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The road to New Delhi

Smita Gupta | Updated on May 18, 2019 Published on May 17, 2019

Vote in, vote out: A positive result for the BJP in UP will ensure a second term for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. For the alliance, the story has a different subtext   -  ISTOCK.COM

A 16-day journey through the villages of Uttar Pradesh and conversations with people — from Muzaffarnagar to Mau — yield tales of distress, disappointment and a desire for change among the poor and the underprivileged

This is a summer of discontent. Or so it seems, as I travel through cities and villages of Uttar Pradesh. An official in Lucknow keeps it concise. “There is a sense of flatness to this election,” he tells me. Days later, I realise that he may not have caught the pulse of the people.

The elections are almost over. Uttar Pradesh will see the final phase of the polls on May 19. The outcome, to be declared on May 23, will have an impact on who rules at the Centre.

I have undertaken a 16-day journey by road, in two parts, through the length of the state. In villages across UP — and the state is 80 per cent rural — from the districts of Muzaffarnagar and Saharanpur in the west to those of Mau and Gorakhpur in the east, conversations yield tales of distress, disappointment and a desire for change among the poor and the underprivileged.

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What does that mean for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)?

“People have gone back to their own parties, the core votes have gone back. That’s bad for the BJP,” the upper-caste official adds.

He is comparing the seven-phase elections in Uttar Pradesh with the 2014 political tsunami that gave the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) 73 of the 80 seats in the state.

Indeed, there is little sign of the hope that Narendra Modi had sparked five years ago.

It is midday and the sun is beating down on the village of Majithia in Barabanki district. With her grey hair and in a threadbare sari, Lilawati, a Kannaujia (dhobi), has seen many elections. “Governments are made by the poor — and yet so little is done for them,” she says sadly.

In the last election, fellow villager Jogeshwar Prasad Yadav points out, people had voted for Modi. “They’d voted looking at Modi’s face. Ab Modi se kat rahein hain (people are now moving away from Modi),” he says.

Yadav’s comment is not surprising, given that the Samajwadi Party (SP) — often described as the party of the Yadavs — is standing strong again. But Rishi Kumar, the Kurmi pradhan of the neighbouring village of Harakh, is not greatly enthusiastic about the BJP either, even though it is said that the community backs the BJP.

Kumar, who is also the president of the Pradhan Sangh, a grouping of 76 gram panchayats in the area, is disappointed with the BJP mainly because of the tardy disbursal of government funds.

“I was meant to call a meeting of pradhans to decide who we should vote for. I am not going to do so — let people follow their own conscience,” he tells me.

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Against this backdrop, the coming together of the SP-BSP (Bahujan Samaj Party) — after a gap of 26 years — has pumped energy into the opposition campaign for change. For the older generation, it has also brought back memories of a classic slogan coined after BSP founder Kanshi Ram and SP patriarch Mulayam Singh Yadav joined hands in 1993, in the aftermath of the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya: “Mile Mulayam Kanshi Ram, hawa mein ud gaye Jai Shri Ram — As Mulayam and Kanshi Ram join hands, (the BJP plank of) Jai Shri Ram vanishes.”

Lying low: After being reduced to the electoral margins in 2014 and 2017, the SP, BSP and RLD have decided to keep their daily engagements with voters low-key   -  PTI/ATUL YADAV

 

It’s a do-or-die battle for the three communities the two parties broadly represent — the Yadavs, the Muslims and the Dalits. The Yadavs have tasted the loss of power — and they don’t like it. The Muslims see the BJP as inimical to their interests. The lynching of Muslims and the ban on cow slaughter have endangered lives and livelihoods, and they are looking for a political alternative. Dalits have been affected by the ban, too, for — like many Muslims — they are engaged in leather trade.

With the destruction of the cow economy, unproductive cattle have been let loose in the state, destroying crops in the fields. And since cows know no caste or class, the rich farmer has faced crop loss, like the poor farmer. For the latter, though, the damage has been back-breaking.

Cattle cry: With the cow economy folding, unproductive cattle roam loose, destroying crops   -  RAJEEV BHATT

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For the BJP, all this spells bad news. To top it, a former backer — the Jat farmer of western UP — has turned away. The gathbandhan’s third member, the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) represents the Jats who, if not fully, are substantially with the alliance. This has been largely because of RLD leader Ajit Singh’s year-long campaign to heal the rift between the Jats and Muslims, caused by the 2013 Muzaffarnagar communal violence.

That’s not all. The non-Yadav Most Backward Castes (MBCs), earlier largely all BJP voters, are fragmented this time. The Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party, which represents the Rajbhars, has severed ties with the BJP, and the belated entry of the hitherto anti-BJP Nishad Party into the NDA has annoyed many community members. In Gorakhpur, for instance, the Nishads stress that they will vote for the BSP’s Nishad candidate.

