The spindly lanes of Piprauli Bazar, manic at any given time, are pressed into overdrive at the first sight of Ravi Kishan Shukla. When the hugely popular Bhojpuri film star arrives in an SUV wearing a saffron-coloured kurta and jeans, phones thrash the air all around him, their owners hoping to capture evidence of being within striking distance of the 49-year-old who is running for parliament from Gorakhpur in Eastern Uttar Pradesh.
"I am asking for votes in the name of Narendra Modi and Yogi Adityanath," Ravi Kishan tells NDTV, making it clear that though he may deliver monster hits, it's the Prime Minister and the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh who are the real draw. "I'm only the tadka (seasoning) in the daal," he says coyly.
Gorakhpur votes on May 19. If Ravi Kishan is feeling any sort of cognitive dissonance from contesting this election as a BJP leader versus the last one as a Congressman, there are few signs of it. In 2014, he ran unsuccessfully for parliament from his hometown of Jaunpur, about 150 kms away.
This time, he is up against Ram Buhal Nishad, a former minister and the candidate of the alliance or gathbandhan between Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati, who, 14 months ago, picked Gorakhpur to trial a new partnership with startling results - they defeated the BJP candidate in the constituency that had been represented five times by Yogi Adityanath, the saffron robe wearing monk who became Chief Minister of India's politically most crucial state in 2017.
The defeat in the Gorakhpur by-election was a huge bungle for Adityanath, also the head priest of the influential and powerful Gorakhnath temple in the area and supercharged Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav, both former Chief Ministers, into abandoning their abiding rivalry to focus on blocking the BJP across the state. If Gorakhpur could be won, the reasoning went, other BJP turf could be taken.
Yogi Adityanath, who had likened the Mayawati-Akhilesh Yadav pact to the catastrophic alliance of a snake and a mole during a flood, had to concede he had underestimated the combined power of his adversaries and the mood of the people.
Chastised, he moved to upgrade parts of Gorakhpur, widening important roads, setting up a new fertiliser plant and sugar mill. The Prime Minister pitched in by picking Gorakhpur and not his own constituency of Varanasi to launch infrastructure schemes totalling 10,000 crores for Eastern UP and announce the 75,000-crore Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi (PM-KISAN) which transfers Rs 6,000 every year straight into the accounts of small farmers.
The rush of "Vikas" has left Manoj Singh, a political observer in Gorakhpur, amused. "Development has never played a major role in Gorakhpur elections. Otherwise, the poor state of government hospitals or crumbling bridges and lack of public transport would have had some resonance with the people here. In successive elections, they vote either for the Gorakhnath temple or on caste lines. Nothing else matters as much here."
In the complex caste calculus of Gorakhpur which has 20 lakh voters, the biggest community is that of the Nishad or boatmen community (2.63 lakh voters) followed closely by Dalits (2.6 lakh voters) and then Yadavs (2.40 lakh voters). In the 2018 by-election, a sizeable number of these groups along with Muslims backed Akhilesh Yadav's candidate, Pravin Nishad, who was also the leader of a local caste outfit that acronym-ed itself as NISHAD. "The NISHAD party grew politically ambitious after Pravin Nishad's victory and demanded two Lok Sabha tickets from Akhilesh Yadav who refused," alleged a local leader from Akhilesh Yadav's party. In early April, the NISHAD party said it would ally with the BJP, a makeover allegedly orchestrated by Akhilesh Yadav's estranged uncle, Shivpal Yadav.
But the BJP knew that if it picked a Nishad as its candidate, it would likely lose a large chunk of the nearly 7.5 lakh upper caste voters in Gorakhpur of whom Brahmins are the biggest constituent - so it selected Ravi Kishan Shukla as its contender. (Pravin Nishad was relocated to a neighbouring constituency.)
"Ravi Kishan was most likely a consensus choice. While the BJP leadership felt the choice of a Brahmin would placate the community after two of its tallest leaders in the state, Murli Manohar Joshi and Kalraj Mishra were denied tickets, the actor, a political lightweight and an outsider, poses no threat to the Chief minister's position in Gorakhpur," says Sunil Singh, a former top leader with Yogi Adityanath's private youth militia, the Hindu Yuva Vahini, who fell out with his mentor after 15 years, and is now campaigning against him.
Ravi Kishan, 49, however, says he's in this for the long haul. "I want to mature into a serious politician like actors N T Rama Rao and Vinod Khanna who worked tirelessly for the people." He said he plans to set up a Bhojpuri film studio which would generate 1 lakh jobs, echoing a promise already made by PM Modi to Varanasi in 2014.
Ram Buhal Nishad, the gathbandhan's candidate, told NDTV that he has no concerns about being overshadowed by his movie star opponent. "I have the support of all the marginalised sections of society across caste and religion." Some Nishad party supporters say they will vote for him because despite poaching Pravin Nishad, the BJP eventually did not name him as its choice for Gorakphur. Caste and religion, however, are being overplayed by the non-BJP parties, claims Sunil Oza, who is managing the BJP's 2019 election campaign in the Prime Minister's constituency of Varanasi and in Gorakhpur. "They are ignoring people across these communities who will vote for development. The largest number of beneficiaries of the welfare schemes launched for the poor by the BJP are Dalits and Muslims."
As Yogi Adityanath's home base, Gorakhpur was always VIP vicinity. This time around, it's even more eminent - as the birthplace of that once unimaginable political proposition, the Mayawati-Akhilesh Yadav combo. In this election, its political weight is off the charts.