party has recognised the challenges of incumbency and decided to take it head on going forward. There are enough indications of Nagpur weighing in favour of the current leadership, starting with mega RSS national meets held few months back in Nagaur and to frequent visits of Nitin Gadkari to the State.
In contrast, Congress has so far been banking upon the disenchantment with Vasundhara Raje’s second term that has earned it some wins in recent elections of civic bodies and panchayats. But it still does not have much of on-ground traction to speak of. Finally, there will, as usual, be the question mark on who will lead the charge from the front – the gen next Sachin Pilot or an Ashok Gehlot called back from retirement, like Sheila Dikshit in UP, which will keep it a divided house.
Whether they win or lose, it is now decidedly BJP versus the rest across all these States. Prohibition may or may not last beyond three years in Bihar but BJP is in for the long haul and no one can wish them away in a hurry.