At the Congress’s office in Saidpur, 30 km to the east of Varanasi, one has to look long and hard for mug shots of the Gandhis because a trio of other icons have gained precedence. One wall of the decrepit structure is dominated by the portraits of BR Ambedkar, Jyotiba Phule and Babu Jagdev Prasad Kushwaha. Ambedkar and Phule are enshrined in the pantheon of Dalit idols, but who was Kushwaha, whose surname sake, Ajit Pratap Kushwaha, is the Congress’s candidate from Ghazipur?
To the oppressed classes of east Uttar Pradesh, Babu Kushwaha was “Bharat ke Lenin” (India’s Lenin) because he was the harbinger of a revolution of the exploited castes in north India. He belonged to Bodh Gaya in Bihar, but left a lasting imprint on the UP districts bordering the neighbour because he was said to be the inspiration behind the Mandal Commission that recommended reservation for the other backward classes, an idea that transformed heartland politics. In 1974, Kushwaha was killed in police firing when he led a protest in his home town, Kurtha, and was thereafter immortalised in legend and lore. Cross Varanasi and one embarks on a region that uses a different political grammar and syntax, devoid of Hindutva and “nationalism”. It is the language of the smaller and supposedly less significant backward castes, struggling for their place under the sun and yearning to unshackle themselves from the big parties that seek their votes but do little else after that.
On top of the agenda, set out by the region’s backward castes such as the Bind, Mallah (also called Nishad and Kewat), Kushwaha and Rajbhar is a larger share of the quota pie that their leaders felt was cornered by the influential Yadavs, Kurmis and Lodh-Rajputs and failing that, statutory scheduled caste status. The Bind make a living weaving reed mats, the Mallahs are boatmen and fishermen, the Kushwahas are apiarists and the Rajbhars are sharecroppers. “Government jobs are all that we look forward to because there are no industries here, there’s no scope for white-collar jobs,” said Ram Lochan Rai, a Dalit from the Jan Adhikar Party founded by Babu Singh Kushwaha, a former political confidant of Mayawati, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) leader. The Adhikar Party has an alliance with the Congress.
The reservation issue came into stark relief in December 2018, when the Nishad Party (an acronym of Nirbal Indian Shoshit Hamara Aam Dal) was out on the streets after Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed a rally at Ghazipur. The protestors demanded proportional representation for the Nishad in education and government jobs. They clashed with the cops and allegedly killed a constable, Suresh Vats. The irony is that the Nishad Party teamed up with the Samajwadi Party (SP) to fight the Gorakhpur by-poll in March 2018, and won. But Sanjay Nishad, the party’s patron, who like Kushwaha came out of the BSP, broke off with the SP and became part of the Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP)-led NDA before the ongoing Lok Sabha election. “That makes no difference to our demand,” said Ravikant Nishad, a Saidpur municipal councillor, adding, “We will keep up our protests.” Asked which way the Nishads would vote, he said, “For the ‘gatbandhan’ because the (erstwhile) SP government had proposed SC status for us with 16 other OBCs.”
At the heart of the renewed push for reservations were two factors: one, the Centre’s decision to earmark a 10 percent quota for the economically weaker sections, a nomenclature that became synonymous with the upper castes, and a fear that the move would gradually erode the share of OBCs and Dalits. Richa Singh, the Allahabad based SP youth leader, said, “Five years since 2014, the OBCs and Dalits realised that the BJP deceived them. Wherever I campaign, their leaders say roads came come later but first we want reservation to access education and social security.”
Ravindra Bind, a Ghazipur lawyer who helms the Bind Samaj, said, “While my community is grateful to the BJP for giving us our first MLA (Sangeeta Balwant from Ghazipur Sadar), we will vote the ‘gatbandhan’ because the SP and BSP alone can protect the reservation architecture.” Asked why that was so, because the Modi government ensured that the SC and ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act remained undiluted despite a Supreme Court ruling to the contrary, Bind said, “The nationwide protests forced the Centre to reverse the court ruling. For five years, the BJP did nothing to create a sub-quota for the most backward castes while it took just minutes to grant reservation to the upper castes.”
Shashi Pratap Singh, general secretary of the Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party representing the Rajbhars, explained the importance of reservations for the community. “Divide the OBCs into BCs, more backward castes and extremely backward castes and slice the quota equally so that we do away with an elite class of BCs,” he said.
Om Prakash Rajbhar, who heads the party and was a BJP ally until recently, said his party would support the “gatbandhan” in three of the 39 seats it contested, Maharajganj, Bansgaon and Sant Kabir Nagar.
In 2014 and 2017, the BJP swept eastern UP with the help of the disempowered backward castes. In 2019, it could lose their support on the reservation issue. “Recently, 1057 ‘lekhpal’ (clerks who maintain village revenue and land records) were appointed but there was not a single OBC among them,” alleged Nanku Yadav, the Ghazipur SP president.