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Religious polarization trumps development in Uttar Pradesh poll chatter

LiveMint logoLiveMint 28-02-2017 Gyan Varma

New Delhi: Has identity politics and polarization trumped development to claim centre stage in the ongoing election campaign in Uttar Pradesh?

Utterances from all the principal players—the Samajwadi Party (SP), the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP)—seem to suggest that what was once the sub-text of the campaign has now emerged central to the political messaging as the election moves through each phase and stakes keep increasing.

Beginning with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s controversial statements on “kabristan and shamshaan” (burial ground and crematorium) and accusing the Akhilesh Yadav-led state government of discrimination and BJP president Amit Shah’s “Kasab” (referring to Congress-SP-BSP) comment is giving the campaign a communal hue.

This came in the backdrop of both BSP and SP-Congress alliance focusing on wooing the powerful Muslim vote bank.

“As we moved towards the middle of the election, the BJP resorted to polarizing the election as it did not have any substantial issues to counter us on. If Modi had promised jobs in 2014, why didn’t he talk about that instead of bringing up the issue of kabristans? The last two phases of the election have been an SP stronghold and this is making the BJP uneasy because of which they have now resorted to polarization,” said Aashish Yadav, in-charge of SP’s campaign.

The extent of polariZation can be understood from the fact that the Election Commission (EC) in January censured BJP MP Sakshi Maharaj for his controversial comments on Muslims.

“The backlog of development and aspiration quotient of people are the two overarching themes of this election. Election is being contested on the promise of development. Polarization, the promise of temple and mosque issues are not the central theme of this election. The SP government is responsible for giving the fruits of development on the basis of caste and religion and BJP has only talked about what the state government has been doing,” said a senior BJP leader involved in the party’s campaign strategy.

Last week too, the EC advised leaders of all political parties to observe ‘self restraint’ while campaigning and noted that leaders were making inflammatory statements with an ‘underlying object’ of mixing religion with election campaign.

“This narrative changed from the third phase of polling. It is definitely having some impact on voters but it will not be a deciding factor. We all know who started it and for what reason. Politically, it is not going to have much impact because voters see through such agenda,” a senior Congress leader from UP said, seeking anonymity.

Majority of voters across western UP, central UP, Bundelkhand and eastern UP feel that Mayawati-led BSP giving 99 tickets (its maximum till now) to Muslim candidates and the decision of SP leadership to join hands with Congress to avoid a division of Muslim votes—were both an attempt to build on the polarization narrative.

Analysts argue that polarization as a strategy has gained currency as political parties are seeking to identify themselves uniquely to voters.

“Development was the central plank in 2014 and Modi had spoken about it but post-2014 all political parties are talking about development which has made it a common denominator in this election. When an issue becomes a common denominator, political parties look for different means of mobilizing of voters. So caste and religion comes very handy,” said A.K.Verma, Kanpur based political analyst.

According to data compiled by the home ministry, Uttar Pradesh has witnessed rising cases of communal violence over the last three years. In 2013, 77 people were killed and 360 injured in communal clashes, while in 2014, in 133 incidents of communal violence, 26 were killed and 374 injured. However, 2015 saw a sharp rise with 419 people being injured and 22 people being killed in 155 incidents of communal clashes.

This is in contrast to a pan-India record of communal violence, wherein in 2013, 133 people were killed and 2,269 injured, while in 2014, 95 were killed and 1,921 injured. In 2015, 97 people were killed and 2,264 were injured in 751 cases of communal clashes.

Shaswati Das and Meenal Thakur contributed to the story.

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