Brijesh Singh, a Faizabad transporter, who claimed to have ‘friends’ across the political spectrum but stayed ‘committed’ to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) since he first voted in 1984, organised ‘Diwali’ celebrations in his town (128 kms east of Lucknow) three times, long after the calendar festival was over and done with.
The first was when India reportedly crossed the western border and destructed a terror camp in Pakistan, the second was when Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman was released after a 60-hour captivity by Pakistan and the third was when India scored a diplomatic win after China yielded to international pressure and paved the way for designating Jaish-e-Muhammed leader Masood Azhar as a ‘global terrorist’ by the United Nations. As Faizabad votes on May 6, Singh believed that Beijing’s reversal was the best thing that could have happened to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP when Uttar Pradesh entered the penultimate rounds of polling. “Congress didn’t have the spine to act in the way that Modi did,” he said.
As concept and creed, nationalism, especially in the visceral form that Singh intoned, ought to appeal and sway a larger constituency of the electorate than just the BJP faithful. Especially in Faizabad and Ayodhya, the epicentre of the first major manifestation of Hindutva in the shape of the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri mosque ‘movement’. To Hindutva adherents such as Singh and the motley clergy in the pilgrim town, it scarcely mattered whether or not the BJP fulfilled its promise to construct a ‘magnificent’ temple for Lord Ram at his purported birthplace. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the BJP adeptly segued Hindutva with ‘nationalism’ to a point where Ayodhya’s pontiffs and seers, used to ramping up their demand for a temple before an election, shrugged off the issue. “We know the BJP is returning to the Centre and that Modi will hand over construction and the paraphernalia to a private developer,” said the “mahant” of a temple close to the “disputed” site, off-the-record.
A tad grudgingly, even Singh admitted that the ‘nationalist’ fervour he sought to whip up was challenged by a social coalition of the Muslims, Yadavs and Dalits that was constructed by the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). In Faizabad, the BJP’s incumbent MP, Lallu Singh was up against Anand Sen Yadav of the gathbandhan (coalition) with a former Congress MP, Nirmal Khatri, jockeying for a little space. Yadav is the son of the late Mitra Sen Yadav, who represented Faizabad thrice in the Lok Sabha but on behalf of the CPI, the SP and BSP. His son was fighting as an SP nominee.
Ramapati Yadav, the Pradhan (chief) of Tonia village, admitted that ‘15 to 20 percent’ of the Yadavs, including card-carrying SP members, rooted for the BJP in 2014. “The Hindu-Muslim card is exhausted,” declared Yadav, aware that in a last bid to communally polarise the election, the BJP raked up memories of a supposedly storied past, where Yadavs like him were ‘overpowered’ by Muslims if the latter were in a majority, and sometimes ‘forced’ to flee their habitations to ‘protect their women’. “Sheer propaganda. Some people bit the bait and voted BJP. This time nobody is buying into the stories,” he said.
To try and fight the perception of being a Yadav exclusive entity, the SP broad-based its representation and appointed local leaders from the other backward castes in important positions. Like the Kurmis who hold sway over a swath of rural land in this constituency and can tilt the balance of power. “In 2014, Kurmis voted en bloc for BJP. They are farmers and have suffered the problems that farmers have over the past five years, the biggest being to protect their fields against the cows let loose,” said Yadav.
That’s half the narrative. The other and more significant half was filled by the residents of Jeralkala, a village falling in Faizabad’s Rudauli assembly seat. This village of 1250 voters is made up of Yadavs and Passi-Dalits and as sharply polarised as it gets in an election criss-crossed all over by caste fault lines and not breached by faith.
A quote from Yogi Adityanath’s speech last week at a rally in Etawah was picked up by the SP’s IT cell to show how ‘casteist’ the chief minister was. Adityanath’s disputed statement was but for the Constitution of India, Akhilesh Yadav, the SP president, would have been ‘doomed’ to tending to cattle for a lifetime. Ranjit Kumar Yadav, who looks after the SP’s IT wing in Jeralkala, said, “The quote went viral. Our retort was but for the Constitution, Yogi would have been forced to sell temple ‘prasad’ all his life. That statement consolidated the Yadav votes fully behind the SP. The BJP will get a reality check this time because there’s no Ramzan-Durga Puja issue or a fight between crematoriums and graveyards that none other than the PM tried to kick up in the 2017 election. Yadavs, Muslims and Dalits are one.”
However, Vijay Pratap, a backward caste Chouhan, served his own eye-opener to Yadav. “The more aggressive we see the Yadavs become, the more we rally around the BJP. I don’t care about the stray cattle. What matters to me are the gas cylinders, the toilets and the money granted under the PM-Kisan scheme. Modi is generous towards the poor,” said Chouhan.
The backward castes and Dalits might be split but next door to Jeralkala, in Bhilsar, whose nearly 6000 population is divided equally between Muslims and Hindus, the Muslims were clear that they stood solidly behind the gathbandhan. Mohammad Mujeeb, a farmer, said, “We will not get distracted by the Congress. We wish to live in peace with the Hindus but the chief minister made things worse for Muslims. The PM’s work was not bad but the CM brought grievous harm to us.”