A Sad Tale for Representative Democracy in India

 The vast state of Uttar Pradesh in northern India, long regarded as a weathercock state in Indian politics, has been in election mode for close to a month, as the first phase of the seven phases of polling began on February 11. The last phase is on March 8, and the results will come in on March 11. Uttar Pradesh, or UP as it is known, has put several Indian prime ministers in power, the first being India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.

This crucial election will determine or assess how much the popularity of Narendra Modi, India's prime minister, still holds. An autocratic and shrill campaigner, Modi is used to his larger-than-life image being sustained by frenzied crowds. These have been missing during the UP election campaign that began in the western end of the state and moved to the east where the last two phases are now due. On March 8, voters in the holy city of Varanasi will cast their ballots.

In 2014, this city that also symbolizes India's unique synthesis of different faiths had gifted Modi a historic win with a landslide margin. Today, with eight assembly seats within the vast parliamentary segment, Modi's party—the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—faces the possibility of a rout. At best, due to the division in the 'secular' vote, the BJP may sneak in winning two of the eight seats. But in no part of this city that is the hub of trade, commerce, business, and spirituality do voters have any good things to say for Modi or the BJP.

There is more than a nagging feeling of betrayal as the city, whose MP is the Prime Minister of 2017 India, grapples with potholed roads, chaotic traffic, collapsing sewerage and mountains of garbage. Given to irrational hyperbole, Modi had sworn to transform Varanasi into Japan’s ancient city of Kyoto. Today, high pollution and dust, as well as a crippled informal cash economy caused by the disastrous move towards demonetization, threaten to seriously dent Modi's electoral appeal, come counting day.

It is the BJP's own supporters, the trading and business classes, that are seething with undercurrents of restlessness and anger. One way or another, this segment will make its displeasure felt. Traders feel doubly cheated after 30,000-odd traders received income tax notices regarding their bank deposits since November 8. A leading trader, who has never hitherto strayed away from the saffron fold, maintains that rage has grown and firmed into a consensus that the BJP must be punished for turning on its core constituency in such a savage manner.

Six months after Modi swept to power in Delhi in May 2014, he and his party faced their first humiliating defeat during the state assembly elections to the state capital, New Delhi, in February 2015. Of the 70 seats to the assembly, the BJP won only three, with the new and radical Aam Aadmi Party sweeping to power and humiliating the older Indian political party, the Indian National Congress. Again in November 2015, Bihar, another politically crucial state, defeated Modi's designs of complete and autocratic control of both houses of the Indian Parliament by unequivocally voting for a Grand Alliance against the BJP.

As the penultimate rounds of the state's elections draw near, money and muscle power are being used by the BJP to turn the tide in his favor. Local newspapers have sarcastically commented on the fact that 75 percent of the Government of India's cabinet is presently camping in the holy city of Varanasi to somehow ensure that Modi is not humiliated in his own backyard.

Poor performance and pathetic levels of accountability have marked Modi's band of parliamentarians voted to power in 2014.  Despite winning the UP 2014 elections on the 'development plank,' BJP's members of parliament failed to spend the mandatory government funds—a whopping Rs 333.6 crores earmarked to better facilities, education, health, etc in their own constituencies. Modi's party had won 73 of the 80 seats to the Lower House of the Indian Parliament, the Lok Sabha. Within this overall failure to deliver, the party and its representatives were especially tardy in those 33 Lok Sabha seats that have both Dalits and Muslims in sizeable number. While Rs 71 crore remained unspent in 17 Dalit-dominated constituencies, over Rs 64 crore could not be spent in 16 other constituencies where Muslims account for more than 20 percent of the population.

Brazen about this non-performance, the BJP is still ahead, beating all political parties in splashing ads on TV, radio and print, and spending over Rs 150 cr in Goa, Punjab and UP. Quoting data from AdEx India, a division of TAM Media Research, the Economic Times, reports that the BJP’s share in the overall ad insertions across the three mediums was as high as 59 percent in the three states between November last year untill February 4, 2017.  The saffron party has reportedly spent more than Rs 150 crore on advertising during state elections. Interestingly, the next three parties together — Samajwadi Party (SP), Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Congress —did not spend half of BJP’s advertising share. SP’s share was at 13 percent, BSP’s at 12 percent, and Congress’ entire political campaign saw ad insertions of close to 4 percent. A total of 27,133 ads were aired on TV channels, while 11,722 ad spots were played on radio and 2,797 ads inserted in the print media in the month of January this year.

Before that, November saw some action with 5,754 ads insertion across TV channels, 3,212 across radio and 1,092 across print. In December, political advertising also dipped after demonetization.

When it comes to individual states, BJP’s advertising share in Uttar Pradesh was at 69 percent, followed by SP’s 17 percent and BSP’s percent, while Lokdal and Congress are at 1 percent each.

