On March 5, Upendra Datt Shukla, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate in the Gorakhpur by-poll being held today, addressed an election rally at Raptinagar. Sharing the dais with Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, Shukla, in his speech, said that this election symbolises a battle of honour for not just Gorakhpur but also for Yogi Adityanath, whom he called the pride of the entire Hindu community.
Stressing that Gorakhpur’s stature has recently been elevated in Indian politics, Shukla claimed efforts are underway to challenge the forces that contributed to BJP’s victories in Tripura and Gujarat. He spoke of BJP’s promising role in the upcoming Karnataka polls next month. And urged voters to visit colonies inhabited by Dalits and OBCs and help the lotus bloom in every house.
Clearly, the prospect of the Samajwadi Party (SP) and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) coming together in the by-polls of Gorakhpur and Phulpur has rattled the ruling BJP. Chief minister Yogi Adityanath, who had first equated the SP-BSP alliance as a snake and mole coming together, described the alliance as a coalition of thieves at a rally at PP Ganj.
Recently, at a public rally at Phulpur, UP’s cabinet minister Nand Gopal Nandi, went a few steps ahead and compared Mulayam Singh Yadav to Raavan, Akhilesh Yadav to Meghnad, and Mayawati to Surpanakha – all three villainous characters from the Ramayana.
On March 4, the BSP announced its decision to support SP candidates in Gorakhpur and Phulpur by-polls, unsettling the top BJP leadership. Since the announcement, the poll scenario has suddenly changed. The prospect of facing the combined strength of SP-BSP has turned the heat on the constituencies represented by Yogi Adityanath and deputy chief minister Keshav Prasad Maurya.
But does the SP-BSP alliance pose a serious challenge to these two prominent leaders in the UP government?
BSP support has boosted SP’s morale. The sudden upbeat mood was evident on March 6, when SP candidate Praveen Nishad, along with his father Dr Sanjay Kumar Nishad, president of the Nishad Party, and hundreds of his supporters went to the Gorakhnath temple to pray for an electoral victory. This was at the same time that Yogi Adityanath was campaigning for the BJP in Karnataka.
On the very matter of the temple itself, Dr Sanjay Nishad has long maintained that it belongs to the Nishad community because Baba Gorakhnath was a disciple of Guru Matsyendranath, a member of the Nishad community.
It’s clear that these two by-elections may pose a tough challenge for the BJP, which has been exuding unbridled confidence in light of its spree of recent victories. Damaging poll results in these two high-profile constituencies will be a major setback for the party. Given the high stakes, the BJP is currently racked by confusion, dilemma and lack of self confidence. As a result, the party announced its candidates very late in both Gorakhpur and Phulpur.
Kaushalendra Singh Patel, nominated from Phulpur, wasn’t even ready for the election as he was overseeing election management in Gorakhpur. BJP’s top command was forced to take this decision as SP’s candidate is Nagendra Singh Patel, a member of the local Patel community. Even though Kaushalendra Patel’s works largely in Mirzapur and Varanasi, the BJP nominated him because it does not want to lose its hold over the Patel community.
It is also being speculated that the BJP might field strongman and former Phulpur MP Atiq Ahmed, who is currently lodged in Dewaria district jail. Diffident about the by-poll outcome, the BJP is considering fielding him to divide minority votes. Atiq is currently contesting the polls as an independent candidate. Filing his nomination from jail on the very last day, the former MP had advocates from Allahabad file his papers at Phulpur.
Interestingly, the jail administration, which, so far, has largely been lenient towards Atiq, changed tack once the nomination papers were filed. On March 6, the district magistrate and SP raided the jail and gave Atiq’s cell special attention. They found tobacco, cigarettes and a diary containing several names and contact numbers. Some money and a mobile were also reportedly found, but the administration has not confirmed it.
During the raid, there was reportedly a tiff between Atiq and the DM. The DM told the media that a complaint will be filed against Atiq as prohibited items were found in his cell. Atiq’s barrack had been checked on February 24 as well. According to sources, the Dewaria district administration took the stern step after pressure from the top.
This root of this belated ‘strictness’ can reportedly be blamed on the growing rift between the chief minister and the deputy chief minister. It is said that despite Maurya helping Atiq to benefit the BJP candidate, the Yogi government is taking a strict stance to restrain him from using the opportunity for his own gain. Atiq was jailed a month after Yogi Adityanath came to power. After filing his nomination from Phulpur he wanted to be transferred to Naini jail, but was not. In his current position, his entry in the poll fails to fully help the BJP candidate.
After Kaushalendra’s name was announced, the fact that his ex-wife had alleged domestic violence has started making the rounds again and causing embarrassment for the party as political opponents are using the charges to target him.
Another central aspect of the by-poll is the ‘local versus outsider’ campaign. By highlighting that the BJP candidate is an outsider, the SP is doing its best to polarise Patel votes in its favour.
