Bhajpa ka vote to gaiyya char gayi”, chuckled a Samajwadi Party sympathiser. The holy cow chewed away the BJP’s vote. He predicted the BJP’s rout in the ongoing assembly elections. The good thing about Uttar Pradesh is that everyone is a psephologist, so I feel less burdened by the expectations of my previous birth. What tickled me was the idea that this one issue could trump everything else. It led me to think about which issue, if any, would matter this time.
I have been travelling through Uttar Pradesh for the last fortnight. For once, I was grateful for the third wave and the cold wave, perfect reasons to don a cap and mask. While I went through the duties of netagiri – meetings, speeches, press conferences – I managed to steal time for anonymous conversations with unknown people. A bit like the “fieldwork” I used to do in my previous birth as a psephologist. These rich conversations are no substitute for a good sample survey or an exit poll as far as forecasting is concerned, but I enjoy these for the insight into what goes into the making of the eventual outcome.
I learnt about the non-issues. “Uncle, can you believe it, I got token number 272?” I was at the house of late Tripathi ji, one of the eminent trade union leaders from Hind Majdoor Sabha, who passed away at the peak of the second wave of Covid in Kanpur. His son, a techie who works in NOIDA, was describing his experience when he went to cremate his father on 25 April last year. He estimates that at least 3,000-4,000—around 200 to 400 in each of the 14 ghats in Kanpur— were cremated that day. Next morning, the newspaper reported just 40 Covid deaths in Kanpur. He just can’t get over it. “Every family I know here went through some horrid experience or the other during those weeks. And, uncle, no one is talking about it during elections. No one is asking questions that must be asked.”
He was spot on. Of the hundreds of people we spoke to over 10 days or so, not even one mentioned Covid without being prompted. The total count of Covid deaths in Uttar Pradesh could be anything between 5 and 10 lakh. You would expect this issue to dominate elections held within a year of such a tragedy. But no one is talking about it, not even the opposition. When you bring it up, people talk about the pain and trauma as if they are talking about a natural calamity. But then there are non-issues that the BJP would have liked to play up. No one spoke about the renovation of Kashi Vishwanath temple, nor about Ayodhya or Mathura.
Law and order, euphemism for Muslims
I learnt about surprising issues. Next door to Delhi, as you travel through the various built, half-built and un-built cities in UP, all called some-NOIDA or the other, to Dadari and around, you find the BJP on the back-foot over a sensitive issue. A few months ago, the Yogi Adityanath government inaugurated a statue of Raja Mihir Bhoj, the legendary 9th-century ruler of the Gurjar-Pratihar dynasty, but omitted the word “Gurjar” from the plaque. The powerful and vocal Gurjar (also called Gujjar) community took affront, interpreting it as an attempt at cultural appropriation of their icon. This was a live issue in the first phase of the UP elections. Jayant Chaudhary encashed it by announcing that the Jewar airport will be named Gurjar Raja Mihir Bhoj airport.
Then there are obvious issues with not so obvious messages. Everyone in Western UP talks about goondagardi. BJP sympathisers claim that Yogi government has ensured “behen-betiyon ki suraksha” (security for sisters and daughters). Was it worse during the previous Samajwadi Party government? Yes, of course, pat comes the answer. You probe further and ask them about any incident in their own locality and they are fumbling to recall any. Yet it is an issue, much bigger than Akhilesh Yadav is willing to admit and address.
You soon realise that ‘good law and order’ is a euphemism for ‘putting Muslims in their place’. “Jaise sardi me kabootar chupchap baitha rahta hai na ek jagah fool kar, vaise Musalman baithe hain pichhale paanch saal se (Muslims are sitting tight over the last five years, just as the pigeon sits in one place during winters)”. I have never noticed anything unusual about the seasonal behaviour of pigeons, yet the metaphor hit hard. As the campaigning gets intense, the BJP is resorting to more and more naked use of this card to trump everything else. But I noticed a decline in the potency of this issue as I travelled from the West to Central UP. So, what is the issue here: Law and order, or the Muslims?
‘We have everything’
What about inflation, unemployment, and poverty? It is there for you to see everywhere. I cannot forget these two old Dalit men (unemployed ever since police raided their bootlegging operations during Mayawati’s government!) from the Pasi community remembering how things have changed in their lifetime. “Pahle kahan kuchh tha, ab toh sab kuchh hai. (What did we have in the earlier days, now we have everything)”. I looked around for “everything”, but could only see thatched-roof houses, women without warm clothes, malnourished children, and filthy passages. Like beauty, deprivation also lies in the eyes of the beholder.
Everyone cribs about inflation, ready to roll off figures about the price of cooking oil and petrol. But it is not clear if that is an election issue. For every two people who blame Narendra Modi or Yogi for the price rise, there is at least one who assures you that price rise is essential for India’s growth. Unemployment is mentioned as a fact of nature, except when you meet some young, educated aspirant for government jobs who rattles off data on vacancies not filled, exams not held, papers leaked, and job interviews fixed. There is general unease about economic conditions, but no intense anti-incumbency that could cut through the prism of caste through which everyone views every fact.
Similarly, everyone talks about additional ration they get from the kotedar (UP’s expression for PDS ration shop dealer). Everyone agrees that ration delivery during the pandemic has been satisfactory and non-discriminatory. Yet it is not clear which way it would play out in the elections. The BJP supporters hold this out as evidence of good governance and non-communal conduct. For others, the additional foodgrain is a temporary sop till the elections. In any case, what they get in ration from one hand is taken away by inflation from the other hand. It really depends on how you spin it.
Until the cows come home
Finally, back to the gaiyya, the holy cow. You cannot speak to any group of farmers for five minutes without them mentioning this menace. They give graphic details of crops lost or damaged. They tell about money spent or needed to fence the field with barbed wires, and how hungry bulls managed to jump over that. They narrate the experience of having to spend winter nights on a machan in their fields to protect their crops. Everyone knows the reason. The ban on cow slaughter plus the terror of vigilante groups has effectively shut down cattle trade in the state. Farmers just cannot afford to feed the male calf or the older cow who does not give milk. Goshalas exist only on paper and are dens of corruption; even the BJP supporters are shy of claiming any credit for gau-raksha. So you have hordes of hungry and aggressive herds roaming all over rural UP.
Everyone knows the solution—massive upgrading of goshala arrangements or permitting trade and meat business to resume. Akhilesh Yadav knows this is the one issue that can trump everything else in rural UP. But he is in a bind: He cannot be seen to be proposing a solution that may be construed as invitation to gau hatya – cow killing.
What then is the issue in UP? As I mull over this theoretic issue, yet another grass-root psephologist helps me: “Issue kuchh hota nahin hai. Issue banane se banta hai.” Issues don’t exist by themselves. It all depends on how you craft them. I quietly add this insight to my future “What they don’t teach you in Political Science” book, deciding to wait till 10 March to discover the real issue. I visualise TV debates on the evening of the 10th, the contestation around what the mandate really was. Then it hit me: “Mandate kuchh hota nahin hai. Mandate banane se banta hai.” There is no self-evident mandate. It all depends on how you interpret an electoral mandate.
Yogendra Yadav is among the founders of Jai Kisan Andolan and Swaraj India. He tweets @_YogendraYadav. Views are personal.