The symbolism was many. Making her formal electoral debut in the state that decides the country’s political destiny, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra chose to start from Prayagraj, a city closely linked with the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, and end at Varanasi, one of the world’s oldest living cities that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is trying to mould in his legacy.
The Congress’s newly appointed general secretary in-charge of eastern Uttar Pradesh chose to make the journey by the Ganga — seeking to join not just the political but also the spiritual fight over the river. If Modi invoked “Maa Ganga” while filing his nomination from Varanasi to make his national debut, made the ‘Namami Gange’ plan one of the cornerstones of his government, and the Kumbh Mela next to it one of its pet projects, Priyanka began and ended with a Ganga Puja and visited various temples along the way.
Both have now made a pitch for the backward boatmen community, spread evenly across the state, comprising more than 13 per cent of the electorate, and a decisive factor in 20-25 of Uttar Pradesh’s 80 Lok Sabha seats, including Varanasi. If addressing a ‘Swachh Kumbh, Swachh Aabhaar’ programme in Prayagraj on February 24, Modi described himself as the boatmen’s ‘pradhan sevak’, invoked their crucial role in Ramayana through the character of Kevat, and claimed “a deep relationship with them”, Priyanka promised an insurance scheme for boats, regularised employment for boatsmen and fishermen, and a separate ministry for fishermen.
The cradle of India’s ancient history, divided present and foreseeable future, that remains one of the most densely populated regions in the world, has seen much of all this before. Like the 45-year-old who has taken up a “man’s job” of cremating bodies to support her family at a ghat in Prayagraj, to the 72-year-old who has spent a lifetime collecting coins from the dirty river bed at Varanasi. Like the families waiting for a permanent bridge over a river, to those whose fields next to the Ganga long for some water. Like the ephemeral promise of a renewed Ganga, to the shiny hope of a new waterway.
In the ebb and flow of Uttar Pradesh politics, Priyanka’s 100-odd km journey did create some ripples for the Congress. But for a party now out of power in the state for over 30 years, reduced to just two MPs and seven MLAs in UP, struggling to get its campaign off the ground, how far these ripples travel is the question.
Congress Prayagraj president Anil Dwivedi admits “thoda late hua hai (we are a little late)”. “Magar mahaul Priyankaji ke aane se ban raha hai (However, change is visible after her visit),” he adds. “Her message is clear, it is actual issues like unemployment and the promise of a better future, rather than creating divisions.”
However, even potential allies Samajwadi Party (SP) and BSP are sceptical. Scoffs BSP state president R S Kushwaha, “They (Congress leaders) are still just talking. There is no craze for Priyanka. Let them first save their seats in Rae Bareli and Amethi and then talk of the rest.” Read more election news
SP leader Udai Veer Singh questioned the Congress’s gameplan. “With elections near, while we are focusing on defeating the BJP, it is now working on strengthening the party. Pata nahin sarkar kab banayenge (At this rate, when will they form a government). It is good that Priyanka is making efforts and everyone should make efforts… but with wrong planning, the Congress has turned into a disruptive element.”
The BJP, on its part, has been asking how Priyanka could have made the trip if its government had not dredged the river to make the waterway. However, Sanjay Nishad of the NISHAD Party, which is with the SP-BSP alliance, and which represents the boatmen community, says he welcomes Priyanka’s move. “The community has been a traditional voter of the Congress, later shifting to the SP and BJP. The community feels it is a welcome attempt by the Congress and Priyanka to give importance to them nationally.”
Manaiya Ghat, Prayagraj
It is March 18, 9.30 am, at the ghat popularly known as the Manaiya Shamshan Ghat. Last-minute adjustments are being made to a streamer on which Priyanka is all set to make her first political foray outside the Gandhi pocketboroughs of Rae Bareli and Amethi. There are wooden barricades all around, and heavy police deployment. Waiting on the other side, along with mediapersons, are locals who are here to confirm what they have heard — “Suna hai apni daadi ki tarah dikhti hai (We have heard she looks like her grandmother)”.