Traditionally, Phulpur has not been a BJP seat. In the last election, Keshav Prasad Maurya managed to win by getting 52.43 % votes while the SP got 20.33 % and the BSP came in third with 17.05% votes.
Patel, Bind, Pasi and Muslim voters are the decisive factors in elections here. Inderjit Saroj, a prominent BSP leader, has joined the SP now. With Saroj at the helm of affairs, the SP has gained a strong footing in the constituency. The support from the BSP is now an additional booster. Most likely, the results will depend on the splitting of Muslim votes because if the Muslim votes get divided between Atiq Ahmed and the SP, it will clearly benefit the BJP.
In Gorakhpur, Yogi Adityanath failed to choose his successor till the very end. Several names were projected, including former state home minister Chinmaya Anand, actor Ravi Kishan, and head priest of Gorakhnath temple Yogi Kamalnath. Finally,BJP state president Upendra Datt Shukla was nominated.
In Gorakhpur’s politics, Shukla has never been in Yogi’s good books. During the 2005 Kaudiram by-poll, Shukla contested against the BJP candidate and accused Yogi of slashing his ticket. He lost, as did the BJP candidate.
Shukla is considered close to Union Minister of State for Finance Shiv Pratap Shukla, Yogi Adityanath’s rival. Shiv Pratap has also suffered the wrath of Yogi in the past. Yogi had helped Hindu Mahasabha’s Dr Radha Mohan Das Agrawal win against him following which he was pushed to the margins within the party. With Modi government at the Centre, his fortunes have suddenly improved. First, he was sent to the Rajya Sabha. Now, he has been made state finance minister.
Behind the rise in his stature, Modi-Shah’s check-and-balance politics is considered to be at work – that to keep Brahmins from feeling neglected with the rise of Yogi, a parallel power centre needs to be established within Yogi’s stronghold.
Yogi Adityanath may have accepted Upendra Shukla’s candidacy, but his staunch supporters seem demoralised. Further, Upendra Shukla became seriously ill during the campaign with a blood clot in the brain and had to be admitted at PGI, Lucknow. He managed to return to campaign after five days. In his speeches, he has not failed to mention how he owes his life to Yogi Adityanath.
The Gorakhpur seat has remained with the Gorakhnath temple since 1989. Yogi Adityanath’s guru Mahant Avaidyanath was MP from 1989 to 1998, winning three consecutive elections during the period. Maintaining the streak, Yogi Adityanath has won five consecutive times since then. The mahants of Gorakhnath temple have been active in electoral politics since independence. Mahant Digvijaya Nath contested on Hindu Mahasabha ticket in 1952 and 1957 but lost to Congress. He won the third time in 1967. After he passed away in 1969, his successor Mahant Avaidyanath won the by-polls, but he lost to Congress candidate Narsingh Narayan in 1970. Following the defeat, he distanced himself from electoral politics but resurfaced when the temple movement began in 1989.
Analysing the results of eight elections between 1989 and 2014, one finds that Yogi Adityanath had to face a tough fight only twice – in 1998 and 1999. He won the election with just 26,206 votes in 1998 and 7,339 votes in 1999. On both occasions, his opponent was SP candidate Jamuna Nishad while the BSP candidate split the votes by 15.23 % and 13.54 % respectively. After the victory in a close contest in 1989, Yogi Adityanath formed the Hindu Yuva Vahini following which Gorakhpur and neighbouring areas were engulfed in communal violence politically benefitting Adityanath as his victory margin kept increasing from 1998 to 2004, 2009 and finally in 2014 when he won with 3,12,783 votes getting 51.80 %. vote share. During the last three elections, Yogi Adityanath has received more votes than SP, BSP and Congress combined.
If we look at it like this, the BJP faces no challenge. The SP and the BSP have also been pitting candidates against each other instead of attempting to defeat Yogi Adityanath together. In 2004, both the parties nominated Nishad candidates while in 2009 the respective nominated candidates were Brahmins. In the last election, both the parties chose Nishad candidates again which split the backward and minority votes ultimately benefitting Yogi Adityanath. The contest has always been triangular. The Congress party has not been able to establish a footing here from the last six elections with its candidates even losing security deposit. Its vote share has been between 2.60% to 4.85%.
This time Congress has fielded a better candidate – Dr Surhita Kareem – but because of polarisation of votes between the SP and the BJP, the poll outcome will not be any favourable for Congress as compared to the previous elections. In this election, the BJP is in direct combat with the SP candidate because BSP is not in the fray. It is the first time in three decades that social arithmetic, caste equations and vote calculations seems favourable for the SP. In Gorakhpur, the Nishad community has the highest number of voters estimated at around 3.5 lakh. Yadav and Dalit voters are 2 lakh each while Brahmins are around 1.5 lakh. If Nishad, Yadav, Muslim and Dalit voters come together in this election, the outcome will be shocking.
