From Varanasi to Gorakhpur, from Modi's constituency to Yogi's fief, the combined might of SP and BSP and the charisma of Priyanka Gandhi hope to make a dent in the BJP bastion. Ullekh NP travels through a volatile stretch of Indian politics
IN BALLIA, KNOWN for its links to India’s freedom struggle and various melas, a strange morning ritual along narrow village roads stuns you. Men are seen taking their pigs out for a walk, waving canes, as if herding sheep that need to graze or walking dogs that must attend their call of nature. Here in the countryside, not far from the Rasra area of Ballia district in eastern Uttar Pradesh—which is associated with names like Mangal Pandey, hero of the 1857 War of Independence, and Chandra Shekhar, the late Prime Minister once known as a ‘Young Turk’—rotund, hairy pigs along with agile smaller ones, and even enthusiastic little piglets, do their matutinal rounds while cleaning up food waste thrown along the narrow streets. Rajender Kumar, a roadside tyre-shop owner, looks at the sight with familiarity and scorn as he says that he will vote for the BJP in the General Election of 2019 so that Narendra Modi becomes Prime Minister again. “These are men from neech jaati (lower castes) taking their pigs for a walk. They are like their family. They eat them too,” says this Rajput with a knowing smile, clearly pleased with himself for having shared important rural knowledge with a city dweller from afar. Kumar then plucks a few leaves of marijuana from a small field along the road for me to smell, looking keen to hear my views as I enjoy my plate of sattu ki kachori and bhaaji bought from his neighbour, a roadside vendor. “And those over there are gaanja fields. Our old people here smoke gaanja and consume bhaang in milk to beat the winter chill and joint pains. Our people have used these products for hundreds of years. There is nothing unusual about it,” he says, gifting a few leaves of the plant to me before I say goodbye. “Ek baar ye sookh jayega, toh iska khushboo aur zyaada tagda ho jaayega (once this dries up, it will smell even stronger),” he shouts as I leave.
Like elsewhere in UP and perhaps many parts of India, displays of caste identities and associated biases are as stark as ever in this eastern region that accounts for 32 Lok Sabha constituencies of the country’s most populous state. With 80 members—the highest of any state—representing UP in India’s 543-strong Lower House of Parliament, winning its east is crucial for any party that hopes to achieve power in Delhi. In the 2014 General Election (and later in the 2017 Assembly polls), Modi used his OBC credentials and crowd- pulling skills to help his party break caste barriers and register an emphatic win through Hindutva consolidation in the state, which added 71 seats to the BJP’s all- India tally of 282.
Eastern UP played its part. The responses of voters now, however, indicate that caste affinities have resurfaced with a vengeance in the region, especially so after the Centre’s move to offer a 10-per cent quota in jobs and educational institutions for Economically Weaker Sections. The rethink is also partly thanks to a raft of economic policies that many who Open spoke to across over a dozen Lok Sabha constituencies in the region contend have hurt the informal sector. Upper castes—and caste groups that felt left out by the social-engineering exercise of the early 1990s that brought certain backward caste groups to the centre of politics and power—appear to be rooting for the BJP again. The Pulwama terror attack that killed 40 CRPF jawans on February 14th has added steam to the Hindu nationalist party’s campaign in several constituencies of eastern UP, including Deoria, Gorakhpur, Salempur, Bansgaon, Ghazipur and Ballia, where party workers have taken out processions burning Pakistani flags and effigies of local rival politicians. In terms of perception, the BJP seems to have an edge over the grand alliance of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Samajwadi Party (SP), whose leaders argue that their voters form a silent majority who are still as loyal as they used to be. “Now with the BJP coming under pressure on social media due to restrictions on fake news, they are resorting to the use of traditional media to meet their requirements,” says Sudhir Panwar, Lucknow University professor and a former SP candidate, “The fact that various TV channels have been projecting Priyanka Gandhi and Congress as the main contender to the BJP in Uttar Pradesh through their news bulletins and shows is [a way] to neatly deflect attention away from the much bigger rival, the BSP-SP alliance. That serves the BJP’s interests.”
