The micro narratives that shaped the poll agenda in Uttar Pradesh
UP election: There is a significant dip in religious polarisation in Purvanchal as we move from western Uttar Pradesh. And eastern UP doesn’t have either an urban agglomeration or agricultural surplus like the NCR in western UP to boost the region’s economy.
“Akalpaneeye (unimaginable)”, a Thakur man in Barabanki district tells us, centring himself among a group of people. “Unimaginable things have happened in the last five years. Galla, Kisani, Kanun - sab Yogi-Modi ki den hai (Ration, PM Kisan Nidhi, and law and order, Everything is a gift from Yogi and Modi)” as he outlines the contours of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) campaign in Uttar Pradesh (UP).
Two things are hard to miss as we move from western UP to Purvanchal via Awadh. First, there is a significant dip in religious polarisation, partly because of the mixed nature of village settlements, where castes and religions co-inhabit. And two, unlike the spillover effects of Delhi NCR and the agrarian base that boosted western UP, eastern UP doesn’t have either an urban agglomeration or agricultural surplus to boost the region’s economy. Most villages are still accessible on khadanja roads (brick laned), have small farm sizes, and employment opportunities are either available in the village via the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (Nrega) or migrating out to other places in the state or the country. In UP, where the visible arms of the state in health, housing and education are generally amiss, Purvanchal is on the farthest side of the development spectrum.
State and Public Service
“Hamein koi kuch nahin dega, jo mehnat karenge woh khaenge (No one will give me anything. My hard work buys me food)” is a refrain from the raj-mistri in Kasimpur Berua. A Pasi by caste, he voted for the BJP last time. This time he is switching to the Samajwadi Party (SP) - not because of any programmatic promises, but simply because the former chief (pradhan) of the village is supporting the party. In Samesee, a woman from the same Pasi caste is voting for the BJP. “Didi, jo khan peen de rahin, usi ko vote denge”, she says, a vote for the BJP - the party which gave her rations, cooking gas and other things.
Both statements are reflective of the lived experience of this region’s voters - in an environment where opportunities are few, state support is critical. For the woman, it is the free ration; for the man, it is the ex pradhan - a probable intermediary for any access to the state. As the world reeled under the pandemic and economic depression set in in the last two years, UP was not untouched. In Purvanchal, where the state’s surface area is limited, the DBT (direct benefit transfer) architecture cuts the intermediaries and establishes a limited but essential link with the state. To be sure, UP’s safety net is not even close to being as expansive as in states such as Telangana or West Bengal, where the state targets women, farmers and students, among others, as direct beneficiaries. Yet, village after village, we hear about “samay se aur saaf galla milta hai” (on time and clean ration) and timely delivery of direct cash transfers - a break from the previous regimes.
Limits to Centralisation
As noted in our last piece, incumbent chief minister Yogi Adityanath undercut his MLAs and party workers by centralising power. The state in UP, its strength and limitations have become synonymous with Adityanath. A labharti (beneficiary) or a voter who mentions kanun-prashasan (law and order), or the infrastructural development, attributes the changes to the top - CM Yogi and PM Modi. In Barabanki’s Ramnagar constituency, a group of Verma men tell us, “Awasthi Ji (BJP sitting MLA) ne paanch saal apna muh nahin dikhaya, lekin vote Babaji (Yogi) ko hi denge.” BJP rests its hope on this narrative that when the voters come to the polling booth, they forget the MLA, the sarpanch, the chota-neta (local leader) and votes for the leadership.
Yet, in this centralising narrative also lies its weakness. The general unrest around economic anxieties among the young and the breakdown of old hierarchical intermediaries are challenging to quantify. In Aonla near Bareilly in western UP, the long time BJP sympathetic panchayat head has switched to the SP. “Dekhiye gaon ke logo ka sirf do jagah kaam hota hai - Kachhari aur Thana. Agar apna MLA, apna minister thane mein hamari nahin chalne deta to kya fayda hua (Villagers need support only at two places – court and police station. If our MLA and minister don’t let us get our way at the police station, what’s the point)?”
Outside Lucknow, in Mohanlalganj, the Verma brothers are split in their electoral choices. One is voting for the BJP. “I got ₹1,000 under one time shram card, we three brothers get ₹18,000 yearly under PM Kisan, I have a BPL card and got free ration in last 2 years, doubled from December”. “You tell me, which government in the past has done this and kept the Muslims quiet?” he asks us. His brother, doing his B. Pharma standing next to him, shakes his head in disagreement, “Young people are not voting for the BJP. We want jobs”. The tension between the two is a micro-narrative of the upcoming elections. Either one of them will win.
(Bhanu Joshi is a PhD candidate in political science at Brown University. Ashish Ranjan is an independent election researcher. Neelanjan Sircar is senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research)