At Pathra village, part of Gorakhpur Rural segment of Gorakhpur Lok Sabha constituency, Tatuaru Nishad greets Bhairon Nishad outside his tea-shop: “Jai Nishad —Akhilesh ka saath.” The slogan has caught on since Akhilesh Yadav, Samajwadi Party president, fielded Praveen Kumar Nishad, son of NISHAD party president Sanjay Nishad, as SP candidate for the Lok Sabha bypoll.
Awake to the potential consolidation, the BJP has been making efforts to connect with Nishad voters whose 3.5 lakh votes, out of Gorakhpur’s 19.5 lakh, are key to the election.
“I once saved the life of a Nishad youth by donating blood during a medical emergency,” says BJP candidate Upendra Shukla. “I am also bringing up an orphaned Nishad girl at my home and I will perform her kanyadaan when the time comes.”
In the last two days, Shukla has led bike rallies with Nishad youths in villages dominated by this backward caste. He says he has always helped Nishads during floods. The river Rapti frequently floods large parts of areas where Nishads live. Most members of the community earn their livelihood working in fisheries and sailing boats in the Ramgarh Taal and the Rapti.
While Akhilesh has addressed only one public meeting for Praveen Nishad, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath has addressed 12 public meetings in his hometown, Gorakhpur, and will address another four Friday, two of these in Nishad-dominated areas. Gorakhpur, the Lok Sabha seat Yogi vacated after becoming CM, votes Sunday.
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Also Friday, Jai Prakash Nishad, BJP MLA from Rudrapur in Deoria district and minister, will go door-to-door in Gorakhpur Sadar seeking votes. Other leaders of the community camping in Gorakhpur include the BJP’s Machchuara cell convener Manoj Kashyap, and former MLA Jai Prakash Nishad who joined the BJP recently, quitting the BSP. Irrigation Minister Dharampal Singh, too, is campaigning; he belongs to the Lodh caste, considered close to Nishads.
The BJP has included at least one Nishad in its poll coordination committee for every assembly segment as well as every booth committee. The BJP has also invited Union minister Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti to canvass among Nishad voters. Besides, over a dozen ministers of Yogi’s cabinet, most of of them OBC leaders, have frequently visited Gorakhpur to campaign. All this is to counter the SP’s Praveen Nishad, the only Nishad candidate in the fray.
SP caste equation
The Peace Party and the BSP have extended their support to Praveen Nishad, whose father had secured 34,901 votes while losing the assembly election from Gorakhpur Rural in 2017. “To prevent a division of Nishad votes, the SP decided to field a candidate of the NISHAD party rather than someone from within the SP,” said an SP leader.
The SP has been making its own efforts to woo this large community. It has engaged MLCs Ram Sunder Nishad and Rajpal Kashyap, and senior leaders Shankhlal Manjhi and Lalta Prasad Nishad in the campaign.
In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the SP had fielded Rajmati Nishad, and the BSP Ram Bhuval Nishad. Yogi polled more than the two put together, 5.39 lakh votes to Rajmati’s 2.26 lakh votes Ram Bhuval’s 1.76 lakh. Bhuval later joined the BJP and is now in the SP.
While the Nishad votes split among the major parties, most of these are seen as having gone to the Nishad candidates of the SP and the BSP. “Voters then were driven by their personal connect with Ram Bhuval Nishad and Rajmati, the widow of prominent leader Jamuna Prasad Nishad. Nishads also have regard for the Gorakhnath temple, and for Yogi Adityanath who has always helped whenever there have been floods,” says Tatuaru Nishad, 67, in Pathra village where 80% of the population are Nishad.
“In the current election, most Nishad voters will support the SP because its candidate is from our caste. Some votes may go to the BJP because of the spiritual connect with the Gorakhnah temple and Yogi,” says Tatuaru.
Jitendra Nishad, a voter in Sahjanwa, calls himself a BJP supporter but acknowledges Praveen Nishad. “Caste dominates here, and Praveen Nishad will get the most of Nishad votes. Also, the support of the BSP will bring additional votes to the SP,” Jitendra says.
“The combination of Dalits, backward groups and Muslims will bring change to Gorakhpur,” says SP MLC Anand Bhadauria, camping in Gorakhpur. “Yadav votes remain with us, though some Muslim votes could go the Congress too.” The Congress has fielded Dr Surheeta Chatterjee Kareem, a gynaecologist.
“The SP has joined hands with the BSP and NISHAD party to get votes of certain castes… But people of these castes have a sentimental connect with Gorakhnath Peeth and Maharajji (Yogi Adityanath). They have faith in Hindutva… They will keep supporting the BJP,” says Anoop Gupta, BJP bypoll-in-charge and state secretary.
Gorakhpur minus Yogi
It is the first time since 1998 that Yogi is not contesting from Gorakhpur. Opposition leaders have kept pointing out to voters that the five-time MP is not a candidate. Since Sunday, Yogi has been responding to this, announcing in public meetings that he is indeed contesting — in the form of Upendra Shukla.
“The prestige of Gorakhnath temple and Adityanthji is at stake and he is leading the campaign… We never felt he is not contesting,” says a BJP leader.
To win over Dalit voters after the BSP has extended support to the SP nominee, the BJP has sent Social Welfare Minister Ramapati Shastri to Dalit-dominated areas. And to counter Congress nominee Dr Kareem, who is renowned as a gynaecologist, the BJP recently organised interactive sessions for doctors with state BJP president Mahendra Nath Pandey and Health Minister Siddharth Nath Singh.