Are any new trends discernible in the assembly elections now under way in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Goa and Manipur? The states are so different in social structure and political culture that it’s hard to generalise. Opinion polls, notoriously wrong in India, are of no help. Yet, one can detect significant changes in the axes along which electorates make their choices, including party profiles, government performance, social-group coalitions, identities like caste, tribe, religion, region and ethnicity, and less importantly, personalities.The most complex state, Uttar Pradesh, seems headed for a hung assembly, but with changes in party positions. In Punjab, which saw the highest-ever voter turnout (79 percent) the Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party alliance is likely to be ousted from power. In Uttarakhand, which saw 70 percent polling, the BJP is trying to limit the damage caused by former chief minister Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank’s super-corrupt regime, which was replaced by Bhuwan Chandra Khanduri in September. But it’s unclear if it can neutralise the Congress’s advantage. In Goa, a Congress-led alliance seems to have the edge. And the Manipur trends give the Congress a lead.Contrary to the middle-class view that corruption would be pivotal to these elections because of the Anna Hazare campaign, it is likely to be only one of the many issues on which the people exercise their choices.Corruption has by no means become irrelevant. But it’s not primarily seen as a moral issue. People appear to be linking it to economic and political considerations such as quality of governance and diversion of the resources with which to deliver public services, including roads, water supply, food security, electricity, healthcare and education. Besides, corruption’s focus has been diffused and is no longer exclusively on the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance, seen in the Hazare model as its primary embodiment.Going by the opposition campaign and popular responses, the Mayawati government and Prakash Singh Badal’s family-based regime in Punjab are widely seen as highly corrupt, and will pay a price for this. The BJP stands badly discredited-thanks to the plunder of mineral wealth in Karnataka, and petty as well as big-time corruption in Uttarakhand.
The “anti-incumbency burden”, which weighed heavily on Indian politics for three decades, is decreasing in importance. People then treated elections as a plebiscite or referendum on ruling parties and sent four-fifths of them packing. However, ruling parties were recently re-elected in Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Orissa and Haryana, and the UPA returned to power at the Centre in 2009. Blanket anti-incumbency is probably giving way to a more differentiated approach, in which performance and social-political factors count.Identities, especially of caste, ethnicity and religion, continue to matter. But their relative weights are changing. For instance, in UP, Dalit “self-respect politics” remains important. But the Dalits are demanding, and getting, schemes like the Ambedkar village plan, under which villages are given hand-pumps, toilets, solar lighting systems and even English tuitions for children.Similarly, that other great 30-year old trend, the Forward March of the Backwards (OBCs) remains important, but internal differentiation is accelerating within the lower OBC (mainly non-Yadav) castes, which are looking for greater self-representation. Thus, major parties are wooing not only the relatively better-off Kurmis, but even lower OBCs like Kushwahas and Lodhis. Even the MBCs (Most Backward Classes) are becoming more assertive in demanding self-representation.The BJP is trying hard to recapture the Lodhi vote from former Chief Minister Kalyan Singh, who is hostile to the party, and has fielded another Lodhi, Uma Bharati, as a star campaigner. Similarly, the BJP hopes to win support from the Kushwaha caste through the scandalous move to induct former family welfare minister Babu Singh Kushwaha, who was sacked from the Mayawati cabinet for the Rs 5,000-crore National Rural Health Mission scam.
In a significant new trend, the Congress is making a bid for OBC votes by projecting Union minister Beni Prasad Verma, a Kurmi, and allying with Ajit Singh’s Jat-dominated Rashtriya Lok Dal. It’s also pitching for MBC votes. How far it succeeds isn’t clear. But this is the first time that the Congress is trying to re-establish links with the OBCs which snapped way back in 1967.UP is witnessing fierce competition for the support of two other groups: Muslims, who form 18 percent of the population, and the upper castes, who are disillusioned with their coalition with the Dalits built by Mayawati five years ago. The Peace Party has emerged as UP’s first Muslim-dominated party in decades. It’s considered unlikely to win many seats, but can play the spoiler in many of the 100-plus constituencies in which Muslims constitute a sizeable 20-45 percent of the population. Which party this would help remains to be seen.The Congress is making, for the first time, an explicit bid to attract Muslims by offering them a 4.5 percent share of the 27 percent OBC job quota. The SP, desperate to overcome the stigma of recruiting Kalyan Singh into its 2009 campaign, has persuaded the Shahi Imam of Delhi’s Jama Masjid to appeal to them to vote for it. The SP promises to reserve 18 percent of jobs and school and college seats for Muslims. The BSP hasn’t announced a comparable figure, but has given tickets to more Muslims-84, than the SP (75) and Congress (61).The BJP, eager to win upper-caste voters, opposes this “minority quota politics”. The BJP can however at best hope that the Congress won’t repeat its 2009 performance, which would translate into 90-100 assembly seats (total, 403). The BJP is regressing to rank communalism and obscurantism in its campaign, including a promise to build a Ram temple in Ayodhya and an “Adhyatmik Disneyland” in Mathura.The Congress and the BJP seem to be effectively out of the contest for UP’s top two slots, which appears confined to the SP and the BSP. But this may change depending on how the non-Dalit vote divides and whether Mayawati can attract back Brahmins who fear the SP might return to power if they don’t vote for her. If the SP wins a large number of seats, it’s likely to rope the Congress into a coalition in UP. This will significantly influence the complexion of national politics.Punjab’s picture is different. There, the SAD-BJP alliance is on the defensive since it lost the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. There seems to be serious revulsion against it for corruption and diversion of funds away from public service provision, and for its family-centred politics. An interesting, healthy new phenomenon in Punjab is opposition to dhakkashahi, or rule by muscle power. Punjab has developed a winner-takes-all authoritarian system of rule under which both the Akalis and the Congress monopolise all control over the police and public institutions, including panchayats, municipal bodies, mandi committees and even cable networks, when in power. There is growing concern about addiction to drugs and intoxicants.There seems to be some weakening of the hold of religion-based politics too. A Hindu candidate has been fielded for the first time in Tarn Taran, a “Sikh stronghold”, and a Sikh is contesting in Hindu-majority Batala. This too is a healthy trend under which the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance might weaken nationally.