At the intersection of three assembly seats of eastern Uttar Pradesh lies Baburi Bazaar, a crowded market that offers daily essentials for about 50 villages in the area. Quirkily, a part of the market lies in each of the three constituencies of Chakia, Chunar and Mughalsarai, all won by the BJP in the last election, but earlier held by the Samajwadi Party (SP) and Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party or BSP. All three seats vote on March 7, the last date of voting for Uttar Pradesh. Their mix-and-match approach to parties makes them a reasonable place to explore emerging patterns of this election.
Eastern UP has 102 of the state's 403 seats. In the last election, the BJP won 69 of the seats here, the SP 13, and the BSP 8. The balance were divided among smaller parties that are founded and supported on the basis of sub-castes. Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath is a dominant force in Gorakhpur, his long-time constituency, which lies about 200 kms from here.
Rajender is a tall, lanky man, a daily wage-earner who has for the last five elections chosen the BSP. He is a Jatav Dalit, the caste to which BSP leader Mayawati also belongs, referred to as "Harijan" in these parts. Talking to me in Baburi Bazaar, he says that this time around, he's transferring his interest to the Samajwadi Party; for the first time, he says, he believes that Mayawati really cannot win the state. He has chosen Akhilesh Yadav's SP because of his strong antipathy for the BJP - Rajender says he is "Modi Virodhi/Yogi Virodhi" (an opponent of the PM and Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath) who he deems "anti-poor".
UP's Dalits form 21 percent of the population; in some seats in the East, they have even greater numbers. About half the Dalits are Jatavs, the caste to which Mayawati belongs, though her hold on them has been gradually eroding. In Purvanchal or Eastern UP, Mayawati's BSP got 24 per cent of votes in the last election though that translated into only 8 seats. The BJP's lush victory was founded on combining the upper caste vote with large chunks of lower and backward castes, and a section of non-Jatav Dalits.
Two-hour drive from Baburi Bazaar takes me to Gazipur, a different part of Purvanchal where I meet Gulu Banwasi from the Dalit Musahar sub-caste who grins as if he has won the lottery when sharing that a year ago, he received Rs 1.20 lakh in his bank account to build a house; he is also pleased with other subsidies from the government. He says that his family is from district Jaunpur, where almost 50 houses have been built by his community with government support. Naturally, he is voting BJP.
But the BJP cannot shake off the problem of the fragmentation that is erupting among the Other Backward Castes who constitute 44 per cent of the population, within which category about 10.5 percent are MBCs or Most Backward Castes. The concentration of MBCs is higher in the east than in other parts of the state.
In a village in Mughalsarai, a bike mechanic named Heera Lal Prajapati says his people have for years been BJP supporters, but now the "mahaul" (atmosphere) is changing. "Bhagwan ko bhi pasand nahin mazdoor ko kaam nahin mil raha, (even God is angry)" he says, listing unemployment, rising prices and the 'voicelessness' of the poor as the causes of anger in both his village and the Heavens above. This time, he says, "BJP ladkhada sakti hai (the BJP can stumble)."
A crowd gathers at the tea stall where Prajapati is providing his analysis. Rakesh Kumar Singh, an upper caste Thakur who runs a coaching centre, says that there is support for BJP because of the improvement in infrastructure and roads. Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath is a Thakur, and critics accuse him of gifting teaching and police jobs to his own in a run of "Thakur Raj". Babita Thakur, a housewife, says that "Modi-ji also supports Muslim ladies, so we must support him." She is referring to the abolition of 'Triple Talaq' that she credits to the PM.
Ram Lal Yadav, who runs the popular tea stall, earning about Rs 5,000 a day, is loyal to Akhilesh Yadav (same caste) and delivers a sermon to his captive audience on the terrible misdeeds of the BJP. He points to a man sipping his tea and jokingly says "Yeh Amit Shah ke rishtedaar sahukar hain (He is related to Amit Shah and is a money-lender)". The barb suggests that the BJP "buys" loyalty. Every one laughs before conceding "caste batao aur vote jaan jao (reveal the caste and know the vote)."
