“Once the Balakot effect winds down, then economic issues resurface”: In Conversation with Gilles Verniers

In this podcast, Vasundhara Sirnate Drennan speaks to Prof. Gilles Verniers about the upcoming electoral contest in Uttar Pradesh, the Balakot effect and people’s response to vigilante violence and encounter killings.

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Q:  So, my first question for you is, can you give us a sense of how the contest in Uttar Pradesh for this General Election is polarized?

A: Well, it depends on what sort of polarization you’re talking about. Uttar Pradesh is India’s largest state in terms of population which is close to 200 million. It sends 80 Members of Parliament to the Lok Sabha. So, it’s been a crucial state for national politics ever since India became independent. It is also a state where a number of important regional parties have been dominating the scene backed by powerful caste groups of various kinds. In recent years, the BJP [Bhartiya Janta Party] has become extremely dominant in that state, sweeping most of the seats in the 2014 elections, winning 80 per cent of the seats in the recent state elections in 2017. They have done so largely, but not exclusively, through a strategy of social and communal polarization that aim at dividing the social alliances that provide backing or support to other parties and fragmenting the political landscape to their advantage.

It’s important to know that in Indian politics because of the first-past-the-post system, in order to build a majority, you have to divide the electorate rather than unite it. Because when you have a fragmented political landscape, a majority parity system, first-past-the-post, it’s the distribution of votes and the level of fragmentation around the main party that determines the conversion of votes into seats. And so while it may sound technical, it is very important because it signifies that it pays off to divide voters. That is a strategy that the BJP has followed in that state and other parts of the country ever since its inception and has done so exceptionally successfully over the past few elections. That is at the cost of marginalization of the largest minority, the Muslims, who represent 18 per cent of the population in UP and also at the cost of the unleashing of a lot of tension and violence and further entrenchment of discrimination practices against the minorities. So, what is at stake in this election – there are a lot of things are at stake – but one of the important things is the place minorities may occupy in India’s public or political sphere.

Q: That was also going to be one of the questions that I have for you. In 2014, you had written a piece for The Hindu Centre where you said that up till 2012, UP in particular had seen a certain increase in Muslim representation at the level of the State Assembly. But your recent piece with Professor Christophe Jaffrelot also says that, that has dwindled. How is it that within a span of 4-5 years, up till the Assembly Elections of 2017, we are seeing that the Muslim representation in the local assembly in Uttar Pradesh has dropped. What explains that?

A: Essentially there are two main factors that explain that. In the first one importantly, lies, you know, within the electoral behavior of Muslim voters in UP. So, the rise of representation that UP has seen over the past 15-20 years, that is before 2014 and before 2017, came from the fact that the local electoral behavior of Muslim voters became more and more cohesive and strategic. Over time, there is a large number of seats where you have a new majority of very important share of the population that is Muslim, which obviously gives them a demographic advantage. But through time, they have actually lost, sort of speaking, a lot of seats by split voting. So, parties would be incentivized to give tickets to Muslim candidates in areas with a large Muslim population, Muslim voters would divide their votes between different Muslim candidates, and some third party usually the BJP and some Hindu candidate would win the seat. And so, what you saw, what we saw over time is that, that element of spilt voting greatly reduced, owing to better voter coordination at the local level. This does not mean that Muslims in UP vote massively for the same party but there is local coordination which may benefit the Congress, the BSP [Bahujan Samaj Party], the Samajwadi or some other local party. So that was a factor for the rise of representation and in 2014 and in 2017, for a number of reasons, that coordination didn’t really work. A lot of voters split their votes between SP [Samajwadi Party], BSP and Congress candidates and that cost them a lot of representation.

The other factor of dwindling representation comes from the BJP itself, because as that party has been rising they do not provide space to Muslims at all. They do not give tickets to Muslim candidates. It has been a strategy for them of marginalization of Muslims. But it has also been a strategy of pursuing a communal agenda in a slightly more subdued manner. So rather than making incendiary speeches against Muslims, they would simply deprive them of representation.

Q: And this has important consequences for the types of issues that are raised about minorities in the country, isn’t it? Because as you have also written before, that the number of questions concerning minorities is linked to their presence in Parliament. So, as you say in other words, “institutions care about minorities only as long as their members are represented in them”. So, what does this say about the future for minorities in UP?

