Clouds of dust flew into people’s faces as the next white SUV full of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) karyakartas (workers) drove up to the maidan (ground) in Sutyana village, 56 km east of India’s capital.
Gautam Buddh Nagar is not as well known as its urban half, the Delhi suburb of Noida, a land of IT companies and glass-fronted buildings. Sutyana is at the other end of this parliamentary constituency, a space of shrunken farmlands and former farmers. Some were happy to sell their land, others protested when the government tried to acquire it in 2011 to build an expressway, and, more recently, in villages in and around Noida and Jewar town over various government projects including a new airport.
On a recent March day, protesters and party workers gathered for an election rally of union culture minister Mahesh Sharma, BJP member of parliament (MP) from the Gautam Buddha Nagar constituency. Sharma, 59, won 50% of the votes in 2014--a margin of 23.37% over his nearest rival from the Samajwadi Party. He hoped to re-create that result.
It was a BJP yuva morcha, or youth event, and they were getting louder. It was 12:20 pm, mantri-ji was expected any minute. But instead of the 2,500 people anticipated--for whom adequate chairs, microphones, megaphones and posters had been arranged--there were no more than 50.
The next SUV revved up and a leader from an adjoining village walked in, led by a thin drummer boy in a shiny outfit fraying at the edges. He drummed loudly and vigorously. ‘Modiji ki jai ho!’ they shouted, referring to their main vote catcher, Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
With a right-wing Hindu party in power appealing to the majority vote, this is the first of a six-part series that explores the Hindu vote from India’s most important battleground state: UP, home to 80 of 543 Lok Sabha constituencies or 14% of Parliament’s lower house. A state that is 79.7% Hindu and 19.2% Muslim, according to Census 2011, UP is where the Hindu right first gained ground with the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, and the movement to construct a Ram temple in Ayodhya began.
How votes are garnered here in India’s second-poorest state by per capita income, how caste will compete with religion--or a combination of the two--will determine who gets India’s biggest bank of votes. Our journey through the heart of UP during the campaign of 2019 will bring you stories behind the electoral math, as we gauge how religious and caste issues are being presented and how voters anxious for jobs are reacting.
Gautam Buddh Nagar--84.6% Hindu--is crucial to the story of UP.
It is one of UP’s newest constituencies, carved in 1997 out of bits of Ghaziabad and Bulandshahr. It is an industrial hub, UP’s second-largest district economy (after Lucknow), and its urban face, Noida, was meant to provide opportunities for millions of the state’s job aspirants.
The state needs those opportunities realised because it has India’s largest working-age population among its 200 million people, as many as in Brazil, which is however 35 times larger than UP, but an economy half as large as Hong Kong’s, which is smaller in area than Gautam Buddh Nagar.
These opportunities are important because UP has India’s second-highest fertility rate, which means it will keep adding young people. That means its window to exploit its demographic dividend--the economic growth that accrues from a young population--is likely to be “fully open” till about 2050, according to a 2018 United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) study.
“With its enormous potential, Uttar Pradesh will need to follow a growth path that results in remunerative jobs for its labour force, both within farm and non-farm sectors,” said a 2017 International Labour Organization study.
Between the last election and this, however, even BJP loyalists gathered in Sutyana village admitted, their sarkar has done precious little to alleviate rural distress. The real question was--whether or not this was going to make a difference to their voting.
‘We don’t have any other issue except Hindu versus Muslim’
UP has India’s largest youth (15-24) population, more than 40 million, which is almost double the state that is next, Maharashtra. Under-development, and a lack of employment have combined to create a political cauldron of caste politics over the last two decades. Religion is now stirred into this mix.
A year after minister Sharma won his 2014 election, this constituency also witnessed the first mob lynching since the Modi government was sworn in. Mohammad Akhlaq was killed on the September 28, 2015, in a village in the Dadri segment of Gautam Buddh Nagar because a mob believed he had killed and eaten a cow.
Since 2014, 11 people have been lynched in cow-related hate crimes in UP, 73% of them Muslim, the highest number of such attacks in any Indian state, according to a database run by FactChecker.in.
Now, in election season, in a tiny BJP office in another village in the same constituency, a party leader, speaking on condition of anonymity, commented on the BJP’s official campaign, sabka saath, sabka vikaas (with everyone, development for all).
“Hamarey paas iske sivaye aur koi mudda nahi--Hindu Muslim ke alaava, jeetney ka. We have no other issue except Hindu versus Muslim, to win this election,” he said.
The man saying this also belonged to the BJP’s parent body: the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Once upon a time, his plain speaking had prevented him from getting a ticket to contest an election. Now, he sat in a tiny party office, in front of posters of the founders of the RSS--KB Hegdewar and his immediate successor, MS Golwalkar.
