Satyaprakash Kushwaha and Brijesh Kushwaha run a small furniture shop in the Salempur market in eastern UP. They also harbour political ambitions. In April, when the BSP announced that its state chief R S Kushwaha would contest from the seat, they joined him amid rumours that BJP’s sitting MP Ravindra Kushwaha may not be fielded. However, when the BJP announced Ravindra’s candidature, both of them stopped campaigning for R S Kushwaha.
“We have Narendra Modi in our hearts. But since the BSP had fielded a prominent Kushwaha leader, we thought it would be good for the constituency. Now that the BJP has also fielded a Kushwaha, we see no point in canvassing for the BSP,” Brijesh says, adding that close to 60 per cent of the Kushwaha votes were going to the BJP.
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Adjacent to Ballia, which was at the forefront of the anti-corruption movement led by veteran Gandhian Jayaprakash Narayan and remained a bastion of former prime minister Chandrashekhar for long, Salempur had never voted for the BJP until 2014. Known as a socialist seat, the constituency was won by the Janata Dal and later by the SP and BSP multiple times since 1989. Even after the BJP swept the state in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, two of the five Assembly segments went to the SP in the 2017 Vidhan Sabha elections.
Poor and largely rural, Salempur is populated mostly with backward and extremely backward communities such as Kushwahas, Rajbhars, Yadavs, Dalits and Muslims. The BJP’s core voters, the upper castes, cumulatively account for less than five lakh votes in this constituency, which has over 16 lakh electors.
In 2014, the BJP had garnered more than 70,000 votes than the SP and BSP put together. Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party (SBSP) chief Om Prakash Rajbhar, who had also contested in 2014, had managed to win about 66,000 votes.
Political equations are now up for test as Rajbhar, whose community has a significant presence in the constituency and who built his political career opposing Mayawati, is now up against the BJP.
Shailendra Verma of Sikandarpur’s Kathauda village, which has a substantial Rajbhar and Kushwaha population, says the communities are divided between the gathbandhan and BJP. “The sitting MP and BJP candidate is very arrogant and of no use to the people. When people went to him for help, he used to say you have voted for Modi and not for me,” Verma says.
Fellow villager Rakesh Rajbhar says he will vote for the SBSP as Om Prakash Rajbhar, claiming he has brought the community to political limelight.
About 50 km away in Bansdih Assembly segment’s Maritand village, however, the two communities appear to be enamoured by Modi’s leadership.
“Modi has brought development to the region. Government benefits are reaching people. Why won’t we vote for him?” asks Ram Kumar Verma, a resident of Maritand.
Fellow villager Sravan Kumar Rajbhar too says he will be voting for Modi. “Om Prakash Rajbhar has become a big man. He comes in big cars to show us that he is the richest Rajbhar. He has done nothing for the people. He has not even come to ask us how we are doing. In this election, people are not looking at candidates. Everyone is chanting Modi’s name,” he says.
At Anua Par village near Salempur, Modi’s appeal seems to have worked cutting across caste lines, barring Yadavs, Muslims and Jatavs.
Arun Kumar Kushwaha, Raju Kushwaha, Sateyendra Nath, a Gond (non-Jatav Dalit), and Ramesh Tiwari have surrounded Lallan Kushwaha, who works for the BSP in the village. They make fun of him for being an outcast when everyone is “voting for the country”.
Bablu Kumar Gupta, a Bania who runs a shop in Bansdih market, says he is voting for the BJP because Modi is honest and well-intentioned. “He can’t achieve everything in five years. We can’t manage families, he is managing 130 crore people. He does not see caste. Even Muslims have got houses. If he wanted to make money he would not have implemented demonetisation. The GST has brought prices down,” he says, showing a moisturising cream that is now selling at a discounted price.
Only Mohammed Mustafa, a paan shop owner at Majhauli Raj, is concerned that there is less talk of development and more about emotional issues. “The CM is only concerned about cows. Cows should be respected and protected. But if the amount of political capital and money being spent on cows is spent on creating jobs and making houses, it will help the BJP more. I am not getting a job and (BJP president) Amit Shah is saying, ‘sell pakodas’,” he says.