As 13 constituencies in eastern Uttar Pradesh, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Varannasi, wrap up voting in the last phase of the Lok Sabbha Elections on May 19, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the 'gatbandhan', its principal opponent, have one preoccupation: maximising voter turnout in the blistering heat, exacerbated by gusty winds. On May 12, when the second last set of seats, also covering some eastern districts, reported a slight drop in the vote percentage, the workers, gathered at the BJP’s central election office in Varanasi, recalled Modi’s nomination speech and the lines in which he cautioned the electors not to become complacent, believing his victory was inevitable and it did not matter whether individual voters exercised their franchise or not. “This attitude won’t do. We have to pull out our people from their homes,” a city functionary stressed.
The Opposition coalition of the Samajwadi Party (SP)-Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP)-Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) was as worried, although popular wisdom had it that the SP’s Yadavs and the BSP’s Dalits were weather-hardened by the long hours put in working outdoor and were “capable” of enduring the tedium of queuing up to vote. “May be we have less of a problem with our voters than the BJP that depends on upper caste voters. But we can’t take anyone for granted,” said the RLD’s Ravinder Singh Patel, who is the chief election agent of Ram Charitra Nishad, the SP’s candidate from Mirzapur, working “hard” to split the Patel (Kurmi) votes that were projected to go to Anupriya Patel, the BJP-Apna Dal’s incumbent MP.
UP’s east is also where the caste fault lines, more visible in a largely waveless, quotidian election, get accentuated because even in the 1991 election, when the state was swamped by the “Ram temple” wave, the people of this region were excited and motivated by the Mandal Commission’s recommendation of reservation for the Other Backward Classes (OBCs). Therefore, in 2014, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and BJP went the extra mile to propagate Modi’s antecedent as a Teli (oil-presser) from an extremely backward caste and the line clicked. The alliance between the Yadavs-Dalits-Muslims that the “gatbandhan” firmed up, together with the dissociation of the Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party from the BJP, upset the BJP’s winning caste calculus that handed two spectacular victories. The Suheldev Party commands the votes of the OBC Rajbhar but a section still professed allegiance to the BJP. At Raipur Bazaar (Ghosi Lok Sabha), Ajay Rajbhar, a small farmer, said, “A pro-Modi wind is blowing in these parts. I will go with BJP and not the Rajbhar party. BJP talks about nationalism and a Hindu nation and I strongly believe in both these ideas.”
As palpable were the incipient signs of disillusionment with the BJP. Gobind Singh, the Azamgarh-based brother of the BJP’s Basti Lok Sabha minder, Devendra Singh, said while Modi was the “dominant” issue because of the slew of schemes he brought to the poor, notably the Ujwala gas, subsidised housing and toilets, the “uneven” distribution — that allegedly left out many targeted beneficiaries — caused “heart burn” and a “lack of enthusiasm” for voting.
At Mirzapur’s Serai Bazaar, Anil Dubey, a medical practitioner, candidly said, “A Modi wave exists on paper. People are busy with their work because they’ve lost savings in demonetisation and the GST. There’s no activity in this election.”
Sunil Bhalla, a Bhadohi carpet manufacturer, said, “We are happy with GST although our export refunds take time to come. The problem is an overall slow-down in the market. The demand for our hand-woven carpets has fallen abroad because retailers have taken to the machine-made rugs from Turkey. We’ve laid off workers who migrated to Mumbai, Surat and Ahmedabad for a living. Mirzapur and Bhadohi survive on carpets. The depressed economy seems to have sapped the political workers too. Two days (Bhadohi voted May 12) to vote and my voting slip hasn’t come. In the last two elections, the BJP was up and about.”
The BJP was up against cracks in its traditional Bania base, indifference among the Brahmins and a depletion in its following among the non-Yadav backward castes. At a weekly market in Ghurassapur (Kaushambi Lok Sabha that voted May 6), Shiv Agreri, a Bania who sold lentils, said, “We were committed BJP voters but this time we are opting for the local Jansatta Dal (Loktantrik) or the ‘gatbandhan’ because the Modi government did nothing to help us get more money for our produce. My daughter’s done her Masters, has a degree in education, passed the Teacher Eligibility Test but is idling away here time. Where are the jobs? Where are the good times that Modi talked about?” The Jansatta Dal (Loktantrik) was launched by Raghuraj Pratap Singh (Raja Bhaiya), the controversial legislator from Kunda who has a strong local constituency because he is apparently available for help.
It’s not as though the “gatbandhan” was not without problems. At Saidpur (Ghazipur Lok Sabha), 30-year-old Amit Yadav, who taught in a college at Hajipur, Bihar and came over to vote, was concerned because Ghazipur “gatbandhan” candidate, Afzal Ansari, a BSP candidate, was “not reaching out” to the Yadavs. “He’s not bothered about us. The less literate voters in my community recognise the SP’s cycle symbol and not the BSP’s elephant. The ‘gatbandhan’s’ field work is not adequate. If the Yadavs vote Ansari, it’s only because the Rajputs gave us a bad time after Yogi (Adityanath) became the chief minister,” said Amit, who is the nephew of a local SP leader, Chhotelal Yadav.
Ironically, some Brahmins in Ghazipur said they were voting Ansari because he “protected” them from the Bhumihars who had got “emboldened” after Manoj Sinha was elected as the MP in 2014.