Priyanka arrives almost two hours behind schedule and leaves the ghat almost immediately with a group of students from Allahabad University amidst much fanfare but also chaos.
A day later, the ghat wears a deserted look, with the empty water bottles and food boxes strewn about the only signs of her visit. On the low wall of a shade developed by BJP MP-lately turned SP leader Shyama Charan Gupta, sits 45-year-old Anita Dhaikar.
In these parts, including the Brahmin-dominated Maniaya village, women are not allowed to come to cremation ghats. Anita, however, is one of about seven-eight women who prepare bodies for cremation at the ghat. Her eyes flitting between the road behind the river to the Shamshan Ghat in front of her, Anita says there are 15 Dalit families like hers who assist in cremation at the ghat (a job that gets handed down generations). That means she gets a body once in two days.
“My mother-in-law first joined this profession to ensure that men of the house are free to work as labourers. Sometimes there are four-five bodies a day, other days none. The rest is our luck. Some give just Rs 100, others Rs 300. People die of disease, accidents… we have to prepare all bodies for cremation,” Anita says.
The Manaiya Shamshan Ghat gets bodies from a 40-km area. Villagers claim the dead are brought from even Reva in Madhya Pradesh, about 50 km away, as this is the nearest Ganga ghat. Yet, there is no pucca road to the ghat. While the other women who work at the ghat refuse to identify themselves, they too point to this. Anita also talks about the lack of toilets on the ghat and arrangements to clear the remains of bodies and clothes left behind by people.
On Priyanka choosing the ghat to start her campaign, Arun Kumar, who used to be a pradhan till the seat was reserved for women, adds, “Congress ka kuchch graph to barhega, lekin abhi bahut samay lagega. Unhone bataya nahin ki nadi se kyon… Bheed unka chehra dekhne aayi thi (While the graph of the Congress would go up, it would take some time for it to do better. She did not say why she took the river route. The crowd just came to see her face).”
Meanwhile, Anita is doing what she can. She has one daughter and two sons, and she is determined her daughter won’t join her profession.
Sirsa Ghat, Prayagraj
After covering two other ghats along her way, Priyanka’s campaign reaches Sirsa Ghat in Prayagraj about 2 pm on March 18, where a pontoon bridge is parted to allow her streamer to go through. The wait for Priyanka on this ghat means that the traffic that takes the bridge to Sultanpur, Jaunpur or Varanasi, saving 60-70 km in the process, has come to a halt. Not just two-wheelers but even vehicles such as SUVs cross daily over the swaying contraption, and locals say they have been demanding a pucca bridge for years.
After addressing people on the ghat seeking support for “Bhai Rahul” and stressing that the Congress president does what he says, Priyanka takes a walk through the adjoining market. With no staircase to access the market, she too walks over a temporary one fashioned out of sacks of white sand. As others follow in her wake, there are constant shouts warning one to watch one’s step.
A day later, the market is still buzzing with Priyanka’s visit. Lala Prasad Yadav, 70, who runs a local sweet shop and is busy frying samosas, says the inconvenience over the “Pipe ka pul” being shut for a few hours was “nothing”. “Our lives come to standstill for four-five months every year during the rains, when the water level in the Ganga rises and this temporary set-up is dismantled.” He lives in TiIia Tara village on the other side of the river.
In the absence of a bridge, boatmen charge Rs 10 per ride to take one across, and Yadav says he can’t afford it on a daily basis.
Those who have vehicles drive to at least 100 km to make their way across.
Students also suffer, as most schools and colleges are on this side of the river. This includes the younger son of Lalta Prasad Rohit, who is in Class 10 at a Sanskrit school. “Sometimes, boatmen take school students free or sometimes they issue monthly passes. But those four-five months are very difficult for us,” Rohit says.