The Kurmis are still largely with the BJP, and a section of the Apna Dal, which represents the community, is a BJP ally. But in Allahabad, the alliance’s Kurmi candidate has split the community’s vote.

There is resentment brewing among the MBCs on the 10 per cent reservation given to the general category. “The forward quota will cut our quota,” points out Mohan Rajbhar, a BSP activist in Varanasi who is an MBC.

Many see this as the thin end of the wedge, the beginning of the end of reservation. In 2014, the MBCs felt that the Yadavs were grabbing all government benefits and had hoped that a BJP government would step in and change that. But a section of MBCs, especially the educated ones, tells me that they have received little from the BJP regime in the last five years, and are disillusioned.

The 10 per cent reservation for general castes is being seen as a danger signal. Activists in Allahabad say that Dalit WhatsApp groups in the city are full of fears that reservations will end altogether if the BJP returns to power.

The events of the last few years have turned the Jatavs, the largest Dalit community in UP, irrevocably against the ruling party — in urban and rural areas.

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It is early evening and I am at the Kanshi Ram Park in Shergarhi, Shastri Park, in Meerut city. Groups of men, all in trousers and shirts, are sitting on their haunches, playing cards. They are daily-wage labourers, but the combined impact of demonetisation followed by the faulty implementation of the goods and services tax (GST) has ensured that much less work comes their way now. Many say that though they are Jatavs, the community to which BSP supremo Mayawati belongs, they had voted for the BJP in 2014, and again during the state elections in 2017.

“We were all fooled by Modi. He actually wants to enslave the labour class and the Muslims. During notebandi, we weren’t paid for four months. This time we are all voting for Behenji (Mayawati’s BSP),” a worker says. This sentiment is echoed by the others.

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Clearly, a combination of factors is working against the BJP.

“People are facing rural distress, unemployment, the negative impact of demonetisation and GST,” says senior SP leader Rajendra Choudhury.

We are sitting in his room at the sprawling party office in Lucknow, and the complex is brimming with life. Choudhury tells me that he is reminded of the mood in 1977, when the Congress was ousted after the Emergency.

“People are now looking for a political mukhyadhara (mainstream). The gathbandhan has done just that: It has emerged as a trustworthy and credible alternative for the poor and the disempowered, for farmers and unemployed youth, for the SCs, OBCs and the Muslims,” he says. “I was in politics in 1977 — it feels like 1977 all over again.”

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For the BJP, it is crunch time. Sitting in his fortress-like office in Lucknow, where visitors are vetted before being allowed in, senior party functionary JPS Rathore says the battle is between nationalism and Modi on one side, and caste on the other.

“The gathbandhan is getting votes on the basis of caste. We are getting votes on the basis of nationalism, Narendra Modi’s leadership and our welfare schemes,” he says. The BJP, he adds, successfully “broke caste barriers in 2014, broke them further in 2017... and have now broken them down even more”.

And then there is always the Hindu vote. “Hindu sentiments are with (chief minister) Yogi Adityanath,” he says, “and the party is heavily dependent on Narendra Modi’s strongman image.”

Image power: Enormous hoardings of Modi line the streets of UP cities, promising vengeance on all those threatening the integrity of India   -  RV MOORTHY

 

Indeed, gigantic hoardings of Modi line the streets of UP cities, promising vengeance on all those threatening the integrity of India.

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It’s time for introspection among the upper castes, too.

As clients wait for him outside on the long shaded verandah in his home, Rakesh Pandey, chairman of the Allahabad High Court Bar Association, is seated in his book-lined study, dissecting the vote.

“Post-Mandal [the movement for reservations for OBCs], there was an inherent feeling that the BJP was more protective of upper caste interests. The forward castes are still squarely with the BJP. But unlike the Dalits, Yadavs and Muslims, the energy levels are down and they are not fanatically involved with the BJP. Will they cast their votes?”

The 10 per cent quota for general castes has been widely welcomed by the upper castes. But there is discontent as well.

Take this young man who is passing the time of day sitting in the shade with his three friends — all Brahmins — in the village of Lalanagar in Bhadohi district. The other three are voting for the BJP, but Vinod Tewari is not so sure about his own vote.

“I am a floating voter,” he says. I am not sure if he has broken the caste barrier or just does not fancy voting for the BJP candidate, Ramesh Bind, an MBC, especially when a former minister and fellow Brahmin, Ranganath Mishra, is the alliance nominee.

A district-level official in Varanasi offers a possible explanation. “Brahmins are upset by the aggressive Thakurvad (pro-Thakur tilt) of Yogi Adityanath — they feel that the power dividend has been grabbed by the Thakurs. The Thakurs feel that Brahmins in the bureaucracy are working to scuttle his administration and damage his reputation. The Banias [trading community] have been the worst sufferers, thanks to demonetisation and GST. They will vote BJP, but in smaller numbers.”