Sanju Bharti, a diminutive 35-year-old who runs a beauty parlour at Roja Trimuhani in neighbouring Ghazipur, regrets that caste-based discrimination is rampant, especially in this largely agrarian region compared with more urbanised parts of the state. Inside her tiny salon are two customers and an assistant. While she does the eyebrows of one, her assistant helps the other to put on makeup for a wedding. Bharti is proud of being an entrepreneur who supplements her husband’s income to support their two children, whose Dalit surname she says she changed to avert discrimination in school. On the policies of various parties in the fray, this college graduate with a BA and BEd says that the Centre’s implementation of GST has cut into her earnings, especially with fines for late payment piling up month after month. Her grouse is that while she buys products after paying GST, her patrons are not ready to pay more, nor can she claim input credits on tax, given the nature of her business. On other difficulties, she says some clients want to know her caste before they avail her services. Some walk away, she says. For years, she had tried to get a government job, making frequent long journeys to nearby towns for written tests. But despite her high scores, she wasn’t able to secure a job; she gave up and started out on her own. “I never got a job that suited my educational qualifications,” she says, urging her 23-year-old customer to get a voter ID made and go vote this summer. She hopes the BSP and SP get along well and don’t start fighting too soon. “The local MP [BJP’s Manoj Sinha] is good. But his party is not right,” add Bharti, “I will vote for the party that doesn’t legitimise or promote caste discrimination directly or indirectly. Some people tend to get emboldened about their caste privilege—and as men—when certain parties come to power.” Caste remains relevant to her life.
ASHWINI KUMAR, A dealer in building supplies from Bansgaon, makes a perfunctory gesture of rising from his chair as I walk in. His intention is not to get up, for he can’t without assistance. He had met with an accident several months ago and had to visit the Indian Spinal Injuries Centre in Delhi before he showed some improvement, discloses the 54-year-old. He vows to vote for the BJP because he feels that the Modi Government has done a lot for UP. “I had voted for other parties in the past. But now that we are more aware of what our leaders are doing, we are convinced that Modi is the leader to trust. Earlier, people were not very aware of politics, but now thanks to TV and social media, people have become intelligent,” he says.
Political scientists are of the view that 2019 will differ from 2014, and Modi’s image as a moderniser isn’t as bright now as it was then, but his ability to attract people on the BJP’s Hindutva plank has shown no signs of a slide
Kumar believes Modi will easily sweep back to power, but is upset that many illiterates— he casually waves an arm towards a few labourers who are trying to listen in—still cast their votes based on caste. He is of the view that though Priyanka Vadra Gandhi has joined active organisational politics, so far there is no sign that she will make an impact on this region, for which the Congress has named her pointperson for 2019. She is in charge of the party’s campaigns in 42 Lok Sabha seats that cover the entire eastern UP belt.
Milan Vaishnav, director and senior fellow, South Asia Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, as well as Sanjay Kumar, professor and director at the Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, tell me that by pitching her in the region as the spearhead of the Congress poll blitz, the party hopes to repeat the 2009 Lok Sabha success in UP, when it secured 21 of the state’s seats—a good chunk of them from the east. “They have memories of the 2009 win in their minds and they look to activate the dormant Congress vote base in the region, which has a slightly larger proportion of upper castes [that may connect well with Priyanka],” observes Professor Kumar. For his part, Vaishnav says, “Priyanka’s biggest value addition is guaranteeing the Congress wall-to-wall media coverage in a context where the BJP would otherwise have saturated the media and social- media landscape. So, in that sense, she is playing a pan-Indian role. But her impact will also be felt locally in eastern UP where the day-to-day focus will remain. [These] constituencies are where the Congress did surprisingly well in 2009. The party believes that, under Priyanka’s leadership, it can make a dent in this pocket of the state, which is also home to Varanasi and Gorakhpur— the constituencies of Modi and [previously] Yogi Adityanath.” He adds, “In effect, she becomes the premier star campaigner, taking the fight directly to two of the most consequential BJP leaders in the country.” The Congress won only two UP seats in the 2014 General Election, the family pocketboroughs of Rae Bareli and Amethi, Sonia Gandhi from the former and her son Rahul from the latter.