Out of his three sons and two daughters, two sons are working in Mumbai as labourers. “There is hardly any work here, what can one do? There could be some prosperity if a bridge is constructed, but no one listens to us,” says Yadav.
Vijay Shankar Yadav, who hails from the same Nagar Panchayat, adds, “I studied at a nearby college, but didn’t get any job, neither do we have much land. So I just work as a help in the market, but currently I am berozgar (unemployed).”
The area, which has a dominant Yadav, Kesari (Baniya) and Muslim population, believes the Congress may see an upswing with Priyanka’s entry, but the change won’t be overnight. Like Kumar at Manaiya Ghat, Yadav surmises, “Thoda samay lagega. Abhi log sirf dekhne aa rahe hain (It will take some time. People are coming to just see her now).”
Sindoora Ghat, Mirzapur
Priyanka is supposed to address a public meeting here at 3 pm on March 19, but it’s already 6 pm and there is no sign of her. Villagers look eagerly towards the Ganga, where the sun is setting, for her boat. As darkness descends and temperature falls, people become anxious, and those who have come from neighbouring villages start questioning the Congressmen around.
A group of women from Sindoora break into a conversation about the irony of them staying next to the Ganga and still having no water for their fields. “A small canal constructed years ago is still not functional, while no one in the village has a tubewell. So there is hardly any cultivation, and young boys either roam around or go for work to other cities and states,” says Munni Devi, 55, the mother of a daughter and three sons.
One of her sons is employed as a helper, washing utensils, at a restaurant in Mumbai, while another works in the neighbouring Chunnar town as a labourer. Jugura Devi, sitting next to her, says one out of her four sons works as a labourer in Jamnagar, Gujarat.
Pradhan of the village Santosh Kumar Bind, who is among those waiting for Priyanka, admits migration is common. “Our village has a dominant population of fishermen and boatmen communities like Manjhi, Bind, Mallah etc, as well as Pal (OBCs) and SCs. With irrigation an issue, many youngsters leave for bigger cities.”
Pointing towards boats crossing the river with not just people but also two-wheelers, Bind says, “Villages along the river have a lot of problems, which is hard for those living on land surrounded by land to understand. Who would have thought that a village located so close to the Ganga could face irrigation problems? But without proper channelisation of the river, whose water decreases in this season, irrigation is impossible.”
Locals inform that a few days ago, local MP Anupriya Patel came and promised a temporary bridge across the river to help the commute become easier.
People are happy though that the quality of water on this bank, which is cleaner than most other ghats, has improved. They attribute this to the tanneries in Kanpur being closed and the flow of the water being increased for the recent Kumbh Mela. “But it won’t last…” notes a youth, looking far off into the distance, where a swinging torch on dark waters indicates a boat is arriving.
With no permanent arrangement for lights at this ghat once the sun sets, all the boats, including Priyanka’s, use battery torches to reach the shore. “Aa gayin, aaa gayin, aaa gayin (She has come, she has come),” shouts one of the locals as the SPG clears the way for Priyanka and local Congress candidate Lalitesh Pati Tripathi to get down from the boat.
In her brief speech, Priyanka talks of how people tell her she resembles Indira Gandhi and that she knows people love her and have expectations of her because of what her grandmother did for people. She then goes on to seek support for Rahul and Tripathi, before heading out for road shows to Chunnar, where she stays for the night.
Assi Ghat, Varanasi
It’s the third and the last day of her visit to UP, and Priyanka has arrived at the famous ghat to participate in a sammelan for boatsmen. A crowd jostles to have a glimpse or take a selfie with her. Obliging as many as she can, Priyanka manages to somehow reach the staircase of the ghat and address the crowd.
In a speech lasting about seven minutes, she thanks people for their love and asks them to raise a voice from Varanasi to change the “anti-women, anti-people, anti-labourer” government at the Centre, before leapfrogging her way through the boats to speak to the local boatsmen.
