Sultanpur (UP): Mohanlal Nishad swims to the shores of the river Gomti with the last catch of fish in his hand. He has had a good day’s work. He lives in Arjunpur village in Sulatanpur. He confidently says he will vote for the mahagathbandhan (MGB), but adds hastily that if his netas (leaders) from his biradari (community) tell him to vote for the BJP, then he will follow their diktat.
Another elderly Nishad, Mithailal, who runs a small paan shop, says diktat or not, he will vote for the BJP.
Sushila lives in Milkipur block of Faizabad district and teaches in a private school. She belongs to the Kori caste, the same as President Ram Nath Kovind. Sushila is annoyed with the BSP because she believes it is a party of Jatavs.
Suresh Pasi is a young bubbly man from Barabanki district. He earns his living doing on-the-job-training at a mobile repair shop. He says, “Sab kuch jaatiyee samikaran par nirbhar hai (the outcome of the elections will depend on caste dynamics).” He adds that he will vote for the BJP because he is fed-up of the “casteism and communalism” practiced by other parties.
Mitailal, Sushila and Suresh belong to non-Yadav OBC and non-Jatav Dalit castes and live in rural UP.
Like the rest of India, UP has also been facing many challenges. These include lack of jobs, farm distress, massive disruption caused by demonetisation and GST. Their support for the BJP indicates the meticulous ideological mobilisation of these communities.It has not only polarised Hindus and Muslims, but created new fault-lines amongst the Dalits and the OBCs as well.
It is these voters, belonging to non-Yadav OBC and non-Jatav Dalit castes, that will decide the fate of the three Awadh Lok Sabha seats of Barabanki (reserved constituency for Scheduled Castes), Faizabad and Sultanpur. While Faizabad and Barabanki will go to polls on May 6, Sultanpur will vote on May 12.
This is clearly a no-wave election. Caste is the most dominant factor. Development issues like Ujjawala Yojana, demonetisation, GST and national security matters like Pulwama/Balakot are only a sub-text, reasons articulated by many to justify their voting preferences.
In some other seats in UP, there is speculation of a tacit understanding between the Congress and the MGB. Here, there is no such adjustment.
In Barabanki, the BJP has dropped its sitting MP Priyanka Singh Rawat. She has been replaced with Upendra Rawat, who won the assembly seat of Zaidpur in 2017. The SP will contest on behalf of the MGB, which fielded Ram Sagar Rawat. Tanuj Punia, son of former MP P.L. Punia – who won the seat in 2009 with a big margin – has been nominated by the Congress.
In 2014, BJP won the Barabanki seat, securing a whopping 43% of the vote. Congress was a distant second with 22%. The SP-BSP, who fought separately, got a combined vote share of 29%.
The MGB is assured of the Yadav and Jatav votes. Local strong man and former UPA minister Beni Parsad Verma is a Kurmi. This caste comprises more than 10% of the votes in Barabanki. He is working tirelessly for the MGB. If the Muslim vote is added to this matrix, then the SP candidate will get an edge.
However, even this vote combine may not be enough. Pasis, the non-Jatav Dalits, also have a significant presence. Both the BJP and SP have nominated a Pasi candidate. If non-Jatav Dalits and non-Yadav OBCs, along with upper castes (Barahmin-Bania-Thakurs) vote for the BJP, then it may win the seat.
In all the three districts, the Muslim voters have decided that they will vote for the candidate who has the best chance to defeat the BJP. Mohd Asif has a watch repair shop just at the entrance of the revered Deva Sharif Dargah in Barabanki. Mohd Majid sells loban or raw incense near Asif’s shop. Majid has always voted for the Congress and Asif has been a loyal SP voter. But this time, they both say they will vote for whichever candidate has a better chance of defeating the BJP.
Similarly, Shafi Mohd is a weaver in village Baragaon. He says he and many in his neighbourhood have always voted for the Congress. He says this time, the BJP must be defeated at any cost. He is prepared to vote for the SP to ensure this.
Faizabad has now been renamed after Ayodhya, the centre of the Ramjanambhoomi movement. The sitting BJP MP, Lallu Singh, is pitted against the SP’s Anandsen Yadav and Congress’s Nirmal Khatri. In 2014, Lallu Singh got 48% of the vote and won with a big margin. The combined vote share of the SP-BSP was 33% and the Congress got 13%.
There are interesting candidate-related dynamics at play here and that may have an impact on the outcome of the result.
Anandsen is the son of former Faizabad MP, late Mitrasen Yadav, who won the seat twice. His first victory was on a CPI ticket in 1998 and then as an SP candidate in 2004. In 2007, he contested the assembly elections as a BSP candidate and was made a minister. He was accused of the rape and murder of a local Pasi girl. He was convicted by the lower courts and was made to resign by Mayawati. He was later acquitted by the high court, when the SP came to power in 2012.
There is lot of anger among the 1.75 lakh strong Pasi community about this. Numerically, they are stronger than the BSP core vote of Jatavs in the Lok Sabha seats of Faizabad and Barabanki. The BJP has exploited this discontent to the hilt.
Seventy-year-old Rampyari, a Pasi woman who lives in Faizabad town, says she will never forgive the SP for giving ticket to Anandsen.
The OBCs and Mahadalits together constitute more than one lakh voters in Faizabad. Helas and Yamunaparis belong to these castes. Both live in Faizabad town. The former are safai karamacharis and have got jobs over the last two years in local government bodies. The Yamunaparis have migrated from the regions of Bundelkhand, and are spread across districts like Kanpur and Faizabad. They have strong connections in Bundelkhand and tend to vote together. Deepak Kumar belongs to this community and says they don’t like the fact that Helas have got government jobs under the BJP government. They may decide to vote for the MGB.
There is an OBC community of Khatiks, who are fruit sellers. As Faizabad town has expanded, so has the competition among hawkers. The Khatiks have come into conflict with Muslim fruit sellers. Afaqullah, a local activist, says both these communities were a strong base for the SP-BSP but now, because of this tension, the Khatiks will vote for the BJP while their Muslim counterparts will vote for the MGB.
The Sultanpur seat will see a high profile contest between Maneka Gandhi, the Congress’s Sanjay Singh and a young Thakur candidate from BSP, Chandra Bhadra Singh. In the 2014 election, Varun Gandhi of the BJP, who has exchanged this seat with his mother, got 43% vote. The SP+BSP combine secured 46% and Sanjay Singh’s wife Ameeta Singh got a mere 4%.
Ramsanjeevan Sharma was busy cutting Ram Laut Rawat’s hair in the Bhadhaiya village of Sultanpur. Sharma belongs to the OBC caste of Nais and Rawat is a Pasi. Sharma claims there are over 50,000 votes of OBC communities like the Lohar, Bahadhai and others in the Sultanpur Lok Sabha seat. His vote will go to whoever their caste panchayat decides. It could be either the BJP or MGB. Rawat says he will vote for the BJP.
They both proudly claim they have made the core votes of all major parties, the SP, BSP and the BJP irrelevant. This time, it is their vote which will decide the winner.
It is, thus, one of the greatest successes of BJP – if one might call it that – to have created discontent and conflict among poor castes at the local level over shrinking resources. These grievances are then linked seamlessly to larger discourses like nationalism and the nation-state.
So a large number of Koris, Pasis, Nais, Valmikis, Nishaads and Helas, who earlier formed the core vote of the SP and BSP, have shifted their allegiance to the BJP. They feel it provides entitlements that the SP and BSP restricted to the Yadavs and Jatavs. They support ‘bold and decisive’ Modi because he is the first prime minister who has ‘brought India on to the world stage’ and ‘shown Pakistan its place’.