AS Uttar Pradesh votes in the seventh and final phase on Sunday, the fight may well rest on who wins the votes of the smaller castes. Before the 2017 Assembly elections, the BJP had assiduously wooed these groups, both within the Scheduled Castes and OBCs, to break the stranglehold of the BSP and Samajwadi Party. As that support still lingers, all eyes are on whether the gathbandhan can break away enough of them in its bid to make it a backwards vs forwards battle.
Among the constituencies that vote on Sunday are Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Varanasi and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s former seat Gorakhpur.
The BJP’s reconfiguration of the old caste mosaic, drawing smaller groups with the promise of samman and fitting them into its Hindutva-driven base, had been central to the decimation of the SP, BSP and Congress in the Assembly elections, with all the three parties tumbling to their lowest ever numbers.
In Chhaiti Ram Naitola in Maharajganj, Sunita (25) is very clear whom she is voting for. “Modi. After all, when Mulayam (SP founder Mulayam Singh Yadav) comes, he looks after the Muslims. When the BSP comes, it is the Dalits.” Her mother-in-law Parameta, sitting close by as she slices fish, says their Rajbhar community is all behind Modi. The community, whose foremost leader Om Prakash Rajbhar is a minister in the Adityanath government, generally does masonry work, and most men migrate seeking jobs.
Ghanshyam Rai, who is visiting from Kolhapur in Maharashtra, lists gas connections as well as toilets as the reason why he will vote for the BJP.
In Parsauna village in Gorakhpur district, Ramdeo Prajapati, a member of a breakaway Bharatiya Kisan Union, says the BJP has “made place” for smaller castes like his own. Adds Chandrabhan, a Dalit, “The pauni jaatis or dozen or so castes engaged in service occupations, especially connected with marriages at this time, Kumhars, Badhais, Lohars, Kamhars, Dhobis and Dhanuks etc, are closely associated with the upper castes and still stay with the BJP. We listen to the pandit for all customs and rituals, so why not this?”
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The SP joined the fight for the smaller castes last year when apart from reaching an agreement with the BSP in three crucial bypolls, it fielded a Nishad from Gorakhpur. Adityanath had vacated the seat after becoming CM. The SP’s choice, Praveen Nishad, the son of Sanjay Nishad, head of the recently formed NISHAD (Nirbal Indian Shoshit Hamara Aam Dal) party, had stunned the BJP by wresting the seat. While Praveen has now shifted to the BJP, the SP has again chosen a Nishad as the gathbandhan candidate from Gorakhpur. Nishad voters number around 3-4 lakh in Gorakhpur and adjoining areas.
From Chandauli, the alliance has fielded a Noniya, counted as amongst the most backward within OBCs; while another candidate from the seat belongs to the Kushwaha-centred Jan Adhikar Party, that has associated itself with the Congress.
The BJP, meanwhile, is battling open revolt by Om Prakash Rajbhar, who has fielded 39 candidates against the NDA fighting on the symbol of a walking stick.
Incidentally, when he founded the SP, Mulayam had taken care to accommodate smaller communities, particularly non-Yadav castes. Phoolan Devi becoming an MP had been a major boost to her Mallah community. Gradually, however, with power, the SP had come to be known as a party of Yadavs and their hegemony.
Asked if the SP was ready to hold out a larger umbrella, like Mulayam, particularly to take on the BJP, a senior party leader in Kushinagar said, “The BJP is basically an upper caste party. It may have succeeded in getting smaller castes to come along, but that is temporary. We don’t have power currently, so we can’t offer them something big. When our umbrella widens, we will offer them space.”
BJP opponents also claim that the party’s ‘thoki-daar’ approach, or wilful exclusion of those like Jatavs, Yadavs and minorities that it sees as not its voters, would eventually backfire. Says a senior Nishad leader, “We have to prove that it is not possible to base politics on excluding groups. In gathbandhan we have found common cause with a range of social groups. We have to extend this and make ourselves formidable, so that no one thinks exclusion will win.”