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Nitish model gambit in UP - Parties eye social engineering in bid to broaden votebank

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  • Published 19.01.12

New Delhi, Jan. 18: Bihar has seldom been the exemplar of trends other than those on the adverse end of the scale. The gathering campaign for power in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh, though, is offering evidence to the contrary.

Nitish Kumar’s successful experiments with second generation social engineering seem to have caught the fancy of more than just the usual votaries of Mandal politics as contestants gird up for a critical battle. The politics of carving new micro votebanks, the dire cautioning of CPM general secretary Prakash Karat notwithstanding, is the new UP vogue.

The only ones to feign distance from it are the BJP on the opposite end of the spectrum from Karat — a new “swadeshi paradigm of development” for weaker sections and minorities rather than the “limited policy of reservations”, says the party’s “UP 2012 Vision Document”. But then, the BJP is flaunting Nitish after its own fashion, tom-tomming the NDA government’s “development gains” in Bihar, quite ignorant of the irony that Nitish’s JD(U) is itself a rival in the UP battle.

The Congress, never a great backer or beneficiary of the influential backward class constituency, perhaps stands out most for the way it is attempting a near-radical change of course to emulate the Bihar formula. Never has the party wooed backward classes — especially the lesser backwards — in the way it is now, picking close to a hundred nominees from that segment and betting on Beni Prasad Verma, Union steel minister and Kurmi (backward) kingpin, to seed the party’s revival on a new social base.

No less dissimilar from Nitish’s strategy is the Congress’s poll-eve gambit to offer caste-based reservations to backward Muslims, a ploy that bears regular fruit for the Bihar chief minister.

What was earlier a matter of contested analysis became firm fact in two recent by-elections: Nitish has successfully Mandalised Muslims with sustained positive discrimination efforts, cleaving backward minority communities like Raens, Mansuris and Ansaris from the “upper caste” Sheikhs, Sayyads and Pathans, and rallying them behind him. It was partly this down-the-line fracture in the Muslim vote that held off a desperate challenge from Lalu Prasad and took Nitish’s candidates comfortably past the post in both Daraundha (Siwan) and Laukaha (Madhubani).

The byelections fairly established that Nitish’s meticulously planned heist on Lalu Prasad’s once-invincible votebank was no longer a work in progress. Through the 1990s and beyond, Lalu lorded over the subaltern vote, from the lowliest Dalits to the most prosperous backwards, and of course, the Muslims. It’s fair to say his appeal has now shrunk to the still-sizeable Yadavs and sections of Muslims who together don’t quite make a sure-fire combination.

Nitish’s Mandal II, which created and empowered sub-categories among Dalits, backwards and Muslims, has become a tempting thing to ape. “Subalterns are writing a new grammar of politics in the Hindi heartland,” says Saibal Gupta of Patna’s Asian Development Research Institute (ADRI). “The experiment that was enacted in Bihar is bound to spread and perhaps what is happening in UP is proof of that.”

But the jury remains out on whether it can be replicated in UP. For a start, UP’s political grid differs hugely from Bihar’s. The latter has two chief contenders for power — the JD(U)-BJP alliance and the RJD, whereas in UP, contests are four-cornered if not more complicatedly fangled.

“The very presence of Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh at the head of a politicised and almost militant Dalit community makes the equation quite different from Bihar’s,” conceded a Congress leader from UP. “But the point is that the party’s attention is moving, for the first time, beyond its traditional social bases which have had little to offer to us. There could be some purchase for us here.”

Another reason why doing a Nitish in UP may not come easy is that carving new constituencies isn’t merely a matter of picking and promising new social segments. As a top JD(U) leader said: “Nitish had to work nearly a decade before he even got a smell of power and it is only after he consolidated himself in power and used it to give the extremely backward communities, Mahadalits and backward Muslims a sense of power that they became loyal to him. Anyone who wants to repeat a Nitish in UP must first have control of power, it’s a long road.”