The riotous colours of heartland politics

Arvind Kejriwal, ex-Chief Minister of Delhi and leader of the Aam Aadmi Party, delivers a speech at Benia Bagh in the Muslim quarter of the ancient pilgrims’ town of Varanasi.
Teaser Image Caption
Arvind Kejriwal, ex-Chief Minister of Delhi and leader of the Aam Aadmi Party, delivers a speech at Benia Bagh in the Muslim quarter of the ancient pilgrims' town of Varanasi

The half decadal ritual of the Indian general election is in full blast throughout the country. The world’s largest democracy, as everyone would like to remind us, is once again at the ballot box. After surviving the din of weeks of campaign rallies, advertisements, sloganeering and feverish news reportage, for a brief moment, the Indian voter (one of 814 Million this year) in most places will enter an empty classroom, the polling booth, in a neighbourhood school, quietly consider and press a button of the electronic voting machine. The choice of button is anyone’s guess, but the motivations behind that choice have been the subject of endless manipulation by political parties and their cost heavy public relations campaigns, tireless study and debate by the media, academic establishment and the local gathering at the tea shop or the barbershop.


One place that is consistently a laboratory for such political experiments is the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh (UP). And perhaps unfairly so, many might argue. By the singular virtue of being India’s largest state, with a population of nearly 200 million people, claiming the lion’s share in the Indian Parliament’s Lower House (Lok Sabha) of 80 out of the total 543 seats, UP, most parties will admit, is a decisive factor in the making of the government at the centre. With development indices at an abysmal low, and social tensions on the rise in some parts, the state has become a hunting ground for political parties of all hues, each upping the other in rhetoric and post poll promises. But UP is very much a microcosm of India’s diverse electorate and the changes simmering deep in its polity.

Technocracy and the politics of hate

Consider the mood at a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rally in Ghaziabad’s Shipra Ground for example. Prime Ministerial hopeful Narendra Modi’s name alone has pulled hundreds of supporters and curious onlookers from the tall buildings of gated communities and gleaming glass and chrome offices and malls in the vicinity. The folks here represent the young, well-to-do, aspirational class –some constituting the nearly 100 Million newly eligible voters. It is to this constituency that Modi, in his newly refurbished avatar, appeals as a model of efficiency, decisiveness and economic opportunity. Add to this the heady mixture of patriotic and religious (Hindu nationalist) pride and you’ve got a winning cocktail for India’s tech generation. Modi’s tainted past as the Chief Minister who watched in silence, even in alleged approval, as a genocide took place in his state of Gujarat, matters little to this lot. Let’s look ahead and not harp over the past, they will tell you impatiently.

No harking back to the age of the Ram Temple, which launched BJP as a national alternative in the early 1990s; the era of faith based politics is over, the young fans of the BJP may say in its defence. Which is probably why they stare blankly when Modi quizzes them about his pet coinage, the “pink revolution”, a conspiracy by the incumbent Congress party, he alleges, to send all our cows to the abattoir to hike up red meat exports. But the not-so-subliminal message behind this recurrent trope in Modi’s speeches is that conservative Hindu concerns are still very much on the BJP’s agenda, if his right hand man Amit Shah’s recent statements in a riot-scarred Muzaffarnagar are considered. “This is our turn to take revenge”, he told supporters in an area that has barely recovered from violent communal riots last year which pushed hundreds of Muslim families from their homes and farms into ill equipped refugee camps.

It is little consolation that Shah has been banned from the election following his remarks. The damage has already been done. BJP cadres in Muzaffarnagar town confess they have not bothered to approach the Muslim community for votes. “They don’t trust us. They will vote for Mullah Mulayam or the Congress, who favour them over us Hindus”, said one party worker who refused to be named.
Divide and rule

“Mullah” Mulayam, a jibe coined by the BJP, is aimed at Mulayam Singh Yadav who has fancied himself as the protector of Muslims in UP. His incumbent Samajwadi Party (SP) has been blamed by critics of all shades for its cynical, divisive politics in Uttar Pradesh. Under the brief rule of his son, Akhilesh Yadav, the state has seen several communal flare-ups leading up to the worst in Muzaffarnagar last September. The SP leaders seem to have hit upon communal politics as the key to UP’s complex election matrix, and some of the party’s Muslim leaders like Azam Khan have been making incendiary statements matching Amit Shah’s vitriol. However, many common Muslim voters don’t see the party as their defender. “We can see through their game”, a resident of Malakpur camp, one of the largest settlements for riot affected Muslims in Shamli district tells me as she shows me a temporary voter card issued to her husband by the local Samajwadi Party workers. “You can vote for us with this, they told us. But I know this is not even a real voter’s ID. We can’t claim our citizenship, let alone benefits, with this. Why should we cast our vote at all”, she asks.

