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As the Uttar Pradesh assembly polls scheduled for early next year draw closer, the Nishad community that dominates more than 150 assembly seats in the state and knows that it may play a decisive role in the mandate has started to assert itself more strongly.
This awareness of the community’s possible key role in next year’s polls has manifested in an intense tug-of-war between two regional allies of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the state – the Nishad Party in Uttar Pradesh (UP) and the Vikassheel Insan Party (VIP) that has so far operated in Bihar but is making a debut in UP. Both have their eyes on the Nishad vote bank.
Mukesh Sahani, president of the VIP, recently paid a visit to Lucknow and announced the party’s decision to contest 160 assembly seats. On the other hand, Dr Sanjay Nishad, president of the Nishad Party, has demanded that the BJP project him as the deputy chief minister of UP in the 2022 elections, as well as give him portfolios both in the Union government and in the state.
Despite being an ally of the BJP in UP and mobilising Nishad votes in its favour for the past two years, the Nishad Party has failed to find representation in the state government. Dr Nishad believes that it is now time for the BJP to pay up. But by denying a ministerial berth in the Union government to his son, Praveen Nishad, the BJP has indicated that it no longer cares much about its regional ally and Dr Nishad has been vocal in expressing his displeasure over it.
Surprisingly, although they back the BJP in their respective strongholds, the Nishad Party and the VIP have not forged an alliance for the UP polls as yet. Pitted against each other, each of the two parties is bound to lose its bargaining power, which is what the BJP might be hoping for.
On July 2, Mukesh Sahani, Bihar’s minister of state for animal husbandry and fish resources, arrived in Lucknow with a large crowd of people who chanted slogans like ‘Get ready for 2022! Here comes the VIP!’ ‘Look who’s here, it’s the lion’ and ‘Neither the chaiwala nor the cycle wala, it’s only the boat wala for Nishads’.
The election symbol of the VIP is a boat and Sahani refers to himself with the title ‘Son of Mallah’.
In Lucknow, Sahani inaugurated his party’s state office in Gomtinagar. Ten days earlier, Dr Nishad had also inaugurated the digital office of the Nishad Party in the same area.
At a press conference in Lucknow held on July 3, Sahani announced his party’s decision to field candidates in 160 Nishad-dominated assembly constituencies in UP. He also claimed that his party had no intention of forging any alliance at this time and urged the Centre to accept the party’s demands regarding reservations for the Nishad community. He added that his party has already solidified its position in Bihar and is now foraying into UP to ultimately strengthen its hold on the Centre.
Sahani also announced that his party would celebrate the martyrdom day of Phoolan Devi, a member of the Nishad community who had been a member of parliament (MP) from the Samajwadi Party (SP) and was assassinated on July 25, 2001. Later, the party plans to hold a rally in every district.
When asked about the Nishad Party, Sahani said that he shares his mission with Dr Sanjay Kumar Nishad.
“Dr Sanjay is like a brother to me. Whenever he needs me, I will support him. In 2017 [before the UP assembly elections], I supported him, but Dr Nishad trades his party for a single seat offered by either the BJP or the SP. It’s not right. Had he followed the right policy, we would have joined hands,” said Sahani.
All the four Nishad members of Bihar’s legislative assembly – Swarna Singh, Mishrilal Yadav, Musafir Paswan and Raju Singh – accompanied Mukesh Sahani to Lucknow.
Sahani had earlier had a brief stint in UP’s political arena in 2017 and exited silently. In stark contrast to that occasion, his arrival in UP this time is with an energy that affirms his resolve to establish a foothold in the state.
Sahani has appointed Chaudhary Lotan Ram Nishad as the state president of the VIP in UP. Lotan Ram Nishad, an educated and fearless Nishad leader, had once been the president of the Backward Classes Cell of the Samajwadi Party but was expelled when he made a controversial statement referring to Lord Rama as a ‘fictitious character’.
Lotan Ram has been active in UP politics for a long time and has a favourable footing among the Nishads. It is believed he can make the VIP fit enough for a good fight in the coming polls.
