POLITICS

In UP, Two Women Push Caste And Religion Aside To Fight Each Other On Their Own Terms

Neither privilege nor their families define them.

29/01/2017 10:39 PM IST | Updated 30/01/2017 3:37 PM IST
Hindustan Times via Getty Images

LUCKNOW, Uttar Pradesh – The electoral battle between two women, Rita Bahuguna Joshi and Aparna Bisht Yadav, is shaping up to be one of the most exciting in the Uttar Pradesh polls. In Lucknow, they are political royalty, one by birth and the other by marriage. But what makes their contest engrossing is that neither privilege nor their families define them.

Joshi, 67, is daughter of the late Hemwati Nandan Bahuguna who served as the Congress chief minister of U.P. (1973 – 75) before being forced to resign by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Yadav, 26, is the daughter-in-law of Mulayam Singh Yadav, founder of the ruling Samajwadi Party and sister-in-law of Akhilesh Yadav, present chief minister. The two women are facing off over the Lucknow Cantonment (Cantt) constituency.

While their war of words escalates as the election draws close, in separate conversations with HuffPost India, Bahuguna and Yadav both expressed a strong desire to rise above the politics of caste and religious polarization. This won't be easy since the two women represent the Bharatiya Janata Party and the SP respectively, both parties being sustained by electoral divides of caste and community.

Lucknow Cantt is a mix of an army area, the "sadar bazaar" with small shopkeepers, government secretariat employees, professionals and daily wagers. It has Brahmin, Dalit, Vaishya, Thakurs and Muslims voters. In 2012 Joshi, contesting on a Congress ticket, won Lucknow Cantt. The seat, since 1991, had been held by the BJP. Joshi left the Congress last October to join the BJP, expressing dismay at her party's leadership. This triggered the flight of 17 other leaders from the Grand Old Party.

Joshi, a history professor, doesn't think that the voters would find the switch odd. Though, she admitted that her going over to BJP has saddened her Muslim constituents. "The Muslims are hurt. I have assured them that they should not doubt my association. They may not trust my party so much, but they trust me. Every voter is precious to me," the BJP leader told HuffPost India.

"I'm against using any emotive issue to polarize whether caste or community. People know about me. They know that I'm very hard working, a professional, and I have my father's legacy. I am secular, I was secular, I shall always be secular, and I have come to them on the agenda of development," she said.

The Muslims are hurt. I have assured them that they should not doubt my association.

Yadav, who has a graduate degree in politics and international relations at the Manchester University in England, has her work cut out. The SP has never won the seat from the Lucknow Cantt, which also happens to be where she was born and brought up. This was the seat that her father-in-law chose for her. "They have entrusted the responsibility probably because I'm well educated, probably because I'm a youth and I can work more. There was no safe seat system. Everyone has been given a tough task," she said.

Speaking at a public function over the weekend, Yadav said, "Development, development, development, don't vote for anything else. Don't vote on caste, don't vote on religion." Later she told HuffPost India that the country and all its politicians simply had to move beyond caste and religion.

Development, development, development, don't vote for anything else. Don't vote on caste, don't vote on religion.

During her eight-month long campaign, Yadav said that she had got roads constructed, hand pumps installed and drains repaired in Lucknow Cantt. The young leader has four things in mind for the constituency: turning it into a zero crime zone, making it a clean and green zone, setting up a women's counseling cell and setting up a skill development center where women can learn how to do chikan-work or make candles, papad and pickles to sell.

"I've been nursing my constituency like a mother for the past eight months. You'll see the beautiful baby come out in 2017," she said.

I've been nursing my constituency like a mother for the past eight months. You'll see the beautiful baby come out in 2017.

Adnan Abidi / Reuters

Modi: A Common Factor

It is a strange coincidence that the two candidates, hailing from opposite ends of the political spectrum, happen to admire Prime Minister Narendra Modi. And, stranger still that two photographs which they clicked with the prime minister (separately) should reveal so much about their past and personalities.

The first photo hangs on a wall in Joshi's house in Gulistan Colony in Lucknow. The former mayor of Allahabad, who is married to a mechanical engineer, started her political career with the SP before joining the Congress in the early nineties. She served as the president of the Congress Party from 2007 to 2012, and has long association with women's issues. In 2009, Joshi was jailed and her house was set on fire for making "objectionable" remarks against then chief minister Mayawati.

Aesthetically, there is nothing remarkable about the photo of Joshi standing on a podium with Modi, handing him a bouquet of flowers. But for Joshi it represents both a break from the past as well as a repetition of it.

Forty years ago, her father had also walked away from the Congress Party and allied with Janata Party in order to beat Indira Gandhi. Two years ago, Joshi's brother, Vijay Bahuguna, also left the Congress for the BJP after he was replaced as the chief minister of Uttarakhand. "Mrs. Gandhi (Indira Gandhi) was promoting emergency. My father was against it. He was against the imposition of leadership in the name of Sanjay Gandhi. I believe that Mrs. Gandhi (Sonia Gandhi) was a leader, but to play to the whims and fancies of a younger person (Rahul Gandhi), I think I also felt humiliated certain times," she said.

Joshi, referring to Narendra Modi, said, "My father thought that Emergency was wrong. I think that only bashing the Prime Minister and not coming to grips on issues is wrong. It was at that time that my father also joined the Janata Party. He stood on the same platform as the BJP."

