Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav has hinted that he was considering contesting in the upcoming state Assembly elections from the Bundelkhand region. The fact is that 43-year-old Akhilesh, despite being tied up in a knotty family feud and fractious party problems, did find time to launch solar power projects, distribute freebies and address public rallies in Bundelkhand in the new year.
Bundelkhand, a conspicuously backward region, has successively been hit by drought, distress-migration and, most recently, demonetisation. Government programs aimed to help the economically deprived, such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, the Food Security Act, the mid-day meal schemes and social security pensions seem to have by-passed the rural poor here. This has only aggravated the destitution and malnutrition among them.
In past Lok Sabha elections, Akhilesh won from Kannauj and Firozabad constituencies. If he were to contest his first Assembly election from this semi-arid and underdeveloped part of UP, it would not only make a great deal of political sense but also be a symbolic move by a leader who envisions a national role for himself in the future.
Akhilesh will simultaneously be expanding the Samajwadi Party's (SP) sphere of influence, its public outreach and its development agenda. So far, SP's election activities seem to have focused more on urban infrastructure and the better-off rural population, be it in the context of link road connectivity or sugarcane pricing. In addition to projects such as the metro, expressways, super-specialised medical care and the availability of laptops, Akhilesh's political commitment could expand to take up challenges that UP's poorer regions such as Bundelkhand pose.
The young chief minister's vaunted clean image could also serve as a counterpoint to the massive corruption that has crippled social security schemes in the region. By staging a successful coup of sorts in Lucknow against his own father, SP chief Mulayam Singh Yadav, and other senior SP leaders, Akhilesh has shown considerable pluck, resoluteness and appetite for risk.
It remains to be seen how much political weight Bundelkhand's limited number of Assembly seats -- just 19 out of a total 403 seats in UP -- can carry in the elections. But then, Akhilesh is also seeking a larger canvas to chart out his fortunes, going beyond SP bastions of Etawah, Kannauj, Mainpuri and Farrukhabad.
Among the Bundelkhand legislative constituencies being mentioned as suitable for Akhilesh's candidature are Baberu, Babina, Charkhari and Mahoba. Of these seats, Baberu and Charkhari are currently held by SP. The other two, Babina and Mahoba, are held by the arch-rival Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP).
In the 2012 Assembly Elections, BSP won seven seats in Bundelkhand, SP won five, Congress four and the Bharatiya Janata Party three. If Akhilesh contests from Babina or Mahoba, it will send a message of confidence in the ability of his cadres to deliver the seat to him by defeating the incumbent legislator.
A.K. Verma, who teaches political science at the Christ Church College, Kanpur, said that Bundelkhand, once SP's domain, had long since become a BSP stronghold. "By identifying himself with Bundelkhand, he is trying to retrieve lost ground," said Verma. "It makes sense because it is a region close to his area (power-base). The lands are physically contingous and share a cultural affinity."
"Bundelkhand has always attracted national and international attention," he added. "Anyone who focuses on Bundelkhand gets attention."
Focusing on Bundelkhand will also help if SP is eyeing a larger interstate presence in the future in what is geographically the heart of India. The part of Bundelkhand lying in Madhya Pradesh includes Datia, Tikamgarh, Chhatarpur, Panna, Sagar, Guna, Ashoknagar and Damoh. The Uttar Pradesh side includes Jhansi, Lalitpur, Jalaun, Hamirpur, Mahoba, Banda and Chitrakoot. While straddling two states now, culturally Bundelkhand is one, going back many centuries in history.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Rahul Gandhi and Mayawati have all spoken about Bundelkhand in the run up to the UP Assembly polls. Its hapless poor have had to endure extreme weather events, untimely rains and droughts, and widespread crop failure. Irrespective of the party in power in Lucknow, the livelihoods of the region's vulnerable communities continue to remain precarious.
Professor Ashutosh Misra of Lucknow University describes Bundelkhand as "unconquered territory," whose lot no political party has managed to change because all they have done is "dole out insignificant freebies."
But the chief minister of the state contesting from the region would mean that it would "get priority in an intense way," Misra pointed out. "This kind of hype is very attractive to the people who are starving and suffering," he explained. "They believe that the institution is listening and they could get something out of it."
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