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This apparent lack of enthusiasm among the Brahmins and the Banias is a running thread across the state. I am also told that the Rajputs — Adityanath’s caste fellows, who have, or are perceived to have, benefited the most from his rule in terms of critical district postings — are rock solid with the BJP. So, imagine my surprise when a group of largely upper caste academics — among them two Rajputs, one Bania, one Brahmin and one Tyagi — all teaching science at the Banaras Hindu University (BHU) — unanimously criticises the BJP government at the Centre. They, however, do not wish to be identified, given the atmosphere of fear and reprisal on campus.

Their complaints included the downgrading and a drastic reduction of funds for research in the sciences and the privileging of those with RSS backgrounds for top university jobs, regardless of academic qualifications. They are concerned that the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the BJP’s student wing, has become a law unto itself on the campus.

“The ABVP has even beaten up professors who have questioned students on their lack of attendance, and the VC has extended his protection to these boys who act as his bodyguards,” says one professor, pulling out his mobile phone to show me a clip of a Dalit professor being thrashed by ABVP cadres.

Education, they stress, is not on the Modi government’s list of priorities. Government-funded educational institutions have become the “grazing grounds” for the RSS, they hold.

They also worry about the change in eastern UP’s gentle, composite culture. “When I went to school, I read about Akbar and Din-i-ilahi; my kids ask me about Balakot, and rush around the house with toy guns,” an academic says. “I want to ask Modiji: would you have made a Maulana a chief minister? If not, then how could you make Yogi Adityanath the chief minister?”

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The elections, I can now tell, have been flat only in one sense: Alliance members have maintained a low profile, preferring door-to-door canvassing deep in the villages, small meetings, and asking party colleagues and alliance partners to make contact with their caste fellows.

In a village in Amroha, for instance, I catch up with BSP candidate Danish Ali, once the very visible national general secretary of the Janata Dal-Secular (JD-S). In an impassioned speech to a small gathering, he speaks of the need to “break down the walls of hatred” with “love”, and to remind people how India’s Muslims “had chosen Gandhi over Jinnah”.

In the village of Kyolikhurd in the Gautambudhnagar constituency, I meet local SP functionary Bitti Gaur, who is campaigning vigorously for the BSP candidate. “We have a good understanding amongst ourselves in the three parties. We all implicitly follow the orders of our respective leaders,” he says. “Since I am a Brahmin, I largely campaign among Brahmins.”

And in Mau, I see the BSP working overtime for its candidate, Afzal Ansari, who till recently ran his own Quami Ekta Dal. The day I am there I find that the BSP has mobilised its cadres for a small public meeting in Inarwa village and a district-level discussion to tie up the loose ends before the poll.

“Workers of both the BSP and SP are working together. We have been told that our candidate has to win — and he will win. We have fully accepted this alliance,” says the local BSP functionary Inder Ram. Sections of Brahmins, unhappy about the way the BJP has treated its veteran Brahmin leader Murli Manohar Joshi, are apparently also voting for Ansari.

For the SP, BSP and RLD, memories of being reduced to the electoral margins in 2014, and in the Assembly elections of 2017, are still fresh. They have decided, therefore, to keep their daily engagements with voters low-key and out of sight and have instructed workers not to respond to any provocative statement from the BJP. It was decided that a show of strength should be made only at major rallies, rather than on the streets.

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But what about the Congress?

Not part of the alliance, the party belatedly appointed two general secretaries — Priyanka Gandhi Vadra and Jyotiraditya Scindia — for the state. Of the two, Vadra captured a great deal of attention, but appears to have not made much impact.

The presence of the Congress has meant that while in some constituencies, it is cutting into the BJP’s Brahmin vote, in others it is harming the alliance’s prospects. In Maghar village in Sant Kabir Nagar, Yadavs — otherwise staunchly behind the SP — say that they might vote for the Congress’s Bhalchandra Yadav, a popular former MP. Muslims in the village add that they are backing the Congress as well.

The BSP candidate is Kushal Tewari, the son of the notorious Hari Shankar Tewari of Gorakhpur, while the BJP has fielded Pravin Nishad, who had won the Gorakhpur seat last year on an SP ticket. If the Yadav-Muslim votes get divided, the BJP is likely to sail through.

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For Modi’s BJP, a positive result in UP will ensure a safe passage to another term as Prime Minister. For the alliance and its supporters, the electoral story has a different subtext. A group of Muslims in Rudauli, sitting beneath trees filled with ripening mangoes one hot afternoon, tells me how they see the poll.

“This election is not to elect a Prime Minister,” says one of the villagers. “It is to save democracy.”

Smita Gupta is senior fellow, The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy

Published on May 17, 2019
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