UP Election 2017: What the millennial voter wants

This piece first appeared on Firstpost on 4 March 2017

Much like Bihar, a reporter’s job in Uttar Pradesh is made easier by the electorate, for one hardly comes across a person unwilling to talk about politics. Over the course of two weeks, I interacted with scores of youngsters from different districts. Not one seemed like he has not assessed his candidates and the parties they represent. It would be safe to say the millennial voters in UP are much more politically alive, and socially curious than their counterparts in my hometown of Mumbai.

Before landing in UP, I read up as much as I could on the state. There were a few articles suggesting the youth is breaking caste barriers and voting solely on the basis of development. Upon asked if caste is an influence, every millennial voter responded with an emphatic no. But it is quite a coincidence that the Tripathis, Mishras and Pandeys said they would vote for Modi on the basis of development while Muslims and Yadavs said they would vote for Akhilesh because of his developmental work. A teacher at Lucknow University shed more light on the coincidence. “Conceding they vote along caste lines in front of the media is unfashionable,” she said. “Everyone wants to be politically correct. You scratch the surface behind closed doors, and it all comes out.”

Indeed she was right.

Ask them about their views on reservation and it does not seem like caste is something they have never considered. Upper caste Hindus complained against “the discrimination and bias” towards Yadavs, while the Yadavs furiously disputed the “false narrative”. Everyone knew the caste wise divide of the candidates of different political parties.

However, it will not be long before the caste lines are palpably blurred. Even in the ongoing elections, a noticeable chunk of millennials who come from traditionally BSP or BJP families, seemed to be gravitating towards Akhilesh because of his appeal, which is merely a hint of what to expect in 2019.

One should not be surprised if millennial voters defy caste equations and vote for Narendra Modi, who seems to be the biggest catalyst in breaking caste barriers. Those who would be ready to vote in 2019, but are not eligible yet, blush while naming Modi as their favourite politician. It doesn’t matter if their parents are staunch Yadavs or quintessential BSP voters.

What makes Modi so popular even after three years into his relatively mediocre tenure?

Notebandi.

It is remarkable how an economic disaster has turned out to be a political masterstroke. Economists have dissected every angle of it to prove it has achieved little while rupturing the lives of many, but it hardly matters to the electorate. The most important thing is, those who should be most upset with it, are hailing the move because it supposedly took on the rich. “There is effort, and the intention is good,” they say. The mocked-at Mann Ki Baat on Twitter is quite popular as well, suggesting he is probably the best communicator one has seen in quite some time.

There is no doubt Modi seems to be the vehicle through which caste lines could be blurred in a sub-national state of UP. But the religious divide is increasing at the same time and Modi has played an instrumental role in it. In Faizabad, for example, it was striking how the youngsters did not mind VHP workers campaigning for Ram Mandir with communal overtones. “It should be built,” they said with a straight face. It did not matter if a masjid once stood at the location. On the other side of the divide, insecurity among Muslim youngsters is on the rise. Not everyone conceded that but a fair number of millennials, either candid or naive, said they would vote for the person who would “protect them”.

The issues concerning the youth vary from district to district but the crisis of unemployment is the one gnawing at each of them. The percentage of millennial voters who expressed their desire to migrate out of UP should make the establishment worried — to say the least. And they have pinned their hopes either on Akhilesh or on Modi, among whom the honours are split and Mayawati is clearly third.

Rahul Gandhi is not even fourth. I had to prod the millennials to get them to speak about him, suggesting he is not even considered important enough to be criticised. His own constituency of Amethi is not an exception.

As far as the outcome of the election is concerned, I remain as clueless as I was before I arrived here. The theories suggesting polar opposite outcomes sound legitimate. I am not going to pick one and put my neck on the line. For now, I’m glad to have seen a part of the fascinating state of Uttar Pradesh through the eyes of those my age or slightly younger to me. “UP nahi dekha toh kya dekha,” they used to say. They could not have been more accurate.

UP Election 2017: In VIP constituency of Raebareli, millenial voters vexed with Congress, inclined to vote for Akhilesh

This story first appeared on Firstpost on 26 February 2017.

Ajay Singh Rathod’s mother is undergoing a treatment. A few months ago, she had difficulties with her teeth. When 22-year-old Ajay took her to the dentist, he said the teeth have become brittle because of drinking water with high levels of fluoride. “Quite a few people in my colony have had similar issues,” said the political science student at Firoze Gandhi College in Raebareli.

Several millennial voters in Uttar Pradesh’s high-profile Raebareli district cited safe drinking water, along with employment and better standard of living, as major election issues as the district goes to polls on 23 February. Even in a few pockets of Raebareli city, the water provided to the citizens is not healthy. Move into the interiors, and the water situation worsens. More importantly, not more than 15 percent of Raebareli’s population is urban.

A bastion of the Gandhi family, Raebareli remains one of the least developed VIP constituencies. Of course, the subsequent state governments that rule Uttar Pradesh are not less culpable either, but the youngsters here aspiring for better standard of living have limited options with majority of the electorate being farmers or labourers. “I would prefer to migrate for further studies,” said Ajay, son of a teacher at a private school, living with a family of seven. “There are no industries either. The infrastructural development has not been great. If we migrate, we would lead a better life.”