My father thought that Emergency was wrong. I think that only bashing the Prime Minister and not coming to grips on issues is wrong.

So how does one reconcile the ideological differences when moving from the Congress to the BJP? For Joshi, it really wasn't that difficult."You have to weigh the options in a situation. Right now, what is the priority for UP. The priority is development, combat corruption and end the goonda raj," she said.

Joshi said that she had joined the BJP in an effort to end the rule of regional parties such as the SP and Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party. "It is my opinion that regional parties have done a huge harm to the nation. It has led to increase in corruption. They have created regional, language and community divides. The paradigm has shifted from development to other issues. A national party is the best option for the state," she said.

A national party is the best option for the state.

Betwa Sharma/HuffPost India

The Selfie

The second photograph is actually a selfie with Modi. It caused quite a stir when Yadav, who is also a trained classical singer, had shared it on Facebook in 2015. Mulayam's chhoti bahu has oft-repeated her admiration for Modi. And she doesn't shy away from doing it even while campaigning for this election, with the SP and BJP locked in a pitched battle.

"He is the prime minister of the country and he should be respected like that. He's not only BJP's face. Whenever he goes abroad, we don't say that a BJP person has come. We say Prime Minister Modi has come," she told HuffPost India on Sunday while taking a break from campaigning.

He is the prime minister of the country and he should be respected like that. He's not only BJP's face.

Yadav, a social activist, is married to Prateek Yadav, Mulayam's younger son from his second wife who, many people say, is trying to carve out a political space for her son. Some even believe her to be at the heart of the family feud that has driven a wedge between Mulayam and Akhilesh Yadav, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh.

In our conversation, Yadav rubbished all such speculation, insisting that her husband, who is often spotted pumping iron at his gym, has no interest in politics. So how did the chhoti-bahu negotiate the minefield of the family dispute?

"I think the responsibility of a daughter-in-law is that the family should stay one. There are fights in every family. Ours got exaggerated because we are in public life. There are certain limits of a daughter-in-law also from the Indian family system. But I did whatever I could do to unite," she said.

I think the responsibility of a daughter-in-law is that the family should stay one.

Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Over the past few years, Yadav, the daughter of a former journalist, has shown that she is unafraid of speaking her mind, whether it is on women's rights or praising Modi, and his Swachh Bharat Abhiyan exercise. It seems easy, but just being able to speak out can be quite a challenge when one is the bahuof a political family that in many ways is still deeply patriarchal. It was Mulayam who had opposed the death penalty for rape, with this remark: "ladke, ladkehain... galti ho jatihai" (boys will be boys).

Yadav told HuffPost India that she did not hesitate in speaking to her father-in-law. "I told him that it was not appropriate. I just say things that are very straight forward. What more can he do except to scold me? He is always very supportive of me," she said.

And, it was Mulayam with whom she and her four-year-old daughter, Pratima, felt the closest, Yadav said. With her husband occupied with building a real estate empire and a chain a gyms, the young activist had sought a large platform for her social work by joining politics. "People say that I have joined politics, but even now, my whole model, my whole campaign is social work," she said.

People say that I have joined politics, but even now, my whole model, my whole campaign is social work.

At the same time, Yadav is unapologetic about their wealth. She came out strongly in defense when political rivals drew attention to husband's Lamborghini, which he was spotted driving around, last week. "He's not at all political. He's a businessman and a businessman leads his life like a businessman. Even if he likes to have a Lamborghini, he is supporting so many NGOs. Not, just mine. He's never said that, I'm saying it," she said.

Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Pitched Battle

With less than three weeks for Lucknow Cantt to vote, the two candidates little else except eating, sleeping and campaigning. They spend their entire days on the road, going door-to-door, attending public functions, addressing gatherings and taking part in everyday joys and sorrows of the people. While Joshi bristles at being compared with Yadav, the younger woman doesn't take kindly to the senior leader's dismissive tone.

Joshi believes that the election is "one-sided." "The only thing my opponent has is a lot of money, a Lamborghini, and she is the daughter in law of casteist leader. My father was a taller leader than her father-in-law. And I have twenty-seven years of direct political service and twenty years in the women's movement," she said. "I feel humiliated when people compare us."

I feel humiliated when people compare us.

Yadav gives it right back, attacking her opponent's "foul mouth" and "very poor performance as an administrator." "I don't know why she is dismissive. She joined the Samajwadi Party, and then she went to the Congress Party. Then, she went to the BJP. She has not been able to settle her ideology in so many years. If someone is calling himself or herself a politician of substance that substance comes from ideology," she said.

If someone is calling himself or herself a politician of substance that substance comes from ideology.

In her achievements over the past three years, Joshi listed getting multi-crore sewage treatment centers set up in her constituency, the construction of a government hospital and clearing the waterlogging from the Kanpur Bridge. Yadav countered that in 2014 there were "missing" posters published because Joshi was never seen in her constituency. "I didn't get those posters put up. Her people only had put those up," she said.

Joshi found preposterous the suggestion that young leaders are in tune with the youth. "Rahul was representing the youth but it was Modi who made a sweep," she said.

Rahul was representing the youth but it was Modi who made a sweep.

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