In O.P. Rajbhar's Zahoorabad, Caste and Religion Allegiances Have Turned on Their Head

A straight contest between Rajbhar leaders is made interesting by a Muslim candidate. But support to a particular party in this seat travels through a web of factors.

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Varanasi: At a junction in Qasimabad, four elderly people, all from the landed Bhumihar community, animatedly discussed the poll prospects of the high-profile Zahoorabad assembly constituency in Ghazipur.

Sirf jaatiwaad chal raha hai (‘casteism overlooks all other factors here’), 65-year-old Siddharth Rai disdainfully told The Wire. 

Jaativaad ki wajah se is kshetra ka kabhi vikas nahin ho paayega (‘Development can never happen in this region because of casteism’),” intervened another in the group. Others nodded in agreement.

“The region saw development only during the tenure of Shadab Fathima (currently in the fray as a Bahujan Samaj Party candidate). She truly worked for everyone irrespective of caste and community. But most people who believe in casteism are rooting for the sitting MLA,” said Rai.

Rai was referring to the Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party’s president Om Prakash Rajbhar. As an ally of the Bharatiya Janata Party, Rajbhar won the Zahoorabad constituency in 2017. The OBC leader is seeking re-election as a Samajwadi Party ally in 2022. Rajbhar was one of first allies to exit from the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance in 2018, and since then has emerged as the most-vocal critic of the alleged ‘upper’ caste bias of the Yogi Adityanath government.

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Rai and his friends voted for the SBSP leader in 2017, when Om Prakash Rajbhar consolidated the numerically-dominant Rajbhar community in favour of the NDA. However, tables have turned, and Om Prakash has been traversing the length of eastern UP to gather support for Akhilesh Yadav. 

Akhilesh Yadav and Om Prakash Rajbhar. Photo: By arrangement

Wasn’t Om Prakash doing the same thing for the BJP last time?

“Yes,” pat came the reply from Rai, “but then the Rajbhars did not vote along casteist lines. They came together to support the development vision of the BJP.

SP has always advanced a “casteist” politics in Uttar Pradesh, he added.

Rai and his friends did not wholeheartedly support Adityanath’s run at the helm but seemed to be firm in the thought that voting for his rival Akhilesh Yadav’s party amounted to being ‘casteist.’

“If you think that the BJP didn’t do much, then the ideal choice should be Shadab Fatima,” one of Rai’s companions at the Qasimabad junction said.

However, when asked about their voting preference, the group unanimously said that they would still prefer BJP. “Hamara toh vote bandha hua hai. BJP ko chod kar kahan jayenge (‘Our votes are tied to the BJP. We do not have any option’),” said Rai. 

Across Purvanchal, ‘upper’ caste BJP supporters appeared to brand the SP as a ‘casteist’ political force, even while they chose to ignore their own consolidation in favour of the saffron party. 

Rajbhar respondents in villages of Zahoorabad. Photo: Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashashta

Exactly what is ‘casteist’?

A little context may be essential to understand political equations of the eastern regions of the state.

The eastern fringes of UP, also the most-backward in the state, is marked by exploitative feudal relations between the landed communities and others. Partially-implemented land reforms in the 1970s could empower some of the socially-mobile caste groups but the region remained under heavy influence of the ‘upper’ castes – namely Brahmins, Rajputs, and Bhumihars. 

In the post-Mandal era, political parties like SP and BSP challenged the ‘upper’ caste hegemony by bringing together the numerically-dominant OBC caste groups and Dalits. The social and political transformation that began led the ‘upper’ caste groups to dismiss these assertive movements as ‘casteist’, a symptom of which one finds in the responses of Rai and his fellow Bhumihar community members.  

Also read: ‘Reclaiming Yellow From Saffron’: The Battle at the Heart of UP’s Shivpur

Since 2014, the BJP’s outreach programme among the poor bridged the gap between OBC-Dalits and ‘upper’ caste groups to a certain extent, which manifested itself in the resounding electoral victories of the saffron party.