The rivalry between Brahmins and Rajputs has a five-decade long history in Gorakhpur. It took a bloody turn during the 1980s which casts its shadow even today.
After Yogi Adityanath came to power, prominent Brahmin leader and former minister Harishankar Tiwari’s house was raided leading to violent protests. It seemed as if the old phase of violence would resume but the matter was soon closed. However, a cold war still persists.
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Despite the BJP fielding Brahmin candidates in Yogi Adityanath’s constituency, it is doubtful how much support it would get from the Brahmin community. With the Hindu Yuva Vahini becoming inactive, the BJP candidate for these bypolls seems to be on weak as In the assembly elections, top HYV leaders rebelled after the party refused to give them tickets following which Yogi Adityanath ousted them from the party. They were not inducted back even after Yogi became the chief minister. In addition, the whole organisation was given strict instructions to carry out ‘creative work’. Since then the organization has been slowly waning.
Despite these shortcomings, Yogi Adityanath seems confident of victory in Gorakhpur. The major reason for such confidence comes from the Gorakhpur city itself – which is the BJP’s stronghold. In 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP won the Gorakhpur seat by a margin of 1 lakh votes. In 2017 assembly polls, the BJP candidate won by more than 60,000 votes. Efforts of other parties to reduce the gap have failed so far. The BJP is once again gearing to take a big lead in the upcoming by polls. Yogi Adityanath himself has instructed party workers to help increase voting percentage and maintain the decisive lead in the results.
Formed two years ago, the Nishad party exercises strong influence over the Nishad community and its voting pattern. The party had allied with the Peace Party in the assembly polls. Nishad votes were transferred to the Peace Party. As a result, the party to win only one seat Gyanpur in UP. The Peace Party could not win any seats. Nishad Party contested 72 seats and got 5,40,539 votes. It got more than 10,000 votes in all seats including, Paniara, Campierganj, Sahjanva, Khajni, Tamkuhiraj, Bhadohi, and Chandoli.
Dr Sanjay Kumar Nishad, national party president contesting from Gorakhpur rural seat, got 34,869 votes. Though he didn’t win the election, he was successful in getting the SP, BSP, and Congress to believe that he exercises a great deal of influence over the Nishad community and its voting pattern. This is the reason why the SP formed an alliance with the party after the polls, announcing Praveen Nishad, the son of Dr. Sanjay Kumar Nishad’s son as a candidate.
During the Lok Sabha and assembly elections, the BJP neglected Nishad community leaders in the area, driving them to join the Nishad party. The anti-BJP sentiment has also seen a rise among Other Backward Castes. They feel that despite their sizeable vote share is not matched by equal political representation. In the name of improving the law and order situation, members of backward castes are often made victims in encounters and police action. After the formation of the SP government, smaller parties which allied with the BJP, too, are also unhappy, their main complaint being neglect.
The new social engineering of SP
After drawing lessons from the assembly poll results, the SP launched a new low-key process of social engineering. Party president Akhilesh Yadav made an effort to expand the social base of the party. In order to liberate the party from its Yadav identity, he included several backward caste leaders who were marginalised in politics. Besides, the party also started a dialogue with the Nishad Party, Peace Party and other such small political parties, managing to bring them together.
In the assembly elections, the Nishad party tried to join hands with the SP but the latter refused. Dr Nishad has reiterated on several occasions that had the SP formed an alliance with the party, they would have won at least 30-35 seats.
Once the polls were over, SP realised that if it takes along Sainthwar, Patel and other backward castes besides the Nishad community, it can expand its social base which has shrunk over the last few years. Under this strategy, several OBC conferences were held at several places including Gorakhpur with the support of the SP. Demands for 52 % reservation for the OBCs were made during these meets. It was emphasised that if the Yadav, Nishad, Patel, Sainthwar, Rajbhar, Maurya, Vishwakarma, Prajapati, Jaiswal, Gupta, Kurmi communities came together, they would form the third largest power in the country.
At the OBC meet held on January 5, it was said that OBC unity must be put to test during the Lok Sabha elections. Kali Shankar, president of the OBC Army which organised the conference, claimed that this election is a fight between the feudal forces and the OBC, SC and STs.
A test of the changing politics of UP
The SP was trying to mobilise the backward castes in its favour and form an alliance with the BSP for the Lok Sabha as well as legislative council and Rajya Sabha elections. While the BJP was busy celebrating its victory and managing power in other states, when it realised the new strategy of the opposition, it immediately organised a fishermen’s conference and a Kayastha conference.
A lot of interesting changes have taken place in the political scenario of the state during the last year. Former chief minister Akhilesh Yadav has become disillusioned with the politics of development and is instead focussed on social engineering to find his lost footing. On the other hand, the BJP which attained power by wooing Dalits and other backward castes, has changed its tune and is now only talking of development.
The results of Gorakhpur and Phulpur by polls will determine whose tactics have the upper hand in poll strategy.
Manoj Singh is a senior journalist based in Gorakhpur.