“From the bottom of my heart, I want there to be no Modi sarkar,” said the BJP leader. “I don’t want to be made to do things that weigh heavy on my conscience.”
But there was already a pile of things, that by his own admission, did weigh him down. That included the breaking of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in 1992 and the divisive religious politics his party had played in Gautam Buddha Nagar in the decades that followed.
Akhlaq and after
In the last election, Mahesh Sharma defeated his rival from the Samajwadi Party by a margin of 23.37%. A year later, in Bisada village in Dadri, Mohammad Akhlaq was lynched. After Akhlaq’s lynching, Sharma had said: “It [the murder] took place as a reaction to that incident [cow slaughter].”
In the local Rajput settlement, there is a large electricity transformer at the head of the street. On the night of September 28, 2015, an announcement had been made from the village loudspeaker that the carcass of a dead calf had been found nearby. The transformer is not anywhere close to the Muslim neighbourhood where Akhlaq once lived, but in these parts, the save-the-cow campaign is strong emotional currency.
In the lane where Akhlaq was killed, Sanjay Rana sat in the outer courtyard of his house. His son, Vishal, was sent to prison for two years, one of the 17 young men accused of killing Akhlaq. “Woh ek swabhavik ghatna thi. Nahin honi chahiye thi, ho gayi [What happened was a natural outcome of the circumstances. It shouldn’t have happened, but it did],” Rana said.
His son is out on bail but has not been acquitted of the charges against him. Rana spoke of his despair as a father, and how it was not the BJP but the political opposition that turned Akhlaq’s killing into political capital.
“Jo gau maas paya gaya, usko bakre ka gosht keh kar ke ek tareeke se sarkaar ki chhavi kharaab karney ka kaam kiya. [Some politicians claimed it wasn’t beef but goat meat that was found in Akhlaq’s fridge, and they tried to spoil the government’s reputation],” said Rana.
Rahul Gandhi, Arvind Kejriwal, Asaduddin Owaisi, Brinda Karat. They were the real culprits in Rana’s eyes. It was the BJP’s elected representative, minister Sharma, who was trying to keep the peace.
Outside Rana’s house, there was no evidence of peace, only tension and anger.
Such was the atmosphere of Bisada village that as this reporter walked out of the narrow lane, past the murder site, the police were on a flag march. More than 80 of them patrolled the area because Holi was around the corner and, as one of Rana’s relatives explained, people in the area needed to get the message: do not stoke violence.
Elections or otherwise, Bisada, like vast swathes of Gautam Buddh Nagar, is now polarised.
‘A Hindu nation? How can it be any other way?’
In a clearing in Bisada, a cement mixer was in action. Construction of a boundary to a public ground was under way--a tiny, local undertaking that a cluster of men tried to project as “Modi sarkar’s development”.
When asked if they wanted India to be a Hindu nation, they circled this reporter and asked belligerently: “How can you even ask that question? What kind of negative question is that? Is there any possibility of things being any other way?”
It was clear that things were uncomfortable, so the reporter sped away in her cab to the other side of the village, to the settlement around the mosque, where about 30 Muslim families live. After the lynching, Akhlaq’s family had moved out. Of those that remained, a man in a skull cap, carrying logs of wood in a wheelbarrow, watched with discomfort as this reporter approached.
“We are all fine here, we have no problems, we are all very happy,” he said breathlessly before he was even asked.
Two years after Akhlaq’s killing, the polarisation yielded results for the BJP.
In the state elections of 2017, the MLAs contesting from the assembly segments of Noida and Dadri, which are part of this Lok Sabha seat, won by larger margins of 40.89% and 30.2%, respectively, a substantial bump up from the 23.37% lead Mahesh Sharma had in the Lok Sabha election in 2014, before the lynching. This is significant because of the way the caste math works in UP.
Although the government has not made caste census figures public, various reports quote National Sample Survey Office and panchayat data that show more than 40% of UP is made up of other backward classes (OBCs), which have traditionally voted for the Samajwadi Party, also known locally as the Yadav-Muslim party.
But the consolidation of the Hindu vote in many constituencies, such as Gautam Buddh Nagar, helped the BJP, previously known as the go-to place for upper-caste Hindus. Votes came in from other castes, including some from OBCs.
Polarisation, it would appear, helped the party trump UP’s traditional caste math. This time, despite the BJP’s renewed attempts to talk up Hindu issues and Modi, it may be more difficult.
‘Mahesh Sharma go back!’
One part of Gautam Buddh Nagar not convinced by the-Muslims-eat-beef kind of campaign message was Jewar, where a new airport is proposed on land that needs to be acquired from farmers.