While interacting with the media, Mukesh Sahani responded to a question about losing the election in his own constituency in Bihar by making a reference to a Hindi film. “I am a bazigar (strategist) who won despite losing. I am a minister in the government today and have been rewarded,” he said.
His response to the query from the media was perhaps a jibe meant for Dr Nishad. At any rate, Dr Nishad saw it that way and responded the same day from Kushinagar, where he was addressing party workers.
In his address, Dr Nishad spoke of strengthening the Nishad Party and capturing first the seats of power in Lucknow and then those on Delhi. He told his party workers: “Political power is divine power. Therefore worship it. Worship in this sense means staying informed. Build an army. Seize power. Just as a door opens with the help of four hinges, become a hinge for the door of political power so that no one in power can remain standing without your support.”
He added: “Our aim is to get reservations for our community, for which we need to seize power. Reservations give birth to rulers and are the key to securing jobs. Therefore, reservation under the SC category is indispensable for Nishads and all the sub-castes. We have a population of 18% in UP. Let us connect other castes with the Nishads. Let us create such a situation that if someone aspires for a political victory, she or he can achieve it only through us.”
Dr Sanjay Kumar Nishad, the self-proclaimed ‘Political Godfather of Fishermen’, is well aware of the race to appropriate Nishad votes. This is why he blandly projects himself as their only messiah.
“Come with me. I am your commander,” he proclaimed from the pulpit. “I will lead the battle for you till we conquer Delhi. If you join me, I will get 80 MPs from the Majhwar and Mallah communities into parliament. We will have 700 MLAs in the state assemblies. Nishads are not a free meal for everyone to feast on. Now you have your own thali (a platter, the Nishad Party’s election symbol). Be smart. The day you learn these tactics, you will be ready to form the government.”
It is clear from the two public addresses of June 3 that UP will witness a gruelling battle over Nishad votes.
Nishad Party and BJP
Mukesh Sahani and Dr Sanjay Kumar Nishad had had a face-off five years ago, just before the 2017 assembly elections. The Nishad Party had been floated in 2013. Mukesh Sahani, the BJP’s star campaigner in the 2016 Bihar assembly elections, had also gained prominence by then.
Following the Bihar assembly elections, Sahani became active in UP. He took out rath yatras (chariot rallies) demanding the formation of a National Fishermen Commission and the inclusion of the Manjhi, Mallah and Kewat communities in the list of Scheduled Castes. He camped out in Gorakhpur to make inroads in the Nishad community. On July 10, 2016, at a conference on World Fishermen Day, he announced the installation of a statue of Phoolan Devi in the Nishad temple at Gorakhpur.
However, local Nishad leaders believed that Sahani was trying to mobilise the community’s support in favour of the BJP. The Nishad Party later offered to jointly install the Phoolan Devi idol in the temple on July 25, 2016, the anniversary of Phoolan Devi’s assassination. Sahani ordered a 30-foot-high statue of the slain MP from Mumbai which was to be erected in Baghagada. A huge rally was also announced on the same day at Champa Devi Park.
Even though the Gorakhpur district administration refused to grant permission for the installation of the statue, the Nishad Party, the Rashtriya Nishad Ekta Parishad and the Rashtriya Nishad Vikas Sangh continued with the mega rally in Champa Devi Park on the banks of Ramgarh Tal on July 25, 2016. More than 25,000 people gathered and the venue, a sea of maroon caps and flags, resonated with slogans of ‘Jai Nishad Raj’. A huge cutout of Phoolan Devi was put up at the rally site to protest the administration’s decision to seize the idol.
The crowd at this mega rally had largely been mobilised by the Nishad Party. There were only a handful of Sahani’s supporters. Following the rally, Sahni disappeared from UP’s political arena.
Now placed on the roadside in front of a house in Baghagada, Phoolan Devi’s statue is still waiting to be installed. But the Nishad Party moved on.
In the 2017 assembly elections, the Nishad Party allied with Dr Ayyub’s Peace Party and contested 72 seats. Though it won only in Gyanpur, its vote share increased significantly in many seats and it received a total of 5,40,539 votes. Dr Nishad received 34,869 votes, but lost from the Gorakhpur Rural seat.
