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BJP fires first salvo in the battle for Lucknow

Rasheeda Bhagat

The BJP has opened the battle for the UP Assembly by going back to its Hindutva mantra, which might send the Congress and the Left seeking the Muslim vote. The principal players — Mr Mulayam Singh's Samajwadi Party and Ms Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party — are yet to show their hands.

For the time being the Bharatiya Janata Party has sought to sweep under the carpet all inter-personal and intra-party differences and make a brave attempt to speak in one voice. This is but a desperate bid to present a united front before the Uttar Pradesh elections scheduled in the new year and ensure that it gets a decent tally in the country's largest Assembly.

For this the party decided, at its recent Executive Council meet in Lucknow, to return to what it considers its trump card — a concoction of Hindutva ("Ram mandir wahi banega"), fire and brimstone on the UPA Government's so-called policy of "Muslim appeasement," and its usual fulminations on a Uniform Civil Code and repeal of Article 370 that gives a special status to Jammu and Kashmir.

Core agenda

The back-to-basics (read Hindutva) mantra might excite some elements, particularly the saffron brigade which, of late and led by the RSS, has been disappointed with the BJP for losing its `focus' — that is, the ridiculous "Hindustan for Hindus only" theory. But how the rest of the country, first the electorate of UP and later that of India in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, looks at the BJP's return to its core agenda remains to be seen.

In the backdrop of the Sachar Committee report on the pathetic status of Muslims in India, at least for that small section of the community, that had been saying that for too long have Muslims allowed themselves to be used as vote banks and that they should stop considering the BJP an `untouchable', this will be a disappointment indeed. Firmly and unequivocally the BJP has told the Muslim community that it does not need its votes, that the community has been "appeased" for long.

Incidentally, throwing big words such as appeasement at large sections of Muslims wallowing in poverty, denied fair opportunities of employment in certain areas even if they have adequate qualifications, refused admission to schools and colleges and rented accommodation in `Hindu localities' of cities in Gujarat and even in an otherwise cosmopolitan Mumbai, is nothing short of adding insult to injury. The `appeasement' that has taken place has been largely verbal.

But, then, for a beleaguered party like the BJP devastated by the tantrums of an Uma Bharti, divided deeply into the Atal, Advani and other camps, having to contend with so many prime minister hopefuls though the Lok Sabha election is far away and, most important, finding political power gradually slipping away in more States, this is neither time nor occasion to even think of the long-term consequences of its Lucknow resolutions. These will only further polarise Hindus and Muslims and deepen the mutual suspicions.

That task is left to the Left parties or a jubilant Rashtriya Janata Dal chief, Lalu Prasad, basking in the glory of his recent acquittal from the disproportionate assets and corruption cases; both have criticised the BJP's return to hardcore Hindutva issues.

Uttar Pradesh holds the key

Returning to the political realities of the day, veteran politician and former Prime Minister, Mr A. B. Vajpayee, got it right at the concluding session of BJP's National Council when he said that the road to Delhi was via Lucknow. Lucknow, of course, is his constituency and for him the pun was quite irresistible when he said that the BJP would need "luck now" to first come to power in UP, and next at the Centre. But one cannot help wondering if this was that master politician's way of telling his party the bitter truth.

His statement of course lays bare the irony that despite being the fourth player in UP, the Congress(I) has managed to head a coalition at the Centre. And for all the noise being made by the mother-son duo of Congress President Sonia Gandhi and her MP son Rahul Gandhi, it does not look as though the Congress(I)'s fortunes are likely to change in a hurry in the State. But if the Congress does not appear to be in a position to score any major surprises in UP, the BJP is not sitting pretty either. It may have done spectacularly well in the recent local elections in UP — winning eight of the 12 mayoral positions — but whether this will translate into Assembly seats remains a big question mark. Major reasons include the deep divisions in the party such as the fiasco over Mr L. K. Advani's Jinnah comments in Pakistan that resulted in his isolation from the party; this has only turned worse over the days.

With a fresh three-year term following his initial truncated innings as BJP president, an upbeat Rajnath Singh, a political lightweight till recently, has made it clear that he too is in the fray for the Prime Minister's post. With the blessings of the RSS, which is still sulking with Mr Advani's Jinnah comments, this might even become a reality.

But before he reaches that race, Mr Rajnath Singh will have to deliver UP to his party — a Herculean task by all standards. And as India's most populous State comes up for elections, look at its state. Whether it is access to clean drinking water and sanitation, literacy levels or industrial development, UP is far behind the southern States and Maharashtra. But when it comes to the crime graph or the gallery of criminal politicians, it vies with Bihar for the top slot. And to think that this State was home to five Prime Ministers — three from the Nehru-Gandhi family, Lal Bahadur Shastri and V. P. Singh.

In poor shape

Yet, in all fairness to the Mulayam Singh government, it must be conceded that it is not solely responsible for the pathetic condition of the State. Successive governments, beginning with the Congress's, have allowed the State to rot and decay.

Today Rahul Gandhi might cry hoarse from Amethi about the shortcomings of his constituency and the rest of the State, but his family, along with the present rulers, owes an explanation to the people about the sorry state of UP. The BJP has fired the first salvo in the battle for Lucknow. But all indications are that Mr Mulayam Singh's Samajwadi Party and Ms Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party will be the two principal players, with the Congress(I) and Left parties contending for the Muslim votes. The BJP's best hope, as also the reason why it is not hankering for Muslim votes, is that all the three will divide the Muslim votes and it will be the ultimate beneficiary.

Alliance possibilities

But alliances will play a major role in the coming election; with the Sonia-Mulayam mutual dislike continuing, the Congress(I) might end up tying up with the BSP, perhaps taking the Left parties along. Without any hope of coming to power in UP, the next best the Congress can do is to be in a winning alliance where it might get a chance to be kingmaker. But those who have trusted UP's Bahenji in the past have been tripped by her; the BJP should be able to recall many such incidents, including the ones relating to the rotating chief ministership system of the 1990s.

But by firing the Hindutva salvo, the BJP has signalled that it wishes to go it alone in UP, hoping for the division in the non-BJP vote among the `secular' parties. In the past it had tried out an alliance with both Mr Mulayam and Ms Mayawati but with disastrous consequences to both its image and political base. And each of the two leaders is going to make a Herculean effort — Mr Mulayam to retain the Lucknow gaddi, and Ms Mayawati to oust her bete noir.

While it promises to be an interesting and no-holds-barred fight, one only hopes that the Congress(I) high command will not take seriously Mr Lalu Prasad's suggestion that it should pitch Rahul Gandhi as the chief minister candidate, and try to route him to Delhi via Lucknow. Now that would be a disaster indeed.

Response may be sent to rasheeda@thehindu.co.in

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