It’s still pleasant at 8 am and morning walkers are returning from the promenade around the Ramgarh Tal in Gorakhpur’s Rampur area. A convoy of cars escorted by bikes with BJP flags enters, and out of the sun-roof of an SUV emerges Bhojpuri cinema superstar Ravi Kishan, to loud cheers.
As youngsters take selfies, the BJP candidate from the prestigious Gorakhpur Lok Sabha seat thunders: “Zindagi jhand ba… Fir bhi ghamand ba (a famous dialogue from one his films).” As the euphoria settles, Kishan seeks votes in the name of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “Na cycle par na panja par, na jaat par na haathi par/ Vote diha bhaiya abki, chhappan inch ke chhati par (Neither to the cycle, nor to the hand, not even to the caste and the elephant/ This time vote for the 56-inch chest),” he booms, to approval from the crowd.
There will be several such meetings through the day, including in the rural areas of the constituency.
Having suffered a shock defeat in the 2018 bypolls from Gorakhpur at the hands of the then newly forged Samajwadi Party-BSP-RLD alliance, the BJP has pulled out all the stops to ensure it is not embarrassed again in the seat that is Adityanath’s bastion, and that it had not lost since 1991. It was the success in Gorakhpur (as well as Phulpur and Kairana seats) that had shown the warring SP and BSP, the state’s two social justice parties, that they could do business together. With the alliance now virtually realigning the state’s politics, turning UP’s multi-polar contest into a bi-polar fight between Mandal and Kamandal, if there is one battle that could prove defining, it is Gorakhpur.
The BJP dealt the first blow by taking away Praveen Nishad, who had won the 2018 bypoll for the alliance. Praveen’s father, NISHAD party chief Sanjay Nishad, had been wooed by all parties before the polls, with an eye on his caste comprising boatmen and fishermen, who constitute a substantial vote chunk in eastern UP. Sanjay had finally chosen the BJP, and Praveen is now the party candidate from Sant Kabir Nagar.
The gathbandhan has replaced Praveen in Gorakhpur with another Nishad, Ram Bhuwal Nishad. The Nishads, known in these parts as Mallahs and Kevats and agitating to be included among the Scheduled Castes, constitute 3.5-4 lakh votes in the seat, with a total electorate of 19 lakh. The alliance hopes to supplement this with its “lathi, haathi aur saat sau chhiyasi (stick, elephant and 786, a reference to the SP, BSP core vote bank of Yadavs, Dalits and Muslims), and the appeal of Ram Bhuwal as a local who had once been a minister in the 2007 Mayawati-led BSP government.
Apart from around 4 lakh Dalits (3 lakh of them Jatavs), 2 lakh Yadavs and 1.5 lakh Muslims, Gorakhpur has 2.5 lakh-odd Brahmin, 1 lakh Rajput, and 1.5 lakh Bania voters.
The gathbandhan says its focus is “door-to-door campaign” rather than big rallies. On a Thursday morning, Ram Bhuwal takes off from Taramandal Road in Gorakhpur for the rural areas of Sahjanwa in a convoy of about 20 SUVs, sporting both SP and BSP flags, and makes the first halt at Badgahan, where a board announces “Yadav Gaon”. A vehicle soon begins to blare a Bhojpuri song explaining how the alliance has obliterated caste differences.
As 55-year-old Ram Bhuwal takes off on foot, he is mobbed by people seeking selfies or listing complaints. He doesn’t linger, leaving in half an hour for Ramjeet Pokhara, a village dominated by Dalits, followed by Gahansand, a village with predominantly Nishads and Yadavs, with some Muslims.
SP state secretary Avadhesh Yadav, who is overseeing Ram Bhuwal’s campaign, says, “Our basic strategy is to consolidate the voters already inclined towards us. We make sure that at least one known face of the party is present at these meetings.”
If Kishan’s focus is Adityanath and Modi, Ram Bhuwal talks about “the lies of the Modi administration” and tells people that “there is no danger to the country” but to “the Constitution”. Party workers warn of “abrogation of reservations” for Dalits and lower castes if the BJP government returns.
“Look, our voter is totally committed and will come out to vote in large numbers,” Ram Bhuwal tells The Sunday Express. “Their voters have not only disintegrated but will also sit at home on polling day. If they don’t have a nice dress for the day or good bangles, they won’t come out.”
BJP Gorakhpur spokesperson Satyendra Sinha admits that is a concern. “We lost in 2018 because of this. If you look at the margin of defeat (21,000-odd votes) and the drop in voter turnout in Gorakhpur city, it is comparable. This time we are making sure everyone gets out to vote.”