A year later, in 2018, the Nishad Party and the Peace Party allied with the SP. In the by-election to Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s Gorakhpur Lok Sabha seat, the SP fielded Pravin Nishad, the son of Dr Nishad, who created a stir by defeating Upendra Dutt Shukla, a BJP stalwart. But the association of the Nishad Party and the SP lasted only a year. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the Nishad Party allied with the BJP who fielded Pravin Nishad from Sant Kabir Nagar and Pravin won the seat.
In exchange for the BJP fielding his son and in the hope that the BJP would either nominate Pravin to a Rajya Sabha seat or grant him a ministerial post in the Union government or state government, Dr Sanjay Nishad campaigned for the BJP throughout the election. But the BJP nominated former minister Jaiprakash Nishad, a Nishad leader from Gorakhpur who had switched from the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), to the Rajya Sabha. This came as a jolt to Dr Nishad who quietly swallowed the ‘insult’.
Over the next two years, the BJP governments at the Centre and the state did nothing on the issue of reservations for the Nishad community. In the district panchayat elections in 2021, the BJP did not even consult the Nishad Party even as a large number of Nishads looked forward to getting tickets. Dr Nishad remained torn between the decision to fight with or against the BJP and failed to put up a definitive show in the panchayat polls.
The BJP’s dilemma
The BJP, meanwhile, has several issues with the Nishad Party. It is aware of the ambitions of the Nishad Party and believes that more political power for the Nishads will only fan their ambitions and increase their demands. The BJP is also aware that if the Nishads and other sub-castes were to unite under the banner of a single party, a new political force on the lines of the SP and BSP would emerge in the state and that this party, if it did emerge, would make a full claim for power rather than accept a share of it.
The BJP is also aware that Dr Nishad hails from Gorakhpur which is also Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s bastion and Adityanath would not want any real political force to prosper in his backyard. The Yogi camp of the BJP, as a result, dismisses the demands of the Nishad Party as inflated beyond their worth and advocates that there is no need to pay attention to them.
Now the BJP seems to have found the right antidote for this dilemma: fanning the VIP’s ambition to expand its clout beyond Bihar. The foray of the VIP in UP is bound to threaten the Nishad Party’s sway over Nishad votes, which will undermine its bargaining power.
Given this scenario, Nishad votes have become a crucial factor in UP politics. More than 150 Nishad-dominated seats could be decisive for the mandate. So far, Nishad voters have their own caste members as poll candidates. The SP has benefitted the most from Nishad votes by fielding a large number of candidates from the community. Later, the BSP also started fielding Nishad candidates for Nishad-dominated seats. The BJP joined this league in 2017 and since then has been focusing on Nishad votes.
Recently, the Congress has also made attempts to woo Nishad voters. Congress General Secretary Priyanka Gandhi undertook a ‘boat yatra’ before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections and three months ago, Congress leaders took out a 400 km yatra from Baswar in Prayagraj to Majhi Ghat in Ballia, passing through several Nishad-dominated areas, to highlight the atrocities of the state government on Nishads in Allahabad.
The Nishad Party is currently under immense pressure. The induction of the VIP into UP politics poses a much bigger challenge than the attempts of other parties to woo Nishad voters. A faction in the Nishad Party has been upset by the party’s oscillating alliances with the SP and the BJP. They believe that the Nishads can establish a ‘Nishad Raj’ in UP on their own and that the Nishad Party should therefore stand alone and continue to fight for reservations. The influence of Dr Sanjay Nishad’s family members over the party organisation and decision-making has also alienated many leaders who have been linked with the party since its inception.
Though they eye caste votes, neither the BJP nor any other mainstream political party seems keen to any offers put forth by caste-based parties. Any alliances thus formed are only temporary. Regional parties are urged to contest polls on their own symbols so that a break-up at a critical juncture does not hurt the outcome of the polls much. The BJP tends to gradually render smaller parties irrelevant by overshadowing them. The Nishad Party is one of the latest victims of this ploy. How it will manage to hold up against such stratagems remains to be seen.
Manoj Singh is the editor of Gorakhpur Newsline.
Translated from the Hindi by Naushin Rehman.