Cong also needs to thank Mulayam, Varun & Buddha
By Bharat Bhushan
CONGRESSMEN have been waiting to proclaim Rahul Gandhi a hero. This election has given them a reason to do so. The vote in UP is being seen as crucial to understanding the 2009 verdict.
Political pundits are proclaiming the end of identity politics, and heralding a long awaited dawn of a national politics based on pan- Indian issues.
Rahul’s agenda for the Congress for 2014, some say, should be to go it alone in all states. Before committing itself to what is being called the “ Rahul doctrine” the Congress party should take a long hard look at the electoral results.
A cursory analysis of the election results in UP, Bihar and West Bengal shows two things that question these early conclusions about future Congress strategy: One, the Congress in UP, and perhaps in other states, has been voted in by Muslims who en masse shifted allegiance to it; and two, that caste- based voters stayed loyal to caste- based parties.
If we look at UP, two or three factors seem responsible for the alienation of the Muslims from the existing parties.
The ugly face of communal politics that Varun Gandhi represented and the unwillingness of the BJP to decisively distance itself from a hate- spewing brat did not only consolidate the Hindu vote in Pilibhit; it probably also forced the Muslim community to reassess the alternatives to the BJP. Mulayam Singh’s tight embrace of Kalyan Singh; his refusal to put up a candidate against the BJP president Rajnath Singh in Ghaziabad; and giving a walkover in Mathura to Jayant Singh, son of Ajit Singh, who was in alliance with the BJP showed that he could reach opportunistic compromises with the BJP and even pave the way for it to come to power at the national level.
Azam Khan’s revolt may not have had its desired impact in Rampur but it is bound to have made Muslims rethink support for Mulayam. The fate of the Samajwadi Party which had fielded 11 successful Muslim MPs from UP in 2004, was that not even one of the 12 Muslim candidates put up this time won. Even in Muslim dominated constituencies SP’s Muslim candidates lost to the Congress or to the BSP. On the other hand the candidates dependent on the Yadav vote won — suggesting that caste- based politics is thriving.
If Mulayam’s post- election intentions were in doubt, then so were Mayawati’s. That she is ideology- neutral to the extent of being entirely selfpromoting has been demonstrated by her past dalliance with the BJP. Mayawati has herself claimed that the shifting away of the Muslim vote cost her 60 seats because of “ the opposition’s negative campaign that I might tie up with the BJP”! In the event it appears that the Muslims voted for the BSP in those constituencies where other secular candidates were not in the running — e. g. in Saharanpur and Muzaffarnagar. However, her Dalit vote remained intact, suggesting once again that caste- based identity politics is alive and well in UP. So what drew the Muslims to the Congress? The Sachar Committee report made the Congress the only party talking of reservations for Muslims and addressing their backwardness.
It also signaled that the good intentions of the Manmohan Singh government towards the Muslim community were not in doubt.
Still a shift in the Muslim vote to the Congress became possible because of the one important decision that it took in UP — of not going to the polls in an alliance. This decision was in part forced upon it by necessity.
The Samajwadi Party was insistent that the Congress be given no more than 13 seats to contest. In a bid to force the hand of the Samajwadi Party, the Congress announced candidates to two dozen seats — presumably a number for which it was more or less willing to settle. But the Mulayam- Amar duo would not concede to a compromise on this.
There were corporate interests which did not want the Congress to go with the Samajwadis. However, Rahul must be credited for seizing on this opportunity to take the risky decision of going it alone.
His relentless campaign in UP is likely to have shifted some of the floating vote that went to the BJP in 2004, back to the Congress. The BJP’s vote share went down from 22.17 per cent in 2004 to 17.5 per cent in this election.
That the vote share of the Congress went up from 12.04 per cent to 18.25 per cent in the same period, suggests that the BJP’s loss may have been the Congress’s gain. Some of the noncommitted Hindu vote — probably of leftover Thakurs of SP as well as disenchanted Banias and Brahmins — moved towards the Congress because they did not see the BJP as the winning horse and Mulayam and Maya were not options for them.
In West Bengal too, Muslims shifted en bloc. They deserted the Left and propelled the Congress and Trinamool to victory wherever they mattered — in constituencies in Murshidabad and Malda, in the North and South 24- Parganas, in Howrah and Midnapore and in Kolkata. The Congress and the Trinamool won their seats because Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee allowed the police to fire on farmers in Nandigram, who were largely Muslim. In Kolkata, the death of Rizwanur Rehman seems to have had the same effect when the entire might of the police machinery was thrown behind a Marwari businessman whose daughter had married Rizwanur against her father’s wishes.
Had the Congress gone into the polls in West Bengal without an alliance with Mamata Banerji, the Muslim vote would have been divided and the Left might have done better.
The lesson that the Congress needs to draw from Bengal is that “ ekla chalo re” might not work as well elsewhere as it did in UP.
After all the Congress went it alone in Bihar and came a cropper. The Muslim vote for secularism, security and targeted development went to Nitish Kumar. Through his creation of Muslim Pasmanda Mahaz, an organisation of economically backward Muslims, and targeting welfare schemes at them; by initiating the Talimi Markaz scheme which set up volunteer- run hostels in Muslim villages for out- of- school backward Muslim children and starting wellfunded schemes to care for Muslim graveyards and mosques, he showed the Muslims that their welfare was paramount for his government.
It helped that despite being in a coalition government with the BJP in the state, Nitish Kumar’s administration was seen as being avowedly secular.
The Muslims of Bihar had a better choice in his party than anyone else.
Lalu was thus decimated despite carrying some of the backward caste vote, and so was the Congress, which would have done better had it worked out an alliance with him. That Lalu’s candidates lost in nearly 12 constituencies with a margin less than the Congress vote in the constituency suggests that an alliance might have been better for both.
This election has shown that in the Muslim community there is desire for stability and security, and they will vote for parties which will guarantee that. The pervading sense of insecurity among the Muslims has increased after the spate of terrorist attacks in the country after which each one of them has been made a suspect.
The renewed urgency in Muslim voting behaviour is visible not only in UP, Bihar and West Bengal but also in their overwhelming turnout for the Congress in Delhi and in Andhra Pradesh.
For the electoral outcome, the Congress should thank the Muslim voters who continue to keep this country secular.
Someone in the Congress needs to read the Sachar Committee report anew and explore ways to pay its debt to the voters. Yet it should not be raring to go it alone everywhere. Revive the party, democratise it by all means but be humble in victory. The crown prince may well deserve the democratic crown but the Congress has yet to win the hearts and minds of the Dalit and backward castes — the era of alliances is far from over.