IN UP’S Ghosi Lok Sabha constituency, which has voted for political stalwarts such as Kalpnath Rai and notorious candidates such as Mukhtar Ansari, the SP-BSP alliance is facing a peculiar problem. Its candidate, BSP’s Atul Rai, is nowhere to be seen. Facing charges of rape ahead of the elections, his anticipatory bail application rejected by courts, Rai is absconding.
But then, it’s not the first time that this region would be voting for candidates who are absent. Congress leader and former Union minister, the late Kalpnath Rai, won the seat in 1996 as an Independent while he was in Tihar jail in connection with the sugar scam and for allegedly providing shelter to associates of Dawood Ibrahim. In 2017, Ansari won the Mau Assembly seat while he was in Ghazipur jail on charges linked to the murder of BJP leader Krishnanand Rai in 2005.
At the gathbandhan office at Mau’s Ballia Mod, BSP’s district in-charge Lalit Kumar Akela is briefing workers on canvassing in villages, telling them not to take voters for granted. Asked about candidate Atul Rai’s whereabouts, he says, “There is no point asking me. But his absence is not going to make any difference. Our voters are committed.”
Atul Rai was accused in April of rape by a college student from Varanasi who alleged that he took her home on the pretext of meeting his wife but then assaulted her. Rai denied the charges but a case was registered on May 1. On May 19, when Ghosi goes to vote, Akela is banking on caste arithmetic to get Rai through: An estimated 3.5 lakh Jatavs (Dalit), 3.5 lakh Muslims, 2 lakh Yadavs (OBC), 1.2 lakh Rajbhars (OBC), 1 lakh Nonias (OBC) and 80,000 non-Jatav Dalits, among other castes, apart from around 4 lakh upper caste voters.
A few kilometres away, at Bhitti Chauraha, where scores of labourers from villages around Mau city have gathered early in the morning for work, the gathbandhan cohesion is on display. Most of those gathered are Dalits, Yadavs, Nonias, Rajbhars and Muslims. As one of them, Suresh Rajbhar, speaks about why Modi should be voted to power again, Nandan Kumar, a Dalit, cuts in: “All votes are going to the gathbandhan, which is going to win. Behenji hamare dil mein hain (BSP chief Mayawati is in our hearts).”
Another in the group, Pappu Yadav, who had been sitting quietly among the Rajbhars, says, “I, too, am voting for the gathbandhan. Most from my caste are.” Mohammed Shafique, who is also part of the group, merely smiles and nods his head.
Members of Nonia community, who form a sizable chunk of the crowd, appear divided. “Under this government, electricity has become very expensive. I see no reason why I should vote for Modi,” says Ravi Chauhan. But fellow worker Anil Chauhan confronts him: “You should be thankful you have electricity reaching your village. If you use electricity, you will have to pay.”
From Ballia Mod to Bujhauti village on the outskirts of Mau, the hamlets are populated mostly by Rajbhars, an extremely backward community. And most of them say they are voting for the BJP because “Modi got us houses and toilets”. “People who hadn’t seen a brick in their lives have got pucca houses?” says Nirmala Devi, a Rajbhar in Bujhauti village.
Across Mau, the refrain among the Rajbhar community is that it has benefitted from various central schemes, including housing, toilets and assistance for farmers. Says Motichand Rajbhar, who runs a pan shop in Pahasa: “The candidate has done nothing. But central schemes have reached us. Most in the village have got Rs 2,000 as part of the PM-Kisan scheme. Modi is also working for the country, which has benefitted from demonetisation and surgical strikes.”
At the Rasada market, Badrinath’s enthusiasm is not shared by Dhirendra Kharwar, who hails from the ST community, and recently failed to clear a state recruitment exam. “If you meet Modiji, please tell him not to give tickets to celebrities and Fortuner-owners. Fortuners don’t drive on potholed roads like ours. Give tickets to people who can reach us,” says Kharwar, who sells pakodas at the railway crossing.