Just a few metres away, 72-year-old Ramji is neck deep in the turgid water feeling around for something. Plunging inside seven-eight times, coming out with bottle caps, empty packets, plastic, clothes, which he keeps flinging to the banks, he finds something and puts it inside his mouth. He goes on for over an hour before emerging from the water, one side of his mouth bulging.
Taking out coins from his mouth, he counts around 20, then puts them back again. “I am a boatman but as the temperature rises or the water level falls, there is little work for us. Some days we do not get even a single customer. Even those who come do not give more than Rs 150-200. So on such days, Re 1 coins thrown by the pilgrims for luck feed our families,” says Ramji. After two hours of search, he may collect Rs 40-Rs 50, he adds.
One of his two sons is in Ludhiana working as a labourer at a factory. “Had there been work here, who would want to leave?” he says.
Dinesh Nishad, who is much younger, adds, “We do not want money. We want social security and arrangement for lun, tel, lakdi (salt, oil and wood to cook), which is not asking for much.”
Unlike Ramji, Dinesh is listening keenly to what Priyanka is saying, including her promise of a separate ministry of fisheries. But Dinesh has heard all this before. “Ganga saaf kara dete (Wish someone would get just the Ganga cleaned),” he says. “Once there was a time when we would drink directly from the river. Now even we think 10 times. For others, it might be a sacred river but for us it is everything, our families live on it.”
Baijnath, 80, who is approaching his boat with a stick in his hand, tries to tell everyone, “Congress se hi umeed hai. Tumne uska samay nahin dekha, maine dekha hai (The Congress is our only hope. You haven’t seen its glory days, I have).” The younger ones immediately hush him, saying “Daada, times have changed.”
Unable to stay quiet anymore, Ramji suddenly takes out the coins from his mouth and shouts, “Kuchch nahin hone wala, sab paisa kha jate hain (Nothing will change. Everyone just steals the money).”
Then he goes back into the river — already a tiny speck outside the circle of the limelight besides him.
Congress far from a contender in the 4 LS seats along Priyanka’s way
Represented by former BJP MP Shyama Charan Gupta, who recently joined SP. Since 1984, when it was represented by Congress candidate Amitabh Bachchan, the seat has largely been with either BJP or SP. For the past few years, Congress has been trying to revive its old connection with the constituency, the birth place of former PMs Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. Before launching her campaign, Priyanka stayed at Swaraj Bhawan, the ancestral home of the Nehru family, and tweeted a picture of Indira’s room
Created in 2009, the seat was first represented by BSP and then by Virendra Singh of BJP in 2014, who defeated BSP candidate Rakesh Sharma Tripathi by a margin of about 1.45 lakh votes. Congress candidate Sartaj Imam had stood fifth in the contest, with even the JD(U) candidate bagging more votes. With weavers forming a large part of the constituency, Priyanka visited their homes on foot and discussed issues concerning the profession.
The constituency was last represented by Congress from 1984 to 1989. While Phoolan Devi, as SP candidate, represented the seat twice, it has also been represented by BSP and BJP. In 2014, BJP ally Apna Dal’s leader Anupriya Patel won the seat — the party has a strong presence among Kurmis, especially Patels, in the region. While Anupriya is likely to contest from the seat again, Congress has fielded young leader Lalitesh Pati Tripathi, the great grandson of former CM Kamalapati Tripathi. He was part of Priyanka’s boat journey and she sought votes for him in her speeches.
The constituency is represented by PM Narendra Modi, and BJP just announced that he will again be contesting from this seat. It was represented by former chief minister of the Congress, Kamalapati Tripathi, in 1980, and by BJP from 1991 to 1994. In 2004, Congress candidate Rakesh Kumar Mishra won from the seat, but in 2009, it was won by senior BJP leader Murli Manohar Joshi. The latter was shifted to Kanpur in 2014 after Modi decided to contest from the seat.