An RSS vistarak handling campaign activities says, “The entire organisation, from the BJP to the RSS and its affiliated outfits, was put on the job. Nobody was allowed even a single day off. Workers were asked to go door to door and make sure both men and women vote.”
Adityanath himself camped in Gorakhpur, supervised campaign work, and addressed as many as 21 public meetings in the last lap, reaching out to Brahmins, Rajputs, Nishads and even Sindhis and Sikhs. If he was canvassing elsewhere, he made sure he was back by the evening. Party sources said that most evenings the CM held “gopaniya (secret)” meetings where he took stock of the campaign and gave instructions regarding focus areas.
“Yogi never campaigned so much in Gorakhpur for even himself,” says an SP worker. Comparatively, SP chief Akhilesh Yadav held three rallies in Gorakhpur, one of them a joint one with BSP supremo Mayawati and RLD chief Ajit Singh.
Another SP worker says it could all come down to the voter turnout. “Our estimate is that if the turnout is less than 60%, we will win. Or else they will.”
Emphasising what is at stake, a BJP leader says, “Maharaj-ji (as Adityanath is known in Gorakhpur) gave a dressing down to workers recently when it was seen they were not showing as much enthusiasm for Ravi Kishan. He has warned that if the BJP loses Gorakhpur again, he will not spare anyone.”
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A surprise choice for the CM’s chair, Adityanath needs the win not just to preserve his prestige and influence in the region but to also ward off any question marks on his leadership itself.
The shaping of an alliance
Gorakhpur is virtually the birthplace of the SP, BSP and RLD gathbandhan. In the 2018 bypolls, its candidate Praveen Nishad had won, giving Opposition the hope that caste arithmetic could trump ‘Modi Magic’. The defeat of BJP, that had not lost the seat since 1991, thus paved the way for the biggest political realignment the state has seen in recent history.
The CM’s chair has already meant Adityanath spends lesser time in Gorakhpur. He has also distanced himself from his Hindu Yuva Vahini, a militant religious outfit accused of several incidents of violence in the state.
At the same time, Adityanath continues to zealously guard his turf. One reason cited for the BJP’s loss in 2018 was that Adityanath did not put his weight behind candidate Upendra Shukla. The CM’s hand is now seen in the denial of BJP ticket to Praveen Nishad from Gorakhpur. Sources say Adityanath was also behind the choice of Kishan, after assuring BJP chief Amit Shah that he would personally ensure his victory.
Says Praveen’s father Sanjay Nishad, “They told us Praveen had a better chance of winning from Sant Kabir Nagar… It was a decision of the party… I have donated my son to the BJP.”
Notably, Modi, who addressed 142 rallies this election, did not hold a single one in Gorakhpur. Shah and Smriti Irani held one each.
Asked about Praveen, a BJP leader notes, “What do you think the impact of a second win for Praveen be on the Mutt’s (the Gorakhnath Mutt’s) influence and politics in the region?”
As of now, there are no signs of any such waning. At the Mutt office adjacent to the Gorakhnath Temple, there is still a constant stream of people seeking help. “The Mutt’s influence cannot be eroded by an election because it works for the society and is associated with all sections irrespective of caste and creed,” says Adityanath’s close aide and Mutt affairs in-charge, Dwarka Tiwari.
However, even if it has not pushed the traditional BJP voter towards the gathbandhan, Kishan’s candidature has not gone down well with the electorate. “Upendra Shukla would have been a better candidate. Getting an outsider with no experience in politics has weakened the BJP. Kishan can’t even speak properly. Probably, Maharaj-ji did not want a challenger in Gorakhpur,” says Rajeev Dwivedi, of Gorakhpur’s Ali Nagar.
Even workers are disillusioned. “After winning, ee pher bhaag jaihein Bambai thumka lagawe (he will run away again to Mumbai to dance),” says a Hindu Jagran Manch worker, adding, “We are working for him for Modiji.”
A source close to Adityanath admits that apart from providing Kishan a team of professionals and experienced party workers for guidance, “he has been asked to speak less”.
The CM himself does not flinch from mocking him once in a while. At a recent public meeting, Adityanath said, “As far as development is concerned, I am already carrying out that work. I have brought Kishan to entertain you.”
The 49-year-old actor-politician is seeking to overcome one shortcoming by suffixing ‘Shukla’ to his name — a useful surname in a Brahmin-dominated constituency — and another by emphasising his “local” roots, with his ancestors being from Mamkhor in Gorakhpur. “I belong to the Garg gotra, the highest breed of Brahmins. I believe I was chosen for the seat because I am a Shiva devotee. I performed Tandav at Kumbh Mela,” Kishan told The Sunday Express.