Once the dust settles, the violence and pathos of conflict inevitably gives way to cynicism and less easily definable problems. Community leaders who came with helping hands are blamed by camp residents of making a killing out of relief aid, and not without reason. Marriage age for girls decline as their safety and honour becomes an issue in the desperate environment of the camp. Kabooli, an elderly inmate at Malakpur camp mourns the fate of her seven granddaughters as she watches one of them preparing the evening meal on a wood-fire. Farhana looks barely 16, though her grandmother says she is 20. Then there is the radicalisation of disaffected youth who become cannon fodder for hate campaigns. Incidence of this was heard of in Malakpur too in the aftermath of the riots.

Shadab Ahmad Mister in Azamgarh’s Sanjarpur village will tell you a different story about extremism. Sitting under a tile and bamboo roofed shed looking on to the sun-bleached courtyard of his large house, Mister looks composed as he prepares to participate in a prayer meeting with community elders at a nearby madrasa. But prod him gently about his son Mohammad Saif and his voice chokes with emotion. Saif has been languishing in jail since 2008 with unsubstantiated allegations of being involved in a terror plot. Another son, also accused in the case, is absconding. The incident that changed their fates, a shootout between Delhi police and alleged Indian Mujahideen operatives in the capital’s Batla House area, the details around which are murky and the cause for much speculation even today, led investigative agencies to Azamgarh town, and to Sanjarpur.

A Samajwadi Party old timer, Mister won’t have any of it when asked about the trickery with which the SP is being accused of wooing Muslim votes. “There is a structural bias against Muslims in the Indian system. And it has demoralised the community so much that it has internalised the guilt. Muslims have been forced to believe that they are criminals”, he says in dejection, and claims that the SP is one of the few parties that cares for the fate of the Muslims. But the winds in certain regions of UP suggest a shift in loyalties.
UP, incidentally, gave India its first four prime ministers – all from the Congress.The state was considered a party stronghold until its power waned in the 1990s following social changes brought about by the Mandal Commission that empowered lower caste communities through reservations. The Congress' first family still looks to UP for its electoral fortunes. But if the look of a ransacked party office in Lucknow was anything to go by, the Congress is a spent force in the state.

Affirmative action and megalomania

Political analysts and journalists who know UP well say that if there is anyone who can stop the “Modi wave”, it is Behenji, a respectful and affectionate term used to refer to Mayawati Kumari, erstwhile Chief Minister and leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). A leader of the Dalit underclasses, traditionally pushed to the fringes of Hindu society by its oppressive caste system, Mayawati, with her unique social engineering, managed to turn the voting pattern of her state on its head. She managed to consolidate upper castes, Dalits and Muslims who earlier used to vote as separate constituencies into her vote-base. Her landmark campaign in 2007 had a catchy slogan to explain the BSP’s election symbol, elephant: “Haathi nahin, Ganesh hain, Brahma, Vishnu Mahesh Hain”, translated as "The elephant is lord Ganesha, the trinity of gods rolled into one". The slogan invited disparate social groups to piggyback on Behenji’s elephant. However, her successful run finally ended in 2009 as allegations of corruption in her party ranks and her own expanding personal fortunes grew and she was voted out of power.

This election season, Mayawati hit the road late. She is known to run a quiet campaign, and tends to stick to her traditional bastions where she is assured support. Her rally in early April in a western UP village called Thana Bhawan could be an indicator though of a possible demographic shift. It is said to be the only rally of any political party in the riot affected areas that had women attendees. Muslims turned up in huge numbers, resolute to curb the rise of the BJP, and hinting at their dwindling support for the SP. After a delay of nearly two hours, during which time Muslim and Dalit leaders did their best to keep the crowd hooked, Behenji’s helicopter turned up on the horizon. Police and paramilitary had to lathi-charge thronging supporters milling to catch a glimpse of their icon.

