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: Azamgarh’s first-time voters prefer Owaisi to Adityanath; trend could hurt BJP’s chances

This story first appeared on Firstpost on 2nd March 2017.

Twenty-five-year-old Mohammad Faizal is intently watching a video on his smartphone. There are not many customers at his vegetable shop at around noon, which is why he has joined a group of other vendors, who are discussing politics over a cutting chai at a nukkad. As others engage, Faizal is engrossed in the video. It is a speech by Asaduddin Owaisi. “Inke jaisa neta nahi India mein (There’s no leader like him in India),” he says. “He is the only one who fights for the rights of Muslims.”

While Owaisi’s rising popularity is no news, the significance of Faizal’s statement lies in his location. He hails from the Sanjarpur village of Nizamabad constituency in Azamgarh, a district where Samajwadi Party won nine out of 10 seats in 2012 Assembly election. Faizal’s gravitation towards Owaisi is a direct consequence of his disillusionment with Akhilesh Yadav. “He did not fulfill a single promise he had made,” complains Faizal. “Reservation for Muslims, release of innocent youngsters picked up as terror accused. Further, look at the way Muslims suffered in Muzaffarnagar.”

Faizal, 25, regrets voting for Samajwadi Party in 2012.

For a man to sit in Azamgarh and refer to Owaisi as the only Muslim oriented leader in the country speaks volumes. Faizal regrets voting for Samajwadi Party in 2012. And however much he would have liked, he cannot vote for Owaisi. He will, then, shift to the next best option he has: Bahujan Samaj Party.

The SP-Congress alliance, which is banking on the Muslim consolidation to sail through the halfway mark, may be in for a rude shock in Azamgarh. With significant fragmentation of Muslim votes, and the fact that BSP had lost many of these seats by small margins, the alliance is unlikely to come up with satisfactory performance in the district, which could be called the strength of SP. It is a district with 27 percent Muslims, and sizeable Yadav and Dalit population. The simple arithmetic being, consolidation of any two of the three ensures success. In 2012, Muslims and Yadav rallied behind SP, but Mayawati could dent the alliance by adding to her Dalit vote base in attracting Muslims, who are disillusioned with the SP. The Ulema Council has also rendered its support to Mayawati.

Faizal says the law and order is in shambles and the police has been unable to rein in Yogi Adityanath’s Hindu Yuva Vahini, whose activists often trigger clashes with anti-Muslim remarks.

Almost every second millennial voter lists “communal harmony” along with employment as an election issue in Sanjarpur.

It is the village that gained notoriety after Batla House encounter, which some say was fake. Two more youngsters from that village have been picked up as terror accused. There have been murmurs of several youth from Azamgarh joining Indian Mujahideen, and one was convicted for 2013 Dilsukhnagar blasts as well. But many youngsters have been acquitted too. In February 2016, a lawyer was felicitated here for freeing 10 from terror charge. Villagers say the police has troubled innocent people too often. Opposition leaders including Amit Shah have labeled it ‘Atankgarh’ and it hurts the villagers here.

Sajid’s brother is in Saudi and he too would have liked to migrate but cannot, for his mother would be lonely.

“Picking up Muslims on mere suspicion and keeping them in jail without any concrete proof has become a habit,” says Faizal. “Look what happened in the case of Delhi blasts. Those who have been picked up from here would also be acquitted after 10-15 years. In 2012, Akhilesh said he would ensure speedy inquiry into those who are languishing in jail. But he has done nothing. Muzaffarnagar riots happened under his watch. A sugar mill just came up here and not a single Muslim got a job. How is he a leader of the Muslims?”

Almost every second or third house in Azamgarh has a member in Saudi, for the lack of jobs here has forced youngsters to migrate. Mohammad Sajid, 25, from the neighbouring village of Khudadadpur with its sprawling mango orchards lined up one after another, says his brother is in Saudi and he too would have liked to migrate but cannot, for his mother would be lonely. “My father passed away 13 years ago,” he says. “I teach in a nearby Madarsa and looking for a better job.”

As the rugged, potholed road takes one away from rural Azamgarh into the town, issues of the millennial voters do not change, only the priorities are shuffled. Education and employment supersede communal harmony.

Otherwise a bustling developed town with adequate public transport and better roads, Azamgarh suffers from not having a university. At the Shibli National College of Azamgarh, every student expressed this gripe. “Akhilesh had visited the college,” says Nasir Khan, 24-year old LLB student. “He said he would consider declaring this college a university. But nothing has happened on that front.”

Due to lack of higher educational avenues, almost every student expressed the desire to migrate, especially to Allahabad, which is where most students from across Uttar Pradesh go to prepare for further exams of various streams. For the students of Azamgarh, they have an added disadvantage. Abhinav Singh, 23, who is pursuing MA in English literature, says he was refused a room in Allahabad because he hailed from Azamgarh. “I have started telling people I am from Lucknow,” he says, as the vast ground in the campus looks on. “I will migrate for sure. It is impossible to get a job without jugaad in UP.”

Abhinav Singh, 23, who is pursuing MA in English literature, says he was refused a room in Allahabad because he hailed from Azamgarh.