A: Well, it is a little bit dire because right now there is very little space where Muslims can actually voice their concerns. The rise of the BJP has been so strong and even the perception of the acceptance of the BJP’s ideas is also so strong that other political parties have also started to reduce the space they used to provide to Muslims, by fear of what they call the Hindu backlash. Right? So, in a way, it is also sort of a cultural victory that the BJP has won by in a way incentivizing other parties to reduce the space that’s provided to Muslims. But, I mean there is a number of factors that also prevent Muslims from raising a strong voice. They are themselves, you know, extremely heterogeneous and divided in terms of class or caste or sectarian affiliations: Sunnis, Shias and so forth.

If you look at the larger picture in the national Parliament, you currently have 22 Muslim MPs who belong to ten different parties and coming from eleven different states. So, they do not form, even the small number of Muslim representatives do not form a cohesive group. And they are themselves extremely diluted within their own parties. So, there is a multiplicity of factors. Obviously, it is easy to cast the blame on the BJP and obviously, they do hold a large share of responsibility for this state of marginalization, but there are many other factors at work including within Muslim communities themselves.

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Q: I see. Going along with this idea of representation and ticket distributions as you have said, how have parties faired in this election cycle in terms of ticket distribution to female candidates?

A: So that another group that is extremely marginalized in Indian politics and in here, there is an even greater sense of paradox, because, just to give a little bit of background context- India has produced a large number of very powerful, you know, female political figures: the former Prime Minister, Chief Ministers, presidents of political parties. There are lots of formidable women in Indian politics. At the same time, thanks to a reservation system or an affirmative action system that is now 28 years old, 54 per cent of members of elected local bodies: Panchayats, municipalities, are women. So that is a radical, profound transformation of local politics. But in between, in elected assemblies at the state and at the national level, the representation of women is absolutely abysmal.

India currently ranks 149th among nations with parliaments in terms of representation of women. The situation is even more dire at the state level where you barely have 8 per cent of women representatives. And the main culprit here are political parties who remained patriarchal organizations led by a number of beliefs or misconceptions or stereotypes or prejudices or myths, you pick your word, against women in politics. Most political parties gave the same kind of excuses that it is a risk giving a ticket to women because they do make, you know, weaker candidates or they are voiceless proxies for some relatives. Or some parties, animated by sort of twisted sense of social justice, tells that, say that, only elite women can succeed. Right? Therefore, we should not, you know, encourage their greater inclusion.

So, right now in the current state of affairs, so we have about half of the candidates declared at least for all the major parties and the landscape is not very very different. I mean there are 12 per cent of women candidates among the BJP, 13 per cent among the Congress – not very different than previous election levels.

The only two exceptions are the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, who took the bold step of decreeing that 41 per cent of their candidates would be women and they have delivered. The Biju Janta Dal in Orissa has also declared that and promised that a third of their tickets would be given to women and they have delivered. A number of state governments have, you know, declared themselves in favor of women reservation bill that would make mandatory, a representation of a third of all seats to women. But all of the parties actually have not followed, so, these are only two exceptions so far.

In fact, most of the regional parties that are strong, dominant in a number of states are sort of speaking, the worst offenders in terms of women marginalization. The Dravidian parties in the South who claim being the inheritors of a strong egalitarian political tradition have barely given, distributing less than 5 per cent tickets to women. So that is barely one or two women on each side. The regional parties in the North have not done better either and so those regional parties that often stand for lower castes representations, equality, political of dignity and social justice, tend to be the most gender-skewed of all parties.

And there is another phenomenon, also is that most of the women who are nominated tend to belong to political families. Right? So, this dynastic factor in Indian politics where entry is greatly facilitated if you already have members of your family or relatives already in politics. And the ratio so far among major parties is about 50 per cent: half of the women candidates belong to prominent political families. In the case of Bihar, most of the women candidates happen to be wives of criminals turned politicians. Many of them in jail or convicted for, you know, murder or rape or other cases, who cannot run on their own and therefore have their wife contest in their favor.

In all honesty, it is not entirely fair to single out women for dynastic factors. There are obviously plenty of men who also belong to political families but because there are so few women it is easier to collect data actually, even though we are trying to collect the data for men as well.

Q: Right. To win an election in India and to get a majority in the Lok Sabha, everybody says that the two states that any party needs to focus on are UP and Bihar. So, for the Congress, how is it going in UP?

A: Well, you really should ask them that question. I doubt anyone really has a clue on what is exactly going on. There is something strange happening in UP, is that, so it is the crucible state to win at the Centre, everybody knows that. And the BJP is in a formidable position given its, you know, past history of performance and there has been an effort to consolidate the opposition into a broader, anti-BJP alliance to defeat it.