He also said he was not going anywhere. “I have bought a house in Gorakhpur. And now I am going to build a Ramoji Rao like film studio here to give jobs to local youths.”
An SP worker says they are hoping Congress candidate Madhusudhan Tripathi will cut into some Brahmin votes. “We want him to get 50,000 votes at least.”
However, on the ground, there appears to be no sentiment for the Congress, or for the much-vaunted political debut of Priyanka Gandhi Vadra as the party’s eastern UP in-charge. “Vote barbaad karne wali baat hai bhaisaab (Voting for the Congress is like wasting one’s vote). And where is the leadership in the Congress?” says a local, Ravi Tiwari.
At the end of the day, the “leadership” factor could well tilt the scales for the BJP.
At the Sahjanwa market, Nagendra Pandey, here from the adjacent Maharajganj constituency, tells friend Pramod Singh, “The Congress will release jailed terrorists and turn India into Sri Lanka. In our constituency, we are abusing the BJP candidate, but still voting for Modi. The vote is for the country.” Singh agrees.
As in most of UP, Modi’s image of a “strong leader”, “development man” and “gareebon ka Neta (leader of the poor)”
is pitted against the numbers of the gathbandhan.
Brahmins, Thakurs, non-Yadav OBCs and part of Nishad voters readily recount the “development work” of the Modi government, the “strong position acquired by India internationally” and “benefits of government schemes”. At Ramgarh village on the outskirts of Gorakhpur, Chandan Sahni, a Nishad, says even among his community, everyone is voting in the name of Modi. “So much development has happened. Under SP rule, Yadavs oppress us. Modi treats everyone equally,” he says.
Nirmala Devi, a Nishad, says Modi is most popular among women. “So many of us have got toilets and houses. Jo humko aasra dega hum uska ghar ujadenge kya (Will we destroy the one who has given us succour)?”
Madhuban Sahni, 70, from adjacent Narsadi village, says he went all the way to Delhi to participate in a Modi rally. “He is the leader of the poor, jaat pata nahin dekhta hai (doesn’t see caste etc).”
In rural belts, however, the sentiment for the BJP is not as strong. Pradeep Kumar Sahni, who rears cows in Bahrampur village, says they are voting for Ram Bhuwal. “Modi is saying I have given development. Have you see the state of the village? Drains of the city are pouring into the village.”
A group of women animatedly discuss politics around a vegetable stall in Jeetpur Nara, a village off the Gorakhpur-Varanasi highway dominated by Nishads and Yadavs. As Radheshyam Nishad says he is voting for Modi because there is development, there is a uniform protest: “You have got cylinder so you are seeing development. We are not voting for Modi. Hardly four toilets have been built in the village. Go to a police station and while a Thakur is offered a chair, a Nishad is shooed away.”
Another woman adds, “From my Jan-Dhan account there was an automatic deduction of Rs 1,600.” Pat explains another, “That’s how Modi is giving Rs 2,000 to farmers. You think he is going to spend his own money?”
Others complain of ration having become expensive under Modi. “Under Akhilesh, we at least got some pension. What has Modi given? Might as well vote for the caste, at least the candidate will do something for us,” another woman says.
Yadavs too aggressively list the Modi government’s “failures” on various fronts, but the gathbandhan’s other hopes, Muslims and Dalits, are silent. While they do reveal their voting preference, most rarely explain it.
With the influence of SP network strong in these parts, Vipin Sahni and Ashutosh Sahni of Bahrampur village, both in early 20s, say they will vote for Ram Bhuwal because their local leader, Nagina Prasad Sahni, has asked them to.
However, Vipin adds, he remains a huge fan of Modi. “I love Modi’s speeches. I listen to him all the time on my mobile. I also listen to (AIMIM leader) Akbaruddin Owaisi even though he makes my blood boil. When I want to laugh, I listen to Rahul Gandhi.”
That, ultimately, seems the story of this election — anger, unhappiness or charges, nothing sticking to Modi. In constituency after constituency, people abuse their BJP MPs, but say they have to elect them to ensure Modi becomes PM. The refrain is: “Modi is doing fine, but the others are thieves. Ab akele kya-kya karega (What can one man alone do)?”
Sums up Haridwar Yadav, a farmer from Sarai Bharti village in Ghosi, “The right candidate to vote for in Ghosi is actually Atul Anjaan of the CPI. He is a grassroots man, does a lot for the people. But no one, including me, will vote for him.”