“I will vote for a party that doesn’t promote caste discrimination. Some people tend to get emboldened about their caste when certain parties come to power” – Sanju Bharti, salon owner from Ghazipur
While upper-caste voters of eastern UP are not typically averse to Priyanka Gandhi, now a Congress general secretary, they find the Congress campaign here quite sloppy so far. “None of them have approached us so far,” says Anil Kumar Dubey, a hotel manager from Salempur. So, for him, it’s BJP again. “My vote is not actually for the BJP, but for Modi,” he clarifies, saying that if the BJP fields incumbent Ravindra Kushawaha as its candidate, then he may have to rethink his choice. Non-Yadav OBCs like Kushawahas and Mauryas, however, are upbeat about gaining greater political space in UP thanks to the BJP. “This time too, they are expected to vote for the BJP in large numbers in their pockets, especially in Salempur. However, Yadavs who had voted for the BJP last time are unlikely to repeat it this time,” says Shyamji Yadav from Basdih area of Ballia who does odd jobs for a living.
The state is home to more than 200 million people and has elected nine prime ministers so far, Modi from Varanasi being the latest. Yet, its performance on controlling crime and boosting agriculture, industry and income are nothing to boast about. It lags most states on these parameters, and its eastern region is the most backward in terms of per capita income, worse than the poverty-stricken Bundelkhand region. At one point, cities in eastern UP ranked alongside the world’s worst afflicted ones on riots, rapes, murders and so on. Things haven’t changed much; even now, a large number of politically motivated murders go unreported, says a senior police officer.
“We do not care who wins or who loses unless we are able to improve our lives” – Lakshmi Devi (in blue) homemaker from Nibu village in Ballia
OUTSIDE GORAKHNATH Temple in Gorakhpur, sweet-shop owner Vicky, whose traditional goodies seem to fly off the shelves, pauses with a smile to say his vote is for the deity at the temple, meaning he wouldn’t dare even think of any other party than that of Yogi Adityanath, the math’s mahant who is now Chief Minister of UP. “A lot of people vote on the basis of caste,” he rues, referring to the defeat of the BJP in the by-election held last year after Yogi vacated this seat. Muslim traders here just outside the math too swear by Yogi and look up to him as a benefactor. This is despite the fact that Yogi’s outfit Hindu Yuva Vahini has been accused of the harassment of Muslims in various parts of the state. The Chief Minister has also come under criticism for making communally charged comments and not doing enough to bring to justice perpetrators of lynchings of Muslims over allegations—many of them false—of smuggling cows for sale and slaughter. However, several members of the math, including former treasurer Mohammed Yaseen Ansari, are Muslim and they claim Yogi treats them like family. Adnan Farrukh Ali Shah, a Muslim community leader in the city, tells me on the phone that since the bypoll defeat, Yogi has been busy building roads and focusing on development work to counter the BSP- SP alliance. “Yes, it is true that people vote along caste lines and Muslims votes will most likely go for the alliance,” he notes.
However, a member of an affluent Muslim family in the city who asks not to be named—but identifies himself as a scion of the family of Ahmed Hassan, the late community leader known for his proximity with Mahant Avaidyanath, Yogi’s predecessor and relative—says that many Muslims in the city are not on the voters’ list. He himself hasn’t got a voter ID despite applying several times. His parents got theirs only recently, and that too, after constant complaints to officers. Under Yogi Adityanath’s watch, flashpoints between the two communities have arisen from indiscriminate bans on slaughter houses and the so-called anti- Romeo squads set up in police stations to look out for Muslim boys trying to ‘befriend’ Hindu girls. Hassan’s 32-year-old relative tells me that many police officers are forced to do “menial jobs” by the current government, leaving them with no choice but to quit. A senior Gorakhpur- based officer affirms this: “A senior officer was made to stand on duty inside the math where his only duty was to check the salt content in the food items. It’s a way of robbing a man of his dignity.” Open couldn’t independently verify these claims.