However, Adityanath’s perceived weakness for his caste appears to have established the distance among caste groups in UP’s society once again. Most big OBC leaders have exited from the NDA to join the SP-led alliance, leaving the saffron party’s social coalition fragmented.

Zahoorabad in the changed electoral scenario

The Wire found that even among ‘upper’ caste communities, few are willing to support chief minister Adityanath as uncritically as Rajputs. However, despite resentment, other ‘upper’ castes too largely, consolidate in favour of BJP, which has managed to placate them for now. With no other OBC group supporting it in toto, BJP registering a sweep in most constituencies of Purvanchal is a proposition that lacks strength.

Its campaign in Zahoorabad, which goes to polls on March 7, is an instance of how the BJP is attempting to diffuse a larger consolidation against it and for the SP-led alliance.

Across the constituency, BJP supporters propped Shadab Fatima, whose welfarist track record most people irrespective of caste and community vouched for. In what is turning out to be a straight contest between Om Prakash Rajbhar and BJP’s Kalicharan Rajbhar, she is also seen as a spoiler by political workers. 

Shadab Fatima. Photo: Twitter/@ShadaabFatima

Fatima, who is also related to the renowned Hindi and Urdu poet Rahi Masoom Raza, was a BSP MLA from Ghazipur in 2007 and SP legislator from Zahoorabad in 2012. She is contesting on a BSP ticket again from Zahoorabad. 

The BJP expects that if Fatima cuts into the seat’s influential Muslim votes, the bi-polar contest between SP and BJP can be flattened, and that may give Kalicharan an edge over Om Prakash. The BJP candidate Kalicharan Rajbhar contested as a BSP candidate in 2017, and lost to NDA’s Om Prakash Rajbhar by a margin of a little over 18,000 votes. The SP finished third. 

However, the Rajbhar community appeared to consolidate in favour of its caste leader Om Prakash. At the Rajbhar tola of Mardah village in Zahoorabad, Ramavtar Rajbhar did not hesitate to say that his support is for “charhi (stick)”, the symbol of the SBSP. 

In the Rajbhar-dominated Belchari village, Shriram Bhar said, “We voted for BJP last time, thinking that the government will install a much-needed tube well in our village and start a middle school and a health centre. Nothing happened.”

When asked why he didn’t blame the sitting MLA who is contesting again from SP-led alliance, he said, “Only because he realised that BJP only cared for the interests of powerful people did he leave the party. We have hopes from Akhilesh Yadav.”

At Chawanpur Gani, another Rajbhar majority village, Lakhan Rajbhar spoke about how he will make a choice between two Rajbhar leaders in the fray. “Kalicharan was in the BSP earlier but now his culture is influenced by the BJP,” he said, referring to his alleged arrogant behaviour.

‘Upper’ caste respondents in Mardah village of Zahoorabad. Photo: Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashasta

Muslim ‘consolidation’

At the same time, Muslim voters in the village did not appear to be as confused as the BJP would have hoped. “Fatima ji is good. All the work that you see in the area happened during her tenure as the MLA. But I don’t want to waste my vote. I am voting for change,” said Mohammad Ashraf. 

Other Muslim voters with whom The Wire spoke to in Qasimabad also echoed similar sentiments and preferred Om Prakash over any other candidate. 

In a recent interview with NDTV, Om Prakash Rajbhar appeared assured of his victory and trashed the BJP campaign which hinged on the fact that “laabarthis” (beneficiaries of free ration scheme) will re-elect a BJP government in the state.

“Rajbhars, who received free ration, are not voting for BJP. Muslims and Yadavs are not voting for BJP even though they got free ration. Dalits who benefited a lot from the free ration scheme are not voting for BJP as they feel it may do away with the reservation system. Nonia Chauhans also got ration but even they are not voting for BJP as their leader Sanjay Chauhan is with Akhilesh Yadav. So, I ask you who is voting for BJP?”

As he signed off, he said that the electoral issues are unemployment and price rise, and people are voting for change. It remains to be seen whether BJP’s welfare scheme worked better on the poor or those material issues raised by leaders like Om Prakash Rajbhar who are driven by values of social justice.