The same awe could be seen on the faces of Dalit visitors to the incredible Ambedkar Memorial in Lucknow’s Gomti Nagar. Dwarfed by the looming marble and stone statues of B R Ambedkar, Kanshi Ram, Narayana Guru and others from the pantheon of the anti-caste struggle, the men and women who make pilgrimages to the memorial finally stop dumbfounded at the four sided, gigantic marble statue of Mayawati. Complete with her trademark dupatta tightly wound around her neck, and leather handbag hanging from one fist, this structure with its use of red sandstone, and Greco-Roman styles is at once reminiscent of authoritarian architects like Edward Lutyens. Memorialised in one’s own lifetime, it is symbolic perhaps of the omnipotent, godly aura she tried to invest herself with.

The pilgrim’s progress and the myth about harmony

The gods are never far from politics in India. And if you thought Narendra Modi could sail smoothly on faith based waters, think again. In that ancient town of Benares, the abode of lord Shiva, Modi’s supporters hijacked an age-old chant called in praise of the resident deity and turned it into a rally cry. “Har Har Mahadev” was twisted into “Har Har Modi”, and this did not go down well with priestly class residing in the labyrinthine alleys around the Kashi Vishwanath temple. “How could anyone turn himself into a God? There is no one above him, not even Modi”, a young priest told me in between his dips in the Ganga, on the charming Meer Ghat.

Similar refrains can be heard in Ayodhya, another old pilgrim’s town that, in 1992, became the site of a movement that opened up the deepest fault line in Indian politics and changed it forever. The Ram Janmabhoomi movement was brought to a fever pitch by the BJP and Hindu nationalist organisations like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) in the late eighties with the demand for a temple to be built in place of the Babri mosque. The movement was brought to a standstill when Hindu fundamentalists finally climbed the domes of the mosque that had dominated Ayodhya’s skyline for nearly 500 years. Today, the site that is believed to be the god Ram’s birthplace is more militarised than a military check post on the Indo-Pak border. Pilgrims go through concentric circles of metal cages and fences, hedged with razor wire, to finally bow down and peep though a break in the fence at a modestly decorated idol under a shabby canvas tent lopsidedly pitched over a raised mound of earth.

“Modi could not even fulfil his dharma towards his own wife. How will a man who cannot take care of his own family, take care of the nation”, asks Bhavatlal Gupta agitatedly. Running a sweetshop in the temple complex around the Babri demolition site, the 70 year old has seen the storm pass through Ayodhya. “My own son was a karsevak (Hindu volunteer). He broke his arm climbing over the Babri dome. But we were all used by the VHP for their own political gains. They are not true Hindus. Hinduism does not preach the desecration of monuments of other faiths”, Gupta says. Indeed, Ayodhya is what psephologists term a “mature” votebank, not easily swayed by sloganeering politicians. But DVDs showing television footage of the Babri demolition are sold freely to pilgrims visiting from all over the country. Recent BJP statements prove that the demand for a Ram Temple is not a forgotten one.

In the hysterical days of 1992-93, following the demolition in Ayodhya, riots burned through various parts of UP and other regions in the country. Much was made of how the disturbances never touched Varanasi and television newscasters on the campaign trail even today like to evoke the temple town’s harmonious culture, or the Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb as it is known colloquially. But, as Saiyyed Danish, a young reporter I met in Varanasi reminded me, that was only because the town had mustered an uneasy calm after weeks of rioting and a bitter standoff in 1989. He suggested that communal divisions run deep in India, and Varanasi is not exempt from it.

Which is probably why when Arvind Kejriwal, leader of the anti-corruption Aam Aadmi Party, conducted his first rally in town, he chose his venue strategically in keeping with his style, with an eye to wooing the marginalised. Benia Bagh ground falls very close to a Muslim bazaar and ghetto and assured a majority of attendees from that community, along with plenty of others, including young Hindu monks with shaven heads wearing saffron robes.

But in Varanasi’s Madanpura locality, home to some of the town’s two and a half lakh weavers, there is scepticism about Kejriwal’s prospects. Sitting in his crumbling workshop amid traditional wooden looms meshing together glowing beige, burgundy and saffron silk strands, 52 year old Mohammed Ilyas shows me identity cards that one political party or another has issued to him over the years. “We’re supposed to claim benefits with this, get bargaining power for the sarees that we weave and sell to Hindu traders. But parties come, make promises and go. You see the state of my workshop. Who knows if this new kid on the block can do some good for us”, Ilyas says with a wry smile.