Manoj Kumar Pandey, a Brahmin, says he is an outlier to this decree. "No saffron for me this time," he says. Pandey is living off a small agricultural income and sees no possibility of getting a job; he is about 30 years old. Ashok Kumar Pandey, a government employee who did election duty during the panchayat elections held nine months ago, says he will remain a BJP voter. He is interrupted by Basant Maurya, who drives trucks in the region: "This time, the BJP lollipop won't work." What lollipop? "That they will empower us backwards but they are running a government of Thakurs and Babus." Labour, he says, is suffering. "They get work for one day and Rs 300 and then no work for 10 days".
This is the sort of disgruntlement cited by Swami Prasad Maurya, the former Backward Caste minister who headlined the recent big defections from the BJP to SP. Maurya was originally with the BSP for two decades but in 2017 went across to the BJP. Now after one term with the national party he moved last week to Team Akhilesh. He was followed in quick succession by two other OBC ministers. The departures are designed to hurt the BJP's standing within OBCs, but the bloc is not a united one. Mangal Maurya, from a village in Mirzapur is supporting the BJP because his family has a regular supply of rations; others from his caste have got government jobs. There is therefore a "welfare beneficiary" constituency that the BJP has built.
But is it enough to make up for the "No Jobs and Rising Prices" refrain in these parts? Chandauli district is part of the rice bowl that extends to some districts in Bihar. Because of a natural supply of water, good quality dhaan (rice) is grown here. At a centre in village Sikanderpur, farmers gather to collect receipts for the quantity of rice the government will buy from them at minimum support price (MSP). I meet many Kurmi farmers here who own their plots. This OBC community is significant in some assembly seats in the region. As the census does not extend to OBCs, people only have estimates that Mauryas make up around 7 percent of the OBCs and Kurmis about 4 per cent. Extending the caste census to OBCs is a demand of each leader who has quit the BJP for the Samajwadi Party.
Arvind Patel's wife is the pradhan of a nearby village dominated by Kurmis. This time, he says, the SP is getting more support among Kurmis while last time, it all went to the BJP that is aligned with Anupriya Patel's faction of the Apna Dal, a small but influential party built on Kurmi support. "This time it is apni apni marzi (to each his own)," he says.
Another farmer, Diwaker Patel, says Akhilesh Yadav is his choice because the SP leader has promised 300 units of free electricity to all farmers. Yet, there are old loyalties to Apna Dal which remains aligned with BJP, so things are not "confirmed" and only after the candidates are known will the decision be made. Other farmers also talk of large electricity bills becoming a "huge burden" and say Akhilesh Yadav's promise is making them look at him anew.
Although most OBCs are divided about whom to support, most Rajbhars seem to have turned away from the BJP. Shashi Prakash Singh is the spokesperson of the Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party (SBSP) led by Om Prakash Rajbhar, the first OBC leader to abandon the BJP several months ago. In village Kanudih in rural Varanasi, he mocks the televised inauguration by the PM of the Kashi Corridor, describing the PM as a "behrupiya" (a performer who changes costume multiple times). He has complete confidence "that the BJP will be down to single digits in Purvanchal".
The big takeaway is that there appears to be much splintering within the voter blocs that were essential to the BJP's caste rainbow in the last state election. The beneficiary of this, for now, is Akhilesh Yadav, who is emerging as a plausible alternative. The final outcome will now depend on the details of candidates in each seat and the capacity to manage a very competitive election. It is, as the locals say, "Takkar ki Ladai" - a clash of equals. For the BJP, this is unwelcome. For Akhilesh Yadav, it's a promotion, being seen as a viable contender. It is, at any rate, a highly spirited game.
(Saba Naqvi is a journalist and an author.)
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