POLITICS

Meet The Man Running BJP's Campaign In The Crucial Uttar Pradesh Assembly Polls

Like the Prime Minister, he too sold tea.

10/02/2017 12:41 PM IST | Updated 10/02/2017 1:44 PM IST
Adnan Abidi / Reuters

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has promised to clean up politics. The man running the ruling party's campaign in a crucial state election, who is facing 11 criminal cases, says it will take a while.

"At a time of elections, one has to forget every other aspect and just focus on victory," said Keshav Prasad Maurya, as his three-vehicle convoy carrying police with automatic rifles sped through the countryside.

Polls open on Saturday in Uttar Pradesh, with a population of some 220 million, and on the ground Modi's loftier aims for a new India seem far away.

Maurya, the state's president for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), says the charges against him are false and politically motivated; unless he is convicted, they do not prevent him from holding office.

His bosses are not concerned.

An official at the prime minister's office referred questions about Maurya and his criminal cases to the BJP, where an aide to party president and Modi confidant Amit Shah said there was no problem.

The charges are related to Maurya protesting on behalf of Hindu causes, said the aide, and anyone who does so "is not a criminal in the party's eyes."

"Slowly," Maurya told Reuters, "the BJP will be moving towards a direction where it will only have politicians who are absolutely clean and have no cases of corruption against them."

Modi stormed to power in 2014 vowing to sweep away corruption and vested interests from business and politics.

Late last year, he abruptly abolished 86 percent of cash in circulation, in a bid to crush the shadow economy, force Indians to declare their wealth and empower the poor.

Ahead of the world's biggest scheduled election this year in Uttar Pradesh, though, the BJP is sticking to an old formula: an elite with rap sheets and swelling bank accounts who pit religious communities and caste against each other.

The party's manifesto for the state poll, for example, mixed development with a set of right wing Hindu causes likely to upset the sizeable Muslim population.

Analysts say that if Modi wins through divisive politics driven by men with controversial backgrounds, it undermines his populist narrative of a rising India.

As Maurya criss-crossed Uttar Pradesh by helicopter and sport utility vehicle ahead of a month-long election, voters were doubtful of wholesale reform to the way Indian politics work.

"That's not going to change – the corrupt and the criminal are able to get votes," said Rakesh Kumar Gupta, as he sold bread, cigarettes and snacks from the same cramped stand his father tended before him in Uttar Pradesh's capital, Lucknow.

Ashutosh Mishra, head of the political science department at the University of Lucknow, said he saw no sign that Modi or any other major Indian politician was serious about overhauling a system he described as "feudal."

"Why should they? They are enjoying the perks of power, they are living the lives of modern gods," Mishra said.

The biggest of five state polls held in India this spring points to a central dilemma for Modi.

If he loses the poll in Uttar Pradesh, he risks dissent in the ranks of his support base and a weaker position for his bid for re-election in 2019.

But analysts say that if Modi wins through divisive politics driven by men with controversial backgrounds, it undermines his populist narrative of a rising India.

Also at stake in Uttar Pradesh is the number of seats Modi controls in the Rajya Sabha, where the opposition has managed to delay some economic reforms.

Maurya's career bears a resemblance to that of the prime minister. Both are from poor families and as young men helped their fathers sell cups of tea. Each rose to prominence through the ranks of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

Maurya's career bears a resemblance to that of the prime minister.

Both are from poor families and as young men helped their fathers sell cups of tea. Each rose to prominence through the ranks of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a powerful Hindu nationalist umbrella group that helped create the ruling party.

Unlike Modi, though, Maurya's criminal docket and wallet have expanded in recent years.

In 2007, when he ran for office in the state legislature in Uttar Pradesh, he had four criminal cases pending and some 13.6 million rupees (about $200,000 at current rates) in assets, according to his election filings.

In 2014, as he campaigned successfully for a seat in the Lok Sabha, Maurya faced 11 cases and declared 93.2 million rupees in assets.

Maurya blamed rival politicians for the criminal cases lodged against him.

Asked how his declared assets rose so rapidly - nearly sevenfold in seven years to more than $1.3 million, in a state where average annual per capita earnings are less than $750 - he replied: "My assets are very small, I don't have too much."

The combination of wealth and criminal charges have a close correlation with election success in India, data show.

During the last Uttar Pradesh state polls, in 2012, those with criminal cases made up some 20 percent of candidates but almost 50 percent of winners, according to the Association for Democratic Reforms, a Delhi-based advocacy group that examines candidate disclosure forms.

The margin was even wider for those with declared assets of at least 10 million rupees (about $150,000) – 20 percent of candidates and 67 percent of winners.

The figures partly reflect wealthy candidates' ability to spend on campaigns, although the gap between their earnings and that of ordinary voters in India is eye-catching.

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