Eight months after the election in Uttar Pradesh that brought the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to power with a full majority, leading to them painting streets and administrative buildings saffron, UP went to the polls again this month. The build0up to the municipal council polls, which took place between November 22-29, saw a hectic attempt by parties to either consolidate their control or find pockets of resistance. With the BJP well into its term in UP, the municipal election campaign saw the beginning of public articulation of discontent with the state and national governments.
Unfulfilled promises of 24-hour electricity, housing, toilets and liberation from debt all became campaign issues and issues for voter perspicacity when the candidates came knocking on their doors. As Mohan Sahu of the Samajwadi Party put it, “Of course people’s way of thinking is changing in Banda! The way they thought that caused the results of the 2014 and 2017 elections – this is changing. Kamal ka phool is becoming kamal ka phool, sabse bada bhool. And its not just Banda, it’s the whole state, we’re going to see a change in the whole country!”
One striking change in the election field was the participation of women and transgender candidates in an active and empowered way. They contested ‘general’ seats, not only those reserved for women or marginalised groups; they led their campaign teams, went independently door-to-door to garner support. The two transgender candidates we met and followed on the campaign trail – self identifying as kinnars – were contrasting characters, yet both are pushing the boundaries of the public domain in similar ways.
Angoori, the 45-year-old independent candidate contesting the seat of the chairperson or president of the town council of Kabrai, Mahoba, has an almost ascetic style: white sari, face stripped of make up or jewellery. “I don’t need a four-wheeler or a two-wheeler, or gold or silver,” she tells us, sitting in an e-rickshaw, en route her day’s campaigning. “I just need my feet, and on these I’ll serve the people.” She’s a first-time candidate, and the first in Bundelkhand’s harsh political terrain to take up a political fight. Her avowedly simple lifestyle – early to rise, cold water baths, a commitment to social work – undercuts expectations of what a kinnar candidate may bring to her campaign. “No one is supporting me; no one forced me to contest. It was my heart’s desire, and so here I am,” she says, on her imperative to enter politics. She claims to have encountered no obstacles or discrimination along the way, either in getting her documentation, or in the process of campaigning. “No one enters politics to lose,” her astuteness begins to reveal itself, and she knows she will join up with a political party when the time comes. Until then, she feels that her 12 years of service to Kabrai will serve her in good stead to win.
Gulshan Bindu, contesting the mayor’s seat in Ayodhya, in contrast to Angoori, is a well-known political and social face in Faizabad. She is one of ‘Ramrajya’s Kinnars’, the neither-men-nor-women who stayed to wait for Ram the 14 years when he was exiled. Originally from Sitamarhi, she was born in Delhi, and handed over to the kinnar samaaj at the age of five by her family, fed up with taunts from neighbours and relatives. It was here that she was given the name Gulshan Bindu – a name that she owned, which has since given her more than a few chances at occupying seats of power. Gulshan contested the elections in 2012, when UP was in the midst of a buzzing Lok Sabha election maelstrom, and garnered 11.5% of the total vote count as an independent candidate. She contested the last municipal council elections as well, where she gave the winning BJP candidate close competition, losing only by around a 1,000 votes.
Gulshan has built her persona deliberately and systematically in the years since she entered the public domain in Faizabad. “She has broken tradition and stepped into social work and politics,” says a Shiv Samant ‘Mitti’, a well-known businessman and social worker in Faizabad. She’s well known and visible as a social activist – organising blood donation camps and taking over hospital renovations, to distribution of blankets for the homeless. The local kinnar community, and her own mentors lightly comment on the fact that that she is not interested in the traditional means of earning money. But Gulshan is a game-changer, and not one to toe any normative line. Despite battling a serious illness this year, Gulshan’s social and political ambitions are formidable: she has been in the field, shoulder to shoulder with Samajwadi Party workers, giving perfectly rehearsed speeches. What with chief minister Adityanath deriding secularism in his speeches, and MPs issuing threats to minorities as par for the election course, Gulshan’s campaign mantra might just hit the mark: ‘Na Musalman, na Hindu. Is baar, Gulshan Bindu’.
Khabar Lahariya is a rural, video-first digital news organisation with an all-women network of reporters in eight districts of Uttar Pradesh.