“I had voted for other parties in the past. But now that we are more aware of what our leaders are doing, we are convinced that Modi is the leader to trust” – Ashwini Kumar (centre) businessman from Bansgaon
While Yogi makes an effort to prove himself as a moderniser by building new roads and converting a two-lane state highway into four lanes by demolishing buildings from Deoria to Gorakhpur and beyond, Ramesh Yadav of Nandganj, Ghazipur, who voted BJP last time, says, “We are fed up.” Looking wary as he searches for words to answer questions, the saffron-turban-clad Yadav, who sells and fixes electrical goods, adds, “This time there is no such Modi wave in the state. We feel miserable, especially after demonetisation, which has hurt us badly.” The overnight decision of November 2017 to make high-value notes illegal, according to the RBI’s own disclosure, failed to meet its primary goals—which included eliminating black money, corruption and terror funds. While attending to the few customers he has, Yadav declares that the unorganised sector is as good as dead. “Hum gareeb ban gaye. Hawa nikal gayee (We feel very poor and deflated),” he says.
But perceptions of the BJP’s economic policies cut both ways. Party loyalist Parmendar Bahadur Sahi, 42, from Deoria— a small dusty town full of impoverished, unemployed youth who can be seen dawdling around with beedis and playing cards—is glad that the Centre is doing a lot for upper castes. The banquet-hall manager points out that BJP’s positive intentions are evident from the decision on a quota for the poor of all castes. Attired in a silver waistcoat, Sahi says he will vote for the local BJP candidate also because he is “sick of people voting along caste lines”; he feels that Hindus should stand together and not be divided, as often happens in this constituency, he rues. Currently, BJP leader Kalraj Mishra has this seat (in 2009, the BSP had won this constituency). Sahi says that he will vote for Modi at the national level, but is waiting to see if Yogi can accomplish the ‘Ram Mandir promise’. “Otherwise I won’t vote for [Yogi] in the next state polls.”
Caste affinities and affiliations tend to be complex and pervasive. Murari Kashyap, 72, a voter from Ghazipur, is of the lower Dheemar caste, as he announces proudly. “Humein BSP-SP se kuchh lena- dena nahin hai (I have nothing to do with BSP-SP),” he says, adding that he will vote for Modi, not the BJP, a common refrain among many since 2014. Seated in a chair surrounded by his family, mostly women, who are indignant about not having voter IDs, Kashyap feels at ease that the BJP is in power at both the Centre and Lucknow. “That should continue to be so because we are sure Modi will take care of us. Give him one more term. We have nothing to do with anybody else,” he avers, reiterating that the so-called backward-class parties don’t champion the cause of all backwards. “They are selfish,” he says, his face crinkling as he stares at mustard fields that glow in the mid-afternoon sun. Behind him, the women and children fuss over a photograph to be taken.
“This time there is no such Modi wave in the state. We feel miserable, especially after demonetisation” – Ramesh Yadav, trader from Nandganj, Ghazipur
IN BANSGAON, COUNTRY roads lead to huts where some people walk barefoot. Friends and farmers Vasant Chouhan and Hare Ram Yadav are typical swing voters who say they vote for whoever makes the effort to meet them. Most often, nobody does, they say. They voted for Modi in 2014 because there was so much hype about the change he would effect, they add. Both wear shoes stitched with visibly thin threads. They offer me a seat in a charpoy, but I decline sensing that they have no spare chairs for themselves. Yadav’s wife sits behind, listening deadpan to men cracking jokes about politicians not visiting them even during election season. “No one thinks of us,” says Chouhan, who says his ancestors were shoemakers, a lowly caste. Yadav goes on to talk about how farmers have consistently felt betrayed by politicians of all hue. “Nobody is an exception,” he adds, “My vote this time is for the SP-BSP alliance because we wish to vote for people of our caste.” Both farmers argue that rural distress is for all to see and that their children have no future other than to work as farmers or daily labourers in cities, earning a pittance. The Congress, Chouhan claims, is not in the reckoning at all in this area; the BJP may win upper-caste votes, he says. “But the mood has changed,” he insists. Manoj Kaka, an activist from Chandauli, affirms that rural distress will unmake Modi this time around.
Chouhan and Yadav of Bansgaon get up with some effort to see me off as I resume my journey along unpaved roads filled with potholes.