The demographics of the state tell us an interesting story. The 2011 census tells us that Dalits constitute 20 percent of Uttar Pradesh population and the “Other Backward Classes” (OBCs) constitute 43 percent of U.P population. Among this section, Muslims constitute a high percentage of 18 percent. In UP, Muslims are divided into 68 castes and sub-castes, 35 of them are OBCs. Forward castes constitute around 18 percent of the UP population, in which Brahmins are 9 percent and Thakurs are 6 percent.

As national parties and formidable state giants geared up for the campaigning in this state, speculation has centered on the significance and import of the minority (read Muslim) dominated seats in the populous north Indian state. A close analysis of the past six state elections underscores the crucial significance of the approximately 130 seats with a significant minority population. However, the contrary results of the surprise 2014 general elections (that gave the BJP under Modi a historic 73 of the 80 Parliamentary seats from Uttar Pradesh) rendered the substantial minority vote from these seats almost utterly irrelevant.

The Dalit-Bahujan party, the Bahujan Samaj (BSP) party, respecting these demographics has given as many as 97 seats to Muslim candidates, while also ensuring representation of other categories. Given the significant presence of the Muslim minority in the state, it should and ought to have been a determining vote in many seats.

With 403 assembly seats and the minority factor affecting close to one fourth of the total seats, the final candidature list (and then the voting patterns) could be crucial. In the 2014 general elections with the ‘M’ (Modi) factor dominating, the Muslim vote had been sadly and successfully rendered virtually irrelevant all over the country, but most especially here in UP. In a brute celebration of majoritarianism, no seats were given to any Muslim candidate in 2014 and in 2017, and the BJP has so far announced only one!

Of UP’s 80 parliamentary seats, Muslims make up more a third of the voting population in 15. Their population is 10 to 30 percent in another 39. The BJP won 73 seats (two in alliance) and lost seven: Amethi, Azamgarh, Badaun, Firozabad, Kannauj, Rae Bareli and Mainpuri. Ironically, it was second in all seven of the constituencies it lost.

The story of the 2014 election was the success of the split non-BJP vote, spoiled by multiple choices, and nowhere was this more visible than in these 15 of the 80 parliamentary segments. The inanity of too many candidates in opposition ensured a winner from the hidden horse, the BJP.

Rampur, in the western part of the state close to the national capital of Delhi, has a 49.1 per cent Muslim population—the highest for any constituency in Uttar Pradesh. Going by convention and the probability of winning, and failing in sensible tactical politics, the Congress, Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party, All-India Minority Front and Aam Aadmi Party all fielded Muslim candidates. Predictably, the Bharatiya Janata Party ticket went to a Hindu.

It is not any surprise then that the BJP’s Hindu candidate won. Some 550 km from Rampur, the opposite played out. The lone Muslim face of the saffron party was its renominated two-time MP Shahnawaz Hussain, who was fielded from Bhagalpur in the nearby state of Bihar, which has a 17.5 per cent Muslim population. In Bhagalpur, Hussain lost to Shailesh Kumar.

So, while Muslim confusion between too many ‘secular’ options gifted Rampur to the BJP, their vote against the BJP's only Muslim candidate in Bihar ensured Shahnawaz Hussain’s defeat in Bihar. On the other hand, Hindu voters—mostly upper castes and other backward castes—voted en masse for the BJP.

A similar analysis can be made for Moradabad, next to Rampur and with a Muslim concentration of 45.5 per cent of the voters, where, in 2014, the BJP's Hindu candidate defeated Muslim candidates from the Congress, SP, BSP and Peace Party.

In fact, none of the 55 Muslim candidates in the fray from 80 Lok Sabha constituencies in Uttar Pradesh won. This was the first time since Independence in 1947 that UP failed to elect any Muslim, despite the community being nearly 18 per cent of the 200-million-strong population of the state. The patterns of the 2014 general elections have some bearing on predictions for the outcome of the ongoing 2017 state polls, especially if, in the Muslim-dominated seats, multiple ‘secular’ choices again give an advantage to the BJP. This is the only way that a flailing BJP can re-group and sneak in a victory given the deep enchantment of the voter with the Modi government's policies.

