Until the early 2000s, Panna Lal Punia was “Punia Bhaisaheb” to the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) president, Mayawati, and before that, “Punia Saheb” to the Samajwadi Party (SP) patriarch, Mulayam Singh Yadav. A Dalit from Haryana, in Uttar Pradesh’s officialdom, Punia became a powerful bureaucrat around the time when Dalit officials rose to become the third caste pillar holding aloft the state’s administration with the Brahmins and Kayasthas. He was the principal secretary to both Yadav and Mayawati when they were chief ministers. More resilient than many of his colleagues, Punia dumped Yadav after the BSP pulled out of the coalition government they had put together in 1993, and teamed up with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). His association with Mayawati lasted through the three terms she was the chief minister with the BJP’s support in 1995, 1997 and 2002. In 2003, he turned an approver against Mayawati when she was out of power and entangled in the Rs 175 crore Taj Heritage Corridor scam, his charge being that she shifted the culpability to him. Their relationship soured for good.
In 2007, Punia resigned from the civil services and joined the Congress that found him, a useful weapon to take on Mayawati. However, he lost the assembly election that year that the BSP swept. When the Congress fielded Punia in 2009 from the Barabanki Lok Sabha seat, Mayawati realised that by then, he was no pushover. He had the overt support of Beni Prasad Verma, an SP veteran who quit the party to protest Amar Singh’s growing influence over Yadav. The caste combination of Dalits and backward caste Kurmis that they potentially attracted made for a winning package. Mayawati despatched one of her top ministers, Naseemuddin Siddiqui (now in the Congress) to work against Punia but it didn’t help because he won.
Ten years and a defeat in 2014 later, Punia’s son, Tanuj, 32, is contesting from Barabanki, that’s 28 km from Lucknow, against the SP-BSP veteran, Ram Sagar Rawat and the BJP’s Upendra Singh. The fight acquired intense overtones not because of Mayawati and Punia’s choppy past but because Punia is believed to be one of the few Congress leaders from UP who has the party president Rahul Gandhi’s ears and advised him against being part of the SP-BSP alliance. “If the Congress has to rise again in UP, we must go alone,” he reportedly emphasised, even if the Congress did a series of flip-flops vis-a-vis the “gathbandhan” thereafter. Punia’s role in the Congress’s spectacular win in the last Chhattisgarh assembly elections, that he oversaw as a general secretary, embedded him in Rahul’s team of confidants.
In this reserved seat that votes on May 6, the backward castes and Muslims determined the outcome of an election. But Tanuj’s sales pitch is all about fostering his father’s “vision”. “Whatever solid work Barabanki saw is thanks to Punia,” claimed KK Shastri, a Youth Congress leader from Delhi, who is coordinating Tanuj’s election. “The town’s first over-bridge, a dam to harness the Ghagra river’s water, rural electrification, a trauma centre, Punia changed Barabanki’s face,” said Shastri, emphasising that Tanuj’s academic credentials as a mechanical engineer from IIT-Roorkee, a social media junkie, an “ace” political communicator and a motivator of the party’s workers would transcend his appeal beyond Dalits.
Of course, Shastri pointedly mentioned that in his tenure as an MP, Punia had created some 50 parks, named after Ambedkar, for which he was hailed as the “only genuine” leader of the Gautams (Jatavs) as against the “gathbandhan” and BJP contenders who were from the Rawat sub-caste that is in a majority at Barabanki. The allusion to the Punias being Gautams was significant because one of Mayawati’s allegation was her former PS was a “Dhanuk” and not a Jatav.
At the SP office, Punia junior was dismissed in a few lines by Rajan Shukla, a national secretary. “He’s known as the son of an IAS officer who was close to Mayawati and not as a ‘neta’ (leader). Our campaign is focussed on all that went wrong under the (Narendra) Modi and Yogi Adityanath governments. Joblessness, lack of irrigation and expensive urea, all have hit our farmers. Peppermint is grown extensively in our area. The small traders have been hit by GST. Our potato and wheat produce has not been picked up by the government, forcing the producers to sell them to the private buyers for lower than the prescribed price,” said Shukla.
On top of it all, farmers were forced to buy iron barricades, that were selling for Rs 30 a kilo but were now priced at Rs 72 after the fields were ravaged by the “lawaris pashu” (cattle gone astray), thanks to the state government’s blanket ban on the sale and slaughter of all bovine species. “The barricades are the commodity most in demand,” said Ram Jeerath, a farmer of Sultanpur village.
Aware that the errant “pashu” was a leitmotif in the Opposition’s campaign, the BJP shifted the focus of its discourse, mid-way, from security and terrorism, to answering the “gathbandhan’s” charges. Mahendra Gupta, the Barabanki district president, said, “We are telling farmers to take a more benign attitude towards ‘gau mata’ (mother cow). It is not Modiji or Yogiji who asked them to let loose the unproductive animals. They did it willingly. It’s like throwing an old parent out of one’s home. There are problems. Our government is acquiring land from local municipal corporations to make cow shelters. We are training volunteers to catch stray cattle without hurting them because the cops who were doing this earlier often wounded the animals. That hurt people’s sentiments. All good things take time to do.”