The BJP won Jewar in the state election of 2017 by a much lower margin than Noida and Dadri--the lead was 10.49%. Since then, various parts of the constituency have been roiled by farmers’ protests.
In a village called Kachera, adopted by minister Sharma, farmers put up sign boards that said: “The BJP is strictly prohibited from coming to this village, adoptive village of Mahesh Sharma.”
They were upset that their standing crop was razed for the airport, and when they called their MP for help, none was forthcoming. The government said the farmers did not own the land, which had been acquired by a private company.
There was dissent and anger around Gautam Buddh Nagar and BJP watchers, including those who voted for Sharma the last time around, were wondering if he would get a ticket to contest. But the terrorist car bomb that killed more than 40 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) troopers in Pulwama, Jammu and Kashmir, on February 12, 2019, turned the tide, according to some party workers.
Sharma got the ticket. Where development failed, polarisation would work, was the calculation, said a party worker from Dadri, Radhacharan (he uses one name), who has been with the BJP and the RSS for over four decades.
“Pulwama ka kaafi asar hai. Pehle ki sthiti hum bahut kamzor mantey they, uske baad nahi. Pulwama has changed things quite a bit. We thought we were on a weak wicket before, not any longer,” said Radhacharan.
Radhacharan was once a communist. He spoke of the farmland takeover in Marxist terms: how a capitalist economy worked, how farmers were edged out.
Still, he fell out with his former colleagues, allied with former Prime Minister Charan Singh, in 1979 and crossed over to the BJP soon after. Radhacharan is a reflection of the complex matrix that the BJP and its extended arm of the Sangh Parivar--the family of Hindu nationalist organisations owing allegiance to the RSS--comprises. He was opposed to the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992, but also felt that he had chosen the winning side with all its inherent contradictions.
In many ways, politics in these parts is not always about a coherence of ideas or ideologies. It is, often, about picking the winning side.
The costs of doing business
The polarisation over 27 years, from Babri to Dadri and now Pulwama, is taking root in different ways amongst the rank and file of Gautam Buddh Nagar, explained a BJP official on condition of anonymity.
On two separate occasions, this man said, he had filed police complaints against young men in Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) outfits loosely affiliated to his own party, when they had broken idols of Hindu gods at night in areas contiguous with Muslim residences--to pin the blame on Muslims.
Polarise and you are in business, is the message that some on the ground have picked up. These Sangh Parivar foot-soldiers were not expecting resistance from within their own party.
Back at Mahesh Sharma’s rally in Sutyana, it was 2 pm. Sharma had been expected to arrive at 12.20. The youth leaders had to prevent the few hundred who had been mobilised from leaving. One youth leader came up and made a rousing speech about the benefits of demonetisation, the voiding of 86% of India’s currency by Modi in November 2016.
Some in the audience tried to keep a straight face. Others laughed as hard as they could. “Demo ne toh mujhe berozgaar bana diya. [Demonetisation made me jobless],” said one young man. Two of the five companies he had worked for had shut down.
“But if I say anything, I will be kicked out and told to shut up,” he said. Realising he had spoken before party colleagues, he quickly added: “So many schemes announced by the Prime Minister are eaten up by middlemen.”
Despite the disappointment with his own sarkar over the downturn of the economy, this man came for Sharma’s rally. He sensed this was where he needed to be if he wanted to do business.
A BJP supporter summed it up: “This is election season, jod-tod toh hogi hi. [Some making and breaking of people, communities is bound to happen].”
It was a hot day, and a water dispenser was set up on a table at the back. By now, the area around it was a pile of strewn plastic glasses. On stage, the youth leaders spoke of the Prime Minister’s many campaigns, including Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, or the Clean India mission.
Cynics versus cynics
“Caste will be a big factor in this seat,” said a tall, lanky man in glasses, a self-confessed BJP supporter at Sharma’s rally. He explained what he meant: “Mahesh bhai is an outsider to UP. He is from Rajasthan. And there is a huge outsider population [in Noida] that will vote for him and that will mitigate local caste factors.” By local caste factors he meant Gujjars, a pastoral community that are Hindus in UP, who observers said are likely to vote for the Gujjar candidate from the opposition party, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP).
“Yeh double MA hain. [He has a double MA degree],” one of the party workers said, introducing a BJP supporter, Dilip Kumar Swami, originally from Churu in Rajasthan, now settled in Noida. Swami beamed at the introduction and dissected the math, as the crowd around him grew. “3-33 ki ladai hai. [It’s a fight of three versus 33],” he said, referring to three communities in the opposition camp--the Jatavs (or Dalits as they are commonly known), Muslims and Gujjars--and 33 other castes supporting the BJP.
Despite this math and visible support for his party, Swami was cautious and expressed dissent against the party line. “There should be no mandir built,” said Swami. “And we need a strong opposition for a robust democracy, [but] here whatever Amit Shah says, goes.”