Historically, whenever a party has occupied a dominant position, either within a state or at the national level, they have only been defeated by broad, you know, by a united opposition. So, in UP, you have four major parties plus a number of small local parties. BSP, SP- the two regional parties, the dominant BJP and the Congress who has been in a great trajectory of decline. They used to dominate that state for decades and have completely collapsed through the 80s, 90s and have never recovered. To give you an example, there was a recent by-election in the constituency of Phulpur near Allahabad, which is the constituency that Jawaharlal Nehru used to contest and win from and in the last by-election,  the Congress did 2 per cent. So how do you go from, you know, Jawaharlal Nehru’s constituency to 2 per cent? And so, the Congress party in UP is a distant fourth in almost all constituencies, barring a few, and therefore have very little prospect – if not no prospect – to actually be a serious contender. But rather than providing support to a broad alliance which would also come handy, you know, in post-electoral negotiations, they have decided to go on their own, incurring the risk of actually denting into the support base of the alliance and therefore paving the way of the BJP’s victory or helping greatly the BJP to tame its decline in that state where it won so many states that it can only go down now. And that could actually have a strong impact on national balance of power, right? Because if the BJP is strongly defeated in UP, it may affect its ability to form a government in a coalition, to form a coalition. But if the BJP can still resist and still win a good number of seats in that state then that would greatly help obviously to get a second term.

So, the situation of the Congress is that they are basically torn between two strategies. One that consists in sort of maximizing what they are calling their revival, right? That basically means contesting as many seats as possible and the other strategy would be to try to do anything necessary, everything necessary to defeat the BJP, which would require them to get out of the way in local races where some other party or some other candidate has an objectively stronger chance of defeating the BJP. So, they are torn between revival and defeating the BJP and unfortunately for them they cannot do both at the same time.

Q: Right, and as you have also pointed out that their alliance making, their pre-poll alliance making has not been optimal for them and as you have also advised that they need to kind of, give way to stronger, local contenders and they have not been able to do that effectively for reasons which we don’t understand…

A: Well, for reasons we don’t really understand because that’s the strategy that seems to be paying off, I mean that has the most promise and they are not following it. But there are historical reasons also. Not every regional party was keen to run towards the Congress to forge an alliance either, because the Congress has a history and the reputation of being a fickle or an unreliable partner. I mean, if you look at the record of the BJP and Congress with their own broad coalition government at the Centre, the BJP actually has a better record at working along with partners, making a coalition work. While the Congress party retained that ability, that tendency to concentrate power, to dismiss or denigrate its own partners. It never got, it never quite recovered from the position of ultra-dominance that they once had, that still makes them think that they as the only national catch-all, secular party ought to be the only legitimate, single ruler of India. And they have never really been able to depart themselves from that attitude and that of course have not helped them to build alliances.

Even in states where they have been in an alliance for a while, they have been bickering unnecessarily over seat sharing agreements, right? Why risk a larger picture alliance for, you know, one or two seats here and there?

Q: Right. My next question is actually about the administration, the current administration in Uttar Pradesh and it is already the center of some controversy because ever since Yogi Adityanath took over as Chief Minister, the number of encounter killings in the state has increased and this is also something that the Supreme Court has said that requires serious consideration, as early as January of this year. And from the Indian Express what we have gathered is that last year alone, between March 2017 and now there have been about 2300 shootouts and 63 encounter deaths that were spread across 24 districts.

My question for you is, does any of this impact how the common voter in Uttar Pradesh sees the BJP and the Yogi Adityanath administration?

A: Well, to say that, that administration has got in some controversy is a very very mild way to put it. I think it’s important to first define a little bit what is meant by encounters. So, its basically a tactic or a strategy of extrajudicial killing or you know, forceful, muscular forms of arrests of gangsters or people who are alleged to be gangsters. A demonstration of force from the state and the police encouraged by a system of reward and promotion of police officers who either capture or gun down gangsters without other form of due-process.

On one hand you could think that this might be a very destructive form of politics and they would be a lot of outcry. The reality on the ground is that there is a lot legitimacy, a social legitimacy for the politics of encounters. Gangsterism has been and remains a very large problem in UP. That’s a state where the association of the term law and order has always been euphemistic and therefore a lot of segments of the voters welcome the fact that the state seems to be doing decisive and even a bit radical against gangsters.

Now, of course, the devil always lies in the detail because obviously one can look at the identity of the people being targeted. And a lot of people have alleged that that policy was used to go after Muslim strongmen and some of them were. But the rule was to go after gangsters affiliated with opposition parties, while leaving in peace the gangsters affiliated with the party in power. And one of the effects that it had, so while that in itself was popular and it went in the context of legislations against gangsterism and so forth, eviction, appropriation of property of gangsters – you’ll acquire properties and so forth, so that was also popular. But by basically blowing heat on gangsters – I mean a lot of them have left, disappeared, gone underground, migrated and they have left basically a void in the criminal space of the state, which has been very quickly filled by criminal element associated with the BJP and the regime in place.