There is no doubt the anti-incumbency exists in Azamgarh, and there is a significant shift from SP to BSP. However, Akhilesh’s personal popularity remains intact. How much of that translates into votes and whether he is able to retain a reasonable voteshare remains anybody’s guess. Nasir says in spite of his reservations, he would like to see Akhilesh given another chance. “He is the best of the lot right now,” he says. “Mayawati is too narrow-minded. And less said the better about BJP. It nurtures people like Adityanath. And their leaders have often defamed Azamgarh.”

Iqra Parveen, studying BSC Mathematics first year, said it is sad the land of Kaifi Azmi is defamed for no reason. “I like how Akhilesh has focused on girl’s education, laptops and development of the state,” said the burkha-clad granddaughter of the famous poet Sagar Azmi. “Azamgarh is a place with rich history. We live in harmony and peace. If the BJP could indulge in less communalization and more governance, it would genuinely bring the country together.”

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UP Election 2017: With caste identities blurring, social media influences are high among first-time voters

This story first appeared on Firstpost on 20 February 2017.

“The social media campaign is voluntarily conducted by our supporters. They are doing it on their own and they would not speak to the media,” said an office bearer of a regional political party. “Please take a look around our social media centre,” said one affiliated with another regional political party. “I will explain how our team works.”

For anyone who is following the high profile, tempestuous Uttar Pradesh elections, it is not difficult to figure out the two political parties in question here.

At the Samajwadi Party office in Lucknow’s Vikramaditya Marg, a section in the vicinity is dedicated to the social media team. Secluded from the bustling main campus of the party office, the social media team operates with their building being a good two minutes by foot. In four rooms on the first floor of the building, more than 50 people spend 18 hours of their day gazing at TVs or computer screens with earphones plugged in.

“The idea is to run a synchronised campaign, to drive home the message to the voters,” said Aashish Yadav, a former BBC employee, who is running the show. He is joined by Manoj Yadav, songwriter of films like Raees, Piku and Azhar, who has penned campaign songs. Gozoop CEO Ahmed Aftab Naqvi is the chief digital strategist and Anshuman Sharma, fellow from Harvard University, is handling research. “We reach around 25-30 lakh people in Uttar Pradesh on a daily basis through WhatsApp, Twitter, YouTube and Facebook. WhatsApp gets most traction. It is the easiest to operate. Twitter is least penetrating.”

There are close to 10 people monitoring the news and social media to keep an eye on the prominent handles. “We counter the critical commentary with facts, depending on the stature of the leader,” said Aashish. “If Modi or Amit Shah say something, we respond. In case of Ravi Shankar Prasad, or say Shahnawaz Hussain, we let it go.”

On the other hand, Mayawati’s OSD Pawan Sagar was unwilling to accept the importance of social media. “Ours is a cadre based party and we believe in direct communication,” he said. “We do not need social media to form the government.”

When BSP workers first ran a seemingly synchronised campaign in November, it attracted a lot of eyeballs. Tweeting party statements, doing Facebook live on the speeches made by party leaders, propping pages on Facebook of the prominent members of the party…it seemed to indicate Mayawati is moving with time.

Behen ji ko aane do,” a slogan was made viral on social media along with Mayawati’s photograph. The slogans highlighted the problems of law and order, education and so on. The party even recorded a campaign song, which Kailash Kher sang. After the first phase of polling on 11 February, the party workers upped their game further. “Chor-chor mausere bhai”, a jibe at the Samajwadi Party-Congress alliance, “phisal gaye to har har gange”, highlighting the BJP’s return to Hindutva, and a few such attractive slogans went viral. Newspaper reports quoted Afzal Siddiqui, son of a senior BSP leader Naseemuddin Siddiqui, as the mind behind the social media campaign. “We realised our mistake and after discussing it with behenji, we turned our focus to it,” he told The Times of India.

However, Sagar said the volunteers are doing their thing without Mayawati’s directives. It is no secret that Mayawati did not believe in social media, and if they are using it now, it suggests she has been forced to move on with times. But acknowledging that would mean conceding an error in judgment, perhaps the reason behind the BSP’s line of narrative.

Rajya Sabha member Ashok Siddharth, for example, reportedly said he does not operate his Facebook page with over 11,000 likes and it could be started and run by party supporters. Aashish Yadav, on the contrary, did not fail to mention that Akhilesh Yadav operates his Twitter and Facebook accounts himself, clearly indicating the difference in approach of the two regional parties towards social media.

There are close to 25 lakh first-time voters in Uttar Pradesh this time. With commentators saying the caste identities among the youth are being gradually blurred with education, the first-time voter could potentially swing the election. “Social media is a very effective tool to tap youngsters,” Aashish said. “We have managed to reach 90 percent of those with access to social media across the state.”

The BJP first used social media extremely effectively in 2014 general elections. It was a catalyst in the young voter gravitating towards Narendra Modi. The Samajwadi Party’s strategy seems to be inspired by the BJP’s success. However, Aashish denied it. “It is true the BJP used it efficiently in 2014,” he said. “But in 2012, Akhilesh Yadav had made “umeed ki cycle” viral on social media. Therefore, BJP could have been inspired by him.”

Then why did their campaign come alive only in late 2016? “When we thought we had done enough work to show for, we decided to go full-fledged. We do not indulge in negativity,” said Aashish, as he showed around their social media centre, or as they call it, war room. The team – most of which, Aashish said, is not charging a rupee including him – hardly looked up or moved their eyes away from the screen as the two of us engaged in a conversation. “Yeh ek tarah ka Yuddh hi hai. Sabki aahuti lag rahi hai yaha,” he said.