While upper- caste voters of eastern UP are not typically averse to Priyanka Gandhi, now a Congress general secretary, they find the party’s campaign in the state to be quite sloppy so far
There is a tense moment when men nearly come to blows discussing politics. Inside a mandi near Ballia, I speak to Dheeraj Prajapati, an artisan who makes statues of gods and Ambedkar, about his political preferences. He goes into overdrive praising Modi. “He has brought a lot of respect for the country worldwide,” he sums up. Just as our conversation nears an end, Sriram, a defiant Dalit farmer, intervenes with a tirade against Yogi and Modi for forcing people into long queues for Aadhaar numbers and bank accounts while sneaking away their rations and cheating farmers of fair prices for their produce. He gets booed by upper-caste men and someone pushes him mildly, while someone else tries to interrupt him. He, however, stands his ground. “The fact that we Dalits can talk aloud and get away with it now is thanks to some political parties that back us,” he says. “Sir, don’t forget that,” he tells me.
Women often have a more practical perspective to offer than men. From Kasimabad in Ghazipur to Nibu village in Ballia, women, especially from backward communities, say they are discriminated against when they work hard and save money. “Which is why we show no interest in politics. We do not care who wins or who loses unless we are able to improve our lives,” says Lekshmi Devi, 25, in Hindi mixed with Bhojpuri. She, along with Pammi Devi, 23, stays home to tend to their children, livestock and land in Nibu village, while the menfolk work in farms nearby. Their family voted for the BSP candidate last time, but the young women are not aware of local candidates this time. Pammi does not have a voter ID yet. They do not believe anybody is going to do anything for them. Theirs is the only family in the area that has no access to power and water supply. “We have some property and so most people in the village don’t want us to live well. They are jealous because we are hardworking people,” says Pammi, who, unlike Lekshmi, is talkative, and does not cover her head with her sari. While she speaks, Lekshmi goes inside the hut to change her sari for the camera.
As the family poses for a photo, their neighbour, Vishal Singh Rajput, a first-time voter, strolls into the compound as though he owns the place, and insists that Modi has done a lot for the villagers and that it would be a betrayal to vote for any party other than the BJP. The women ignore him, but he goes on a rant against “Mayawatiji” as if to spite them. I accompany the young man out to the road beyond, where he begins to talk matter-of-factly about why Modi should be given another term to accomplish his mission.
In terms of perception, the BJP seems to have an edge over the grand alliance of the Bahujan Samaj Party and Samajwadi Party, whose leaders argue that their voters form a silent majority who are still as loyal as they used to be
Political scientists are of the view that 2019 will differ from 2014, and Modi’s image as a moderniser isn’t as bright now as it was then, but his ability to attract people on the BJP’s Hindutva plank has shown no signs of a slide. Says Vaishnav: “The BJP is clearly feeling rattled as the electoral contest has tightened over the past many months. The 10-per cent quota gambit, farmer income support scheme, tax sops for the middle class—the party is pulling out all stops to recapture the narrative. I do not think we will see widespread polarisation ahead of the election, but a more targeted deployment of Hindu nationalist tropes. This is what the party did in 2014 and with great results. So, in sensitive areas like western UP, Assam and border areas, I expect the BJP will ramp up polarisation in an effort to consolidate its base. But the party is aware that if it pushes this too far, it will only further embolden opposition unity.”
In Varanasi, a city considered holy by Hindus and the BJP’s political focal point in 2014, there was a lot of talk about development over the past five years. Ramji, 70, a boatman by the ghats of Banaras, says that nobody can defeat Modi in Varanasi. “We have such big roads and flyovers in Varanasi now,” he boasts, but adds, “Yes, the ghats are still filled with garbage and the Ganga filthier than before. Nothing has changed here for the poor.” It is an opinion shared by Shashank Narayan Singh, who owns the Ganges View heritage hotel on Assi Ghat. “One hopes things will get better,” he says. Krishna Yadav, a tea seller at Shivala Ghat, also agrees. “We hope Modi will be back to complete the task he had promised,” he notes.
In Gorakhpur, just before I head back to Delhi, I stop by a sugarcane juice vendor, Ritesh. He appears fearful when I ask him whom he would vote for this year. His eyes shift from side to side, as he hesitantly whispers something inaudible. He may not have a voice, but he does have a vote.