Its worth remembering that the Chief Minister, Yogi Adityanath, is some sort of a monk warrior sort of political figure, who also is the head of a private Hindu militia – the Hindu Yuva Vahini. And in areas where gangsters have been “dealt with”, those local spaces of criminality have been filled by many members of that organization, who are now indulging in local gangsterism, land grab, business grab, extortion. And so ultimately this could create a backlash against the BJP administration, not the policy of encounter itself, but some of its consequences.

Q: But are the voters able to see what you’re saying, which is that crime families and criminal gangs are basically being replaced with another type of crime family and criminal gangs? Are they able to see that and link it to the administration?

A:  Well, those who are at receiving end of criminality obviously are bound to see it. But there is something that complicates things a little bit which is that there is also a good dose of social legitimacy of gangsterism when that gangsterism is perceived to be at the service of people. Right? The reason why so many criminals thrive in politics in not that they can coerce voters to vote for them by fear or coercion but because they can use sometimes their criminal means to actually provide services to people: mediation, access to resources, getting the local administration to work, more or less gentle leaning on them, getting the job done, and so forth, right? And so, the perception that the people and the voters will have, will be very much dependent on the profile of the gangsters who have been targeted. If the state goes after some sort of a local Robin Hood, they are bound to react negatively. If the state goes against the local gangsters or a mafia don, who has been kidnapping people, extorting then this might turn out to be a popular move. And now the fact that a lot of those Hindu militants are getting into the business of criminality, they might be more inclined to, at least in the first phase, to do that in a self-serving manner. I mean that’s the main incentive and so that may create a backlash. But as you see the situation on the ground is more complicated and nuanced unclear local factors, local configuration actually matters a lot. There is a quote from Milan Vaishnav’s book on criminality, “So what he is a gangster? He is our gangster.”

Q: Right. That’s quite right. But encounter deaths and encounters are not the only administrative criticism that Yogi Adityanath’s regime has faced. There is also the question of cow related attacks and incidents, there is a question of how demonetization was managed and then there is also this question of the fact that a lot of the victims of this kind of violence, overwhelmingly as even our data at Polis is showing, tend to be Dalits and Muslims. So how does any of that actually impact, how you think a decision will be made in UP this time?

A: Yeah, this to my mind, I mean the issue of cow, the issue of lynching and those kinds of communal violence is going to be a greater determining factor of electoral behavior, at least for Muslims and Dalits and perhaps others.

The cow issue as it’s known, has several important angles. One is the violence associated with the cow protection movement which has existed in India ever since before independence, so there is nothing really new here. But what you have is an enabling regime. And what you have is local organizations, subsidiaries or affiliate organizations of the Sangh Parivar, the Hindu nationalists, that basically take cattle justice into their hands and go after people who they think are smuggling cow or meat or stocking meat or selling meat and so forth. Obviously, there is always a possibility and a reality of instrumentalization of the issue to go after Muslims, point blank. I mean quite simply and quite crudely, that is also there.

Now, there is another aspect to the cow issue, which is that the cow protection regime that has been put in place, prevents cattle owners of disposing or culling of their non-productive cattle. A cow will have a certain life-cycle of productivity. At some point they don’t give milk, they don’t give birth, and you have to dispose off them- that’s the reality of cattle rearing. But, now that has become so risky and difficult and almost illegal to do that, people have no option but just to release their non-productive cattle in the open.

So, India always had this image of a cow-loving population, where the cows would be happily roaming in the countryside; the reality is that an increased population of roaming cattle means a lot of disturbance, a lot of destruction. They break-up fences, they damage crops, there are traffic issues, they cause road and train accidents. The fact that no one dare touches the carcasses for being attacked or being accused of having killed a cow in the first place, means that the poor animals are basically rotting wherever they die, which is a huge public health issue. And it has become a very very severe situation, to the point that there have been protests movements, where people have been basically locking up cattle within the boundaries of public institutions like schools and district collector’s offices and basically angrily telling that, you know, now you take care of them, since you don’t let us take care of them the way we should.

And that to my mind, this aspect of the cow issue will have more repercussion, because it has an impact on farming, it has an impact on farmers, it is a huge destruction, more so than the communal aspect, I would think.