Ajay said he sees the kind of lifestyle students from other towns of the country lead (via social media and television) and it makes him notice how under-developed and backward Raebareli is. In the interiors of the district, however, the problems are a little more fundamental. In Unchahar, 22-year-old Sachin Sharma said that the villages in his constituency do not even have a toilet and open defecation is the only option for everyone. He has done Bachelors of Science in agriculture, and is now teaching at a private college, earning rupees 6,000 a month. “I am saving up for my further studies,” he said. “I want to go to Chandigarh.”

The disaffection with the Congress and Congress chief Sonia Gandhi, who is an MP from Raebareli, is palpable. The electorate had made it clear in 2012 Assembly elections, when the Congress did not manage to win even a single seat out of the six constituencies in Raebareli.

Akhilesh Yadav’s popularity, on the other hand, remains more or less intact among the youth. Twenty-two-year-old Kaushal Kumar Yadav drives an auto in Raebareli and told Firstpost that his family of five is rooting for Akhilesh. Son of a farmer, Kaushal said Akhilesh is young and he understands the aspirations of the young. “He has done enough development to deserve another chance,” he said. Upon highlighting a certain a drawbacks of the state, he said Uttar Pradeshg is so vast it is beyond anyone to transform it in five years. “How is it possible to iron out every flaw in over 70 districts in merely five years?” asked Kaushal. “Moreover, his (Akhilesh) father and uncle hardly let him work for the first two years. If he has been able to do as much in merely two and a half years, then now that he is the clear leader in the party, I am sure he would do much more in the next five years.”

Narendra Modi also remains popular enough to indicate he would more or less sweep the 2019 elections. However, quite a few youngsters in Raebareli feared if Yogi Adityanath would become the chief minister if BJP came to power. Twenty-year-old Rajat Singh, a commerce student said, “Modi is good. But many of his men in Uttar Pradesh are dangerous. People say the governments at the state and Centre should be one to ensure coordination. But I believe it should be the opposite to keep the checks and balances intact. I would vote for Modi in 2019 but in the state, I would prefer Akhilesh.”

However, in spite of the Akhilesh factor, the alliance could be in for a bitter pill in Raebareli, because it has failed to strike a deal in two of the five seats (Salon also falls in Raebareli district but is considered under Amethi constituency).

In Unchahar and Sareni, Congress and Samajwadi Party both have fielded candidates and are campaigning against each other. “Uttar Pradesh ko yeh sath pasand hai, lekin Unchahar ko hath pasand hai,” is one of the slogans of Congress in Unchahar, confusing the electorate and handing out advantage to BJP and BSP in a platter.

Observers said that the BJP is increasingly pandering to the OBCs, not just in Raebareli, but in the whole state to eat into Samajwadi Party’s Yadav vote bank. BJP’s state president is Keshav Prasad Maurya and the district president is Dilip Yadav in Raebareli, where two of the four candidates of the BJP are OBC with one being a reserved seat.

In Harchandpur, it is a three-way contest. The sitting MLA is of the Samajwadi Party, but Rakesh Singh of the Congress has got the ticket. Bachhrawan should go with the alliance, where the sitting MLA is Ram Lal Akela, who defected to RLD, but had won on an Samajwadi Party ticket in 2012.

The Raebareli Sadar seat seems clearly tilted towards the alliance, where 29-year-old Aditi Singh daughter of Akhilesh Singh is fighting on a Congress ticket. Akhilesh Singh, a patron to his supporters and a strongman to his critics, has for decades wielded his influence on the constituency. He won thrice on the Congress symbol, once as an Independent and most recently, on the Peace Party ticket. His daughter Aditi is set to carry forward the baton, with the youth backing her as well.

Ajay’s classmate Shubham Shukla, praised Narendra Modi for demonetisation and development for about 20 minutes, but said he votes for the MLA not the leader of the party, and Aditi is the best candidate of the lot. “Most of the candidates are tainted,” he said, echoing the sentiment of many against bad distribution of tickets. “The MLA should be the one who is approachable. Even though I am not satisfied with Akhilesh, I will vote for Aditi because I feel she would work towards making Raebareli a better place.”

There is not a single university in Raebareli. The industries and factories that started during the time of Indira Gandhi have been more or less dormant, leading to further unemployment. Even though the electorate taught Congress a lesson in 2012, Sonia Gandhi was re-elected as an MP from here in 2014 general elections. She has been an MP of Raebareli since 2004, during which period she has instituted a branch of Aiims, opened a Railway Coach Factory and inaugurated RO plants, while declaring a few government schemes. The implementation on the ground remains questionable. Aiims has been constructed but it is not functional yet in spite of the project being mooted in 2009. Congress says the centre is delaying funds, while the centre claims technical problems. RO water plants provide water to a certain places in the city, but a few pockets and substantial parts of rural Rae Bareli remains deprived of safe drinking water.

While expressing concerns over the future of his students, a professor at the Firoze Gandhi College, requesting anonymity, summed up why Raebareli remains underdeveloped, yet is a pocket borough of one party. “Raebareli ek paudhe ki tarah hai,” he said. “Jisko harabhara bhi nahi kiya hai, lekin sookhne bhi nahi diya hai. (Raebareli is like a small plant. They are not letting it grow, neither are they letting it die).”