Updated: January 29, 2022 7:00:51 pm
Groups of three to four people sit around bonfires at every intersection, burning up tree trunks around a line of shops selling furniture — the mainstay of livelihoods in Garh Mukhteshwar. Overlooking them are electricity poles enveloped with inanimate faces of contenders who will fight for the Uttar Pradesh Assembly from this seat in Hapur district.
In the last few weeks, key parties have changed their minds about their candidates for the constituency that votes on February 10. And caste appears to have a major role.
It is of little surprise that even the offices of prominent parties — the SP, BSP and the BJP — are located within a two kilometre stretch in the town. The first in the row is the office of the Samajwadi Party’s Ravinder Chowdhary, who belongs to the Gujjar community that makes up for around 10% of the constituency’s 3 lakh voters.
His supporters say he will win with ease on the back of the substantial Muslim and Gujjar votes in the area. “Chowdhary saheb will not have any difficulty in winning, the Muslims voters (which make up for a quarter of the voter base) are completely backing us and he himself is a local Gujjar. There are other castes also in our support,” said Manmeet, an SP supporter who goes by just his first name.
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The SP initially picked an outsider to fight from the constituency: Naina Devi, who comes from an influential political and business family of Meerut. She was replaced by Chowdhary weeks later, with the BSP saying the SP changed its strategy because the Mayawati-led party fielded a three-time legislator from the constituency.
The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) announced Mohammad Arif as their candidate, but changed it to Madan Chauhan — also a former minister in the Akhilesh Yadav-led SP government from 2015 to 2017.
The party believes Chauhan, a Rajput leader, may get the backing of his 40,000-member strong community in the region, but it is is also banking on the support of over 45,000 Jatav votes. The Jatavs have traditionally supported the BSP in Garh Mukhteshwar and comprise over 15% of the population.
“I have done enough in the region to get votes from all castes… got roads built, government guest houses were built and ghat beautification was done by me,” Chauhan says, referring to the time he was an MLA from Garh Mukhteshwar (2002-2017).
The switch to Chauhan is why the SP was forced to field another candidate, BSP leaders say. SP supporters, however, disagree and instead point to Devi’s lack of “local connect’.
“Naina-ji even campaigned for a day but since she had no local connect, she could not gather enough supporters, she could not handle press questions on issues that are important in this constituency and seeing that the party changed the candidate,” said Mohammad Hanif, an SP worker.
The BJP followed a similar path, albeit not the same. The party did not opt for sitting MLA Kamal Singh Malik and gave the ticket to Harendra Singh Tewatia, who says he is the descendant of late prime minister Choudhary Charan Singh. Tewatia is also a Jat candidate and is hoping to secure the votes of around 35,000 members of the community apart from support of the upper castes that have normally veered towards the BJP.
The three parties are relying on their conventional ideological base apart along with their candidates’ caste and community support. The SP is pinning its hopes on the Muslim and Gujjar votes; the BSP on Rajputs and Dalit votes; and the BJP on Jats, Rajput and Brahmins.
The Congress, however, is an outlier. A Jat woman contestant, Congress’s Abha Chaudhary expressed confidence that she is the choice for several castes and women in the constituency.
“I have the support from each caste, including Jat, Brahmins and especially women due to our women centred campaign,” she says, referring to the party’s outreach to women voters for these assembly elections. While parties insist on these probabilities, the people of the town are concerned over their livelihoods.
Residents depend largely on the sale of furniture and like many small businesses, the two years of pandemic have been hard.
Salik Chand, a Jatav, is one of them. He owns a shop that sells modha, stools that are made from bamboo. “Our income is largely dependent upon tourists who buy this. But with Covid, tourism is down and so is our business. The income has fallen down by more than 30%the furniture that we make are even exported but the government has not done anything to promote this art,” he says.
There are thousands more like him, he adds, and many who make such furniture at their homes and sell them in cities or on highways.
The UP town also counts on historical tourism. The Garh Mukteshwar ghat, on the banks of river Ganga, hosts a Kartik Mela related to the Hindu epic Mahabharata. Every October-November, over 25 lakh pilgrims throng the town and trigger a rush of business activity – from renting out rooms for tourists to running eateries and selling flowers for religious rituals. But the crowds have long thinned.
Vinod Mishra, a kirana shopkeeper in Braj Ghat in Garh assembly constituency, says, “This area has the potential to be developed as tourism hub like Haridwar but has never been promoted that way. If that happens, we will also earn more.”
For others too, their lives have been upended. Sachin Kaushik, a sugar cane farmer in the region, says: “The payment by mills (to farmers) is delayed… no one talks about that… what about our issues, I see party workers are all always discussing which caste will vote for them… Each party has its own caste loyalty and need some more (votes) from different castes. The candidate that is able to get that will win.
“But we will be in the same condition that we have been.”
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