Cash and caste playing a big role in Punjab and UP elections

Updated: Feb 13 2002, 05:30am hrs
Had graduation been the minimum qualification for a candidate President Pervez Musharrafs fiat for the next elections in Pakistan if and when held most contestants in the state elections in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab would not have been eligible. UP is way down because of its social and economic backwardness. And those in the fray in Punjab are mostly matriculates. In any case, candidates in both states have not been chosen for their academic qualification but on considerations of caste or the cash they can flaunt. Punjab is, by and large, immune to caste appeal, but not to cash doles. The traditional rivalry between Jats and non-Jats is there but it is based on land, not caste.

In northern India, the vote banks increasingly built on the basis of caste have come in for attention. The other point that is noticeable is muscle power. Educational qualifications are accidental, not incidental. Some graduates are criminals. Almost all parties have a few of them. Parties say history-sheeters often have greater vote-winning qualities than cleaner candidates. Gun-toting men and known hoodlums are supervising the elections on behalf of different parties. Even the Election Commission is being criticised for being weak. The state machinery is alleged to be partial.

What has emerged as the most important factor in UP is caste, indicative of voter loyalty. Chief minister Rajnath Singh, a Rajput, has been able to expand his base among the Rajputs. It is like his main opponent, Mulayam Singh Yadav, who is an undisputed leader of the Yadavs. Mayawati, who is expected to join Rajnath Singh after the polls, has complete sway over the dalits. The Congress has no specific base but it may be in for a surprise because of unsolicited support in western UP.

In western UP, the late Charan Singh had full control because he represented the Jat sentiments. Compared to his son, Ajit Singh, Mayawatis Bahujan Samaj Party may be the gainer. Her predicament is that her candidates are long in purse but short in caste credentials. Kalyan Singh, who was ousted by the BJP from UP chief ministership, is completely depending on caste combinations, as political leaders do in Bihar where even sub-castes are divided infinitely. He has riveted an alliance of sorts, of Malhas, Kashyaps, Kurmis and Lodhs. But his Rashtriya Krantikari Party is no match for the BJP, which he cannot criticise convincingly because he was himself the chief minister when the Babri masjid was demolished.

Besides the caste, aimed pointedly at the upper strata of Hindus, the BJP has lately played the religious card. The construction of the Ram temple is being woven into the speeches from election rostrums. Hindu fanatics are mollified by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayees reference to the law ministry to examine legal and constitutional aspects relating to the 67-acre acquired land. Since Vishwa Hindu Parishads talk with the Prime Minister on the handing over, the VHPs importance has increased, giving a new edge to Hindu chauvinism.

The VHP, however loud in its complaints against the central government, is fully absorbed in the BJPs election campaign. So is the RSS and its parivar members. All of them have come to realise that the BJPs defeat in UP may begin the process of undoing of Mr Vajpayees government at the Centre. The danger of saffronisation has alarmed the Muslim electorate, roughly 14-15 per cent. At present, their affiliation is largely with Mulayam Singhs Samajwadi Party. But many among them tend to support the Congress and the BSP. The temple issue may influence Muslims to stand behind the Samajwadi Party.

Strangely, the religious factor that played an important part in Punjab in the past elections is more or less absent this time. The ruling Akali Dal does not touch upon it although it expects Sikhs to vote for the party. In fact, it is the Congress which is raising Sikh demands like the Anandpur Sahib Resolution seeking autonomy, primarily to chide the Akalis who once wallowed in such issues.

The reason why the Akalis have not allowed the usual religious fervour to come in is because of their alliance with the BJP which, incidentally, is doing badly in Punjab. The main reason is that Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal does not want to mix religion with the state, the old practice of the gurudwara politics. His rival, GS Tohra, exuding parochialism, was willing to give all support to Mr Badal provided the gurudwaras were to enjoy pre-eminence over the state.

The Supreme Courts order to build the Haryana part of the Sutlej-Yamuna link hanging fire for years because of Punjabs reluctance is not yet generating heat because both the Akali Dal and the Congress say that not a drop of Punjabs water will be allowed to go to Haryana. If the Akalis lose, religion may come to the fore with a vengeance with the argument of the Sikh majority Punjab losing water to the Hindu-majority Haryana. In fact, the incumbency factor is hurting the Akalis most. The Congress, the main opposition, is exploiting the instances of omission and commission to the hilt.

The BJP in UP faces a similar situation. Economic development is essentially on paper. Still, the noise over the caste and the temple issue is so loud that it has muffled the cry of the unemployed, the deprived and the dispossessed. In fact, there is the absence of issues economic ones at least both in UP and Punjab. Personalities in power or in opposition have come to represent what the state did or did not do. The story in UP, especially in the eastern part, is that of poverty, while in Punjab it is that of stagnation. The Punjab peasantry is not too happy over the foodgrain procurement policy. But the state governments intervention saved them largely. This may go in favour of the Akalis.

Several sample surveys conducted in UP indicate that the Samajwadi Party and the BJP are running neck-and-neck, with a slight edge in favour of the first. So charged is the atmosphere that a bit of complication at the border can help the BJP. Even now the party has gained from the stationing of troops at the border.

Candidates in UP, once elected, have shown the tendency to gravitate towards the centre of power. Much will depend on money and muscle of the party having an edge can organise. The real battle will begin after the results because the buying is free and maximum at that time. When it comes to temptation, most of the elected, with whatever literacy qualifications, fall prey to them. The highly qualified are easy targets. This matter came before the constituent assembly of India in a different form. Dr Rajendra Prasad, the chairman, said in his concluding speech that while the best of brains would argue on the Constitution as lawyers and best among them would give the verdict as judges, the persons, members of Parliament and the state legislatures, framing laws were not required to have even minimum educational qualifications.

Jawaharlal Nehru, Indias first Prime Minister, said in reply that he respected the chairmans views but it was the uneducated masses who participated in the national struggle and made sacrifices. How could he deny them the fruits of independence when he knew well that the most educated were either timid or toadies