A close look and analysis at the results of the last five state elections in the politically watched state of UP, however, is that the party that won the crucial minority dominates seats is the one that finally ruled the state from Lucknow.
The last time the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), dominated by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), was in power in the state was in 1991, when it was also the BJP that won from the maximum of minority-dominated seats and captured power in Lucknow. Post demolition of the Babri masjid (the shrill polarised ‘Ram Mandir’ politics of the supremacist party), the state saw ‘Mandalisation’ that has effectively kept the BJP away from winning in these crucial seats. Before this schism that was of its own making, in 1991 it was the BJP that won in 76 of the 122 minority-dominated seats, while the Congress won only seven seats and the Samajwadi Party (SP) only one. It was the 38  “Independents” who won the day with the second highest seats at the time.
Two years later, in 1993, it was again the BJP that wrested control over a vast majority of the minority dominated seats: the BJP won 69 seats (of the 122 minority dominated seats in UP), 31 went to the SP, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) won 5 and the Congress only six. “Others” however won 16 seats of the 122.
In 1996 again, it was BJP that won a vast majority of the minority dominated seats in UP, though overall it won less. BJP won 59 of the 128 minority-dominated seats, the SP won 43, BSP 13 seats, and the Congress won only 7.
In 2002, the SP ‘s position improved in the minority-dominated seats when it won 43 of the 129 minority dominated seats (under the leadership of Mulayam Singh). The BSP won 24 of these, and the BJP walked away with 32.
The year that Mayawati swept the state elections, in May 2007, it was the BSP that won the state and also won 59 of the minority dominated seats while the SP won 26 and the BJP won only 25 of these seats; the Congress got only seven.
In Feburary 2012 when the SP under the leadership of Akhilesh Yadav swept the state, it was the SP that won 78 of the 130 seats, followed by the BSP that got 22 seats. BJP followed close by winning 20 of the minority dominated seats, and the Congress won only 4. The BJP has been losing its hold over these seats and also over the state for some time.

Unlike the Dalit vote, the BSP’s Muslim base has increased over the last decade. It got 9.7 percent of the Muslim vote in 2002, 17.6 percent in 2007 and 20.4 percent in 2012. Political Pandits predict that Mayawati would need 40 to 60 percent to form a government only on the strength of a Muslim-Dalit combination. The BSP has handed out 97 seats to Muslims, while the Samajwadi has indicated that it will give about 63. In the carefully-crafted seat distribution, however, the BSP supremo has not ignored the other OBCs like Rajbars and Patels, a calculation that could also reap rich dividends. If, however, in the bitterly contested three-way contest, like in 2014, the seats that have a significant minority presence, the BJP could emerge a wily winner if the votes get split among two ‘secular’ probables. This is apart from the predictable ‘spoilers’ (there have been as many as 16 such small formations in UP) heavily present in many of these seats, who are solely there to wean away crucial votes.

The majority that the Modi government won in terms of seats in Parliament belies its national average vote share of 31 percent. In comparison, the PV Narasimha Rao government of 1991 was a minority government that ruled with outside support. But even then, the Congress had won just 38.2 percent of the vote share. Political analysts have therefore said that this is a government with the "lowest popular support in terms of vote share." Even with the NDA II partners, the new government's vote share, has rounded off to 38.5 percent, the UPA share around 23 percent and all the rest another 38 percent—almost the size of the NDA's share. [better?]

Among the sections of the population that did not vote for the ruling BJP were Muslims. The ECI website shows the BSP won 4.1 per cent, the Trinamool Congress won 3.8 percent, Samajwadi Party (though it has only five MPs) won 3.4 percent and the AIADMK won 3.3 per cent, all indicating that the 2014 outcome continues to reflect a fractured vote, even if there is a clear mandate.

Apart from the millions who voted for the regional parties such as J Jayalalithaa's AIADMK, Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress and others, there are minorities who do not seem to have voted for the BJP, despite all the talk about it getting popular support from the Muslim community for the first time. Speaking to The Hindu, Sanjay Kumar of the CSDS says that for the last six elections since 1996, about 33 percent of Muslims have voted for the Congress. This election saw that percentage rise to 44 per cent, indicating the anticipated polarisation of the Muslim voters towards the Congress. "Moreover, in bipolar states like Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, where the Muslim vote share for the Congress goes even higher into the 70s, it rose above 90 per cent in this election," the report says.

A report in The Indian Express also points out that this is the very first time that a ruling party with a simple majority does not have a single Muslim MP in the Lok Sabha. Of its 482 candidates who contested the general elections, only seven were Muslim, and none of them won, including Shahnawaz Hussain, a long-time sitting MP who lost from Bhagalpur. Even in Jammu and Kashmir, where the BJP has made a startling debut with three MPs, the Muslim candidates did not win. The present Lok Sabha is the one with the lowest Muslim representation since the 10th Lok Sabha (1991-1996). Despite 102 constituencies where the Muslims voting population is in the range of 20-99 per cent, it was the BJP (who proudly does not field Muslim candidates) who won 47 of these.

This is, indeed, a sad but sorry tale for representative democracy. In the past ten days, senior BJP leaders have suddenly and publicly bemoaned the fact that "Muslims were ignored" in ticket distribution by its leadership. Is this then a clear sign that facing a lackluster, sullen and angry electorate—in sharp contrast to the euphoria Modi had generated in 2014—senior and more-seasoned leaders are fishing for excuses already? Counting day, Saturday, March 11, will provide the answers.


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