Q: That’s very interesting, because it is also true that in Uttar Pradesh there are several industries dedicated to leather and leather goods manufacturing around Kanpur and Agra as well. So, I really do wonder how that will play out this time.

A: Yeah, I mean those industries have been at a standstill, because they cannot get the raw material, and, these are industries that traditionally have employed literally millions of Dalits and Muslims. I mean the leather industry alone is about four million workers in UP and if you combine that with other external shocks that the economy  has had to endure: the GST, the demonetization, the overall slump of the economy- so if you combine all this together, it basically means that the economic situation of millions of people has gone from bad to worse and that’s bound to have a lot of repercussions in the ballot.

Q: Is there also farmer unrest in Uttar Pradesh?

A: Again, I mean that’s a very large, complex issue. But agriculture has been under-served by successive governments for decades. This is not a new phenomenon. Things have been made worse by circumstantial elements. The demonetization has had a strong impact on agriculture because cash trapped farmers could not afford to buy seeds or fertilizers or pesticides and so that has had delayed negative effect on agricultural production.

Also, agriculture is a sector of the economy that remains highly regulated, prices of commodities remain controlled by the government. It is true for wheat, it is true for sugar for example, for cane. And in recent years farmers have a genuine and legitimate concern and claim that they haven’t been served properly. There have been inordinate delays in payment of dues to farmers, the adjustment of guaranteed prices have not been satisfactory, the costs have been rising.

There is also the broader context of transformation of the agricultural economy in which pretty much any activity other than farming yields more income and return than agriculture. And so there has been a lot of pressure among the farmers to basically exit farming. But the problem is that India does not have the jobs to absorb the population. It does not even have the jobs to absorb the new generations of Indians coming into the labor market. So, forget about those who try to leave one sector that still employs 60-65 per cent of the working force into other domains.

So that’s creating a lot of frustration because those who are doing well locally are those who had the means of investing in other forms of economic activity. Those who are stuck in farming, cultivate a legitimate feeling of being left behind.

Q: So, what you are saying is basically that there is unrest at a lot of levels and even though the Congress’s prospects don’t look very bright, it doesn’t eclipse the fact that there is still unrest so the contest and how it will be decided remains to be seen.

But is this one of the reasons that the nationalism of Pulwama and the Balakot air strikes is, how is that playing out in UP? Is it actually taking the attention of the voters away from all this distress that you are describing?

A: I think it does but only for a while. Obviously, I mean there are a lot of controversies about how an event, an attack such as Pulwama could take place and how we didn’t see it coming etc. I mean regardless of that controversy, at the risk of sounding very cynical, its been a great opportunity for the BJP to find a diversion issue. To basically find an issue that ties onto national security they could use to sort of change the public narrative that was going against them as long as it was centered on agriculture, rural unrest, jobs, unemployment, lack of economic performance and so forth. And so they have been harping on that rather heavily, playing basically the national security card, a strongman card, that this is a leader, publicizing the fact that they conducted airstrikes after the Pulwama attack. I mean that has gone, that has become basically a main plank of using the renewed tension with Pakistan, the vilification of Pakistan. And it’s been used, it is being used as a diversion of all other issues that don’t play in the favor of the BJP.

But now you can divert the attention of people on those issues only for a certain period of time. But the economic issue, the bread and butter issue, always remain. So once the Balakot effect winds down, then economic issues resurface. So, the Congress has played a rather good strategy.  After a while, after some hesitation, and after some clumsy moves and declarations- they have decided that we are not going to match the BJP on national security but we are going to hammer on the subject of jobs and income and talk about the policies that we would put in place if we were elected in power. So, this idea of a quasi-universal basic income for the poor and so forth. And, they’re getting traction which goes to show that there is so much you can do with national security issue. But these are not all-pervasive issues and while a lot of people in India of course have strong sentiments vis-à-vis Pakistan or against Pakistan, most Indians do have, you know, a very strong positive feeling of patriotism but it’s not an indefinite substitute to the daily bread and butter issues that mark their daily existence.

Gilles Verniers is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Ashoka University and Co-Director of the Trivedi Centre for Political Data. His research interests include mechanisms of representation and participation in India, state politics, democratisation in South Asia, sociology of elected representatives, controversies and problems in India’s democracy, ethnic and post-identity politics, minority politics, and political parties. As Co-director of the Trivedi Centre for Political Data, Gilles spearheads a number of research projects and data building efforts on contemporary Indian politics.

Vasundhara Sirnate Drennan is the Director of Research, The Polis Project, Inc. 

Transcribed by Preetika Nanda

The Polis Project is a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) collective. If you like what we do, please support us here or through Patreon

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