Swami then took some of the heat off the obvious criticism of his party with praise for the prime minister. He presented a proverb about the invincibility of the telis, Modi’s caste. “Baavan baniya, trepan teli. [If the trader’s brain size is 52, then the teli’s is 53]. When Modi dies, even his head will be preserved, even that will be valued,” said Swami.
Everyone was pleased. His audience clapped. It took away the monotony of waiting for their minister to show up. An enthusiastic supporter said Modi’s head would be preserved forever “just like Suraiya’s”. “Her voice was so sweet, they preserved her head to see what kind of vocal chords she had.” No one realised that perhaps the prime minister might not appreciate a comparison to a Muslim actor-singer from the 1960s.
Some dreams come true
At a cafe in Noida, the urban part of Gautam Buddh Nagar, a BJP intern called Mayank Mishra looked very happy.
A year ago, he had been struggling to find the Rs 87,000 he needed for his dream: a bachelor’s degree in journalism. His father was unemployed, and his mother taught Hindi at a local school. Several banks turned him down or said he needed to submit a salary slip proving his parents earned at least Rs 25,000 a month.
A member of the RSS, Mishra realised in April 2018 that the BJP youth wing or Yuva Morcha had a national internship programme. He was one of 150 to be chosen. After being humiliated because of his background and lack of money, he was finally being recognised. One day, he would rise, like minister Sharma, who started out as a doctor with a small clinic in Noida and now owned a fleet of hospitals and was a member of India’s cabinet.
“Main apne aap ko mazboot karna chahta tha, itna mazboot karna chahta tha ki koi mujhe daba na paye. [I wanted to make myself so strong that no one can trample over my ego ever again],” he said, his eyes shining.
The task handed to him in his internship was a test of this resolve. He was asked to design a Swachh Bharat campaign. “I was feeling a bit awkward about this, that I had to do jhaadu [sweep] on the streets,” he said, peering into his coffee.
Mishra and his family are migrants from Jharkhand, a state poorer than UP, but belong to an “upper” caste. To do the job of “lower” castes was difficult. “So, I thought I would pick an area far away from where I live and set out at 4:30 am, when nobody was watching,” he said.
Eventually, he went along with his fellow interns to a public park. It was a “big success”, he said. Mayank measured success by the fact that as soon as they had cleaned the park, taken before-and-after videos and pictures and tweeted and re-tweeted them, 1,700 people had followed suit on Twitter.
Soon after, his photo and profile were on the Internet. On Google search, his name appeared right at the top of the search for “BJP Noida”, above that of the MLA or the state legislator from the area, Pankaj Singh, who is the son of India’s home minister, Rajnath Singh.
Without saffron, dissent rises
Meanwhile, in Jewar, at the other end of Gautam Buddh Nagar, where minister Sharma in November 2018 got official sanction to build an airport for the district, he has realised that turning a rural area into urban is complicated.
One person’s dream is another’s nightmare when land is acquired, as it was in Jewar with farmers. Under the Land Acquisition Act of 2013, the formula for compensating farmers for taking their land was applied. In a rural zone, farmers are entitled to a compensation of four times the “circle rate” of the land (the minimum price at which land can be sold, set by the state government's revenue department). In an urban area, farmers get only two times the circle rate as compensation.
In the beginning, it was not the BJP but their opponents, the Samajwadi Party, which ran the government when acquisition started, that antagonised the farmers. The then government declared the entire constituency to be urban in 2013, so farmers could only get two times the circle rate as compensation and not four.
But when the BJP government, “the party with a difference”, replaced the Samajwadi Party in 2017, nothing changed. Farmers whose land was visibly rural were paid the reduced urban compensation. When many of these angry farmers launched protest after protest, the BJP MLA from the area took the farmers to meet chief minister Yogi Adityanath, who changed the compensation from two times to two-and-a half-times the circle rate.
The farmers have “nothing to complain about”, said MLA Dhirendra Singh. The airport will mean progress, development, hospitals, consumers.
Over time and so many elections, voters and contestants have developed a cynicism. So, those who turned up for Sharma’s rally appeared to be hedging their bets, trying to be seen with the winning side. But first they had to assess if he might win.
By 3.20 pm news filtered in that Sharma was not going to show up at the rally, after all. Party managers quickly found another leader to garland and declared the rally a success. The drummer left. The maidan was full of empty plastic glasses, as the last SUV sped away.
(Laul is an independent journalist and film-maker and the author of The Anatomy of Hate, published by Westland/Context in December 2018.)
This is first of six stories exploring the Hindu vote in Uttar Pradesh.
Republished with the permission of IndiaSpend. You may read the original story here.