Addressing a rally in Gorakhpur Wednesday to drum up support for party candidate Praveen Nishad, SP president Akhilesh Yadav told the crowds “so many political parties have come together and the BSP too has extended support… this is no longer an ordinary election… it is the first time that such an equation has been formed, such large number of votes have united”.
He never mentioned Mayawati. Nor was her photograph on the board at the rally venue — it had Babasaheb Ambedkar, Ram Manohar Lohia, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Akhilesh himself apart from Peace Party leader Dr Ayub, Nishad Party leader Sanjay Nishad, father of the SP candidate. But BSP flags fluttered in the wind as the crowds heard Akhilesh thank all parties aligned against the BJP.
Far from Gorakhpur, 60-year-old Rajendra Patel walked into the BSP office in Phulpur. He was at a loss for words, unable to decipher what the newspapers were saying — that Behenji had extended support to arch rival SP in the Lok Sabha bypolls. “Aap hi batayiye hum kya karein? Cycle ka jhanda lagayein ya sirf neela kurta pehne aur neela jhanda lagayein?” (What am I supposed to do? Should I carry the (SP) flag with the cycle or the blue (BSP) flag?)
One of the five in the BSP office had a solution: “There is no need to carry the cycle flag. That will be wrong. Why should we sport the SP symbol? We will go around as BSP, tell our supporters that they have to transfer their votes to the SP. That is how we will do it.”
In Gorakhpur and Phulpur, whose Lok Sabha members stepped down last year to become Chief Minister and Deputy Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, realpolitik is at play in the bypolls. The BSP and SP, bitter rivals until they were both crushed by the BJP in the 2017 assembly elections, are moving to unite their votes, especially among Dalits, Yadavs and Muslims, to keep out the “common enemy” in one of the most keenly watched experiments ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
Gorakhpur is a BJP bastion while Phulpur has seen loyalties shift — once a SP stronghold, it voted BSP in 2009 and BJP in 2014.
Local BSP leaders have been told to keep their village visits low key — minus party paraphernalia or photo-ops because they are “not contesting” the bypolls. Sharing the stage with the SP is also out of the question.
“We have around 8,000 active party workers in each of the five assembly segments of Phulpur Lok Sabha constituency. They have panned out, visiting villages across Phulpur and spreading Behenji’s message to transfer their votes to the SP,” said a senior BSP leader who did not wish to be named.
It’s the same in Gorakhpur. BSP’s Gorakhpur Mahanagar president Sanjay Pandey said: “SP leaders had invited us to the public meeting today. But we did not go there because our party chief has given directions not to share the stage and instead focus on ground-level work to ensure that BSP votes are transferred to the SP candidate, so that the BJP can be defeated.”
Pandey said BSP leaders were working separately in groups, moving door-to-door to inform party workers and voters about the decision to support the SP and to persuade them to transfer votes.
In rural Gorakhpur, Katratola in Chamrauti has nearly 2,600 voters, nearly 40 per cent Dalits. Ramesh Kumar, who drives a taxi, said he has always voted BSP. But this time, he is ready to back the SP. “Because Behen Mayawatiji has announced support to SP this election. It doesn’t matter that Yadavs and Dalits are not on good terms. I will vote for any candidate Behenji wants me to vote,” he said.
Dhruv Yadav, a farmer, agreed with Rajesh Kumar: “If Yadavs, Muslims and Dalits unite, we can defeat the BJP. That is the sole agenda of this temporary alliance between SP and BSP… this is going to be a real challenge for the BJP in the home town of the Chief Minister.”
In the nearby village of Chamrati Dakshini, Ram Aashish Bharti maintained “even if I vote BJP, its leaders will not believe me because I am a Dalit. So I might as well follow Mayawatiji’s decision because she has given us our honour, respect”.
In Phulpur, a BSP leader is confident Dalits will vote SP: “When we look at the varna system, it is the upper caste Hindus, Thakurs and Brahmins, who have been oppressing castes like the Yadavs and Dalits. So when we have to choose between the two, we will choose the Yadavs. We are closer to them ideologically and they are also an oppressed lot.”
Deep in rural Phulpur’s Dalit-dominated villages, a BSP team led by Anil Gautam, the party’s zonal chief for east UP, tries to hard-sell Mayawati’s message to transfer votes through symbolism and stories of Ambedkar.
“The BJP thought there was no contest, that it had already won. But it did not know Behenji had her own plans. Now that she has come in, the BJP’s game is up. The elephant has come, and it will mount the cycle and crush the lotus in its path. The cycle has been stuck in this muck where the lotus was flourishing all this time. The elephant has come and pulled the cycle out of it, and it is now cleaning the muck,” he said, referring to the symbols of the parties in the fray.
Seeking votes for SP candidate Nagender Singh Patel, a Kurmi by caste, Gautam invokes Babasaheb Ambedkar: “No Hindu god or goddess is there to help us Dalits. If there is one messiah for us, it is Babasaheb. And it was the king of Kolhapur, Chhatrapati Shahuji Maharaj, a Kurmi king, who funded Babasaheb’s studies without which he would not have been able to liberate us. The Kurmi king helped Babasaheb and now the Dalits and backward castes of this region will repay the debt by voting for a Patel.”