Playing out in Uttar Pradesh is the other wapasi story, that of the migrant worker returning home after finding no jobs paying well enough in big cities where, for years, he had been assured of making money. Babu Nandan Sharma, 35, belongs to village Ulwal, part of UP’s “largest gram sabha”, residents say. “More than 50 per cent serve outside UP, in Mumbai or Delhi or in the Middle East.” Babu, a curtain and sofa maker, was working in Mumbai for about Rs 500 daily, staying in Mahim and spending about Rs 2,000 a month to sustain. He is back home from Mahim as “khana aur rehna problem hai”. It is the story of many migrant workers; mandi, or economic slowdown, has pushed them back home because they cannot afford their upkeep in cities “due to inflation”.
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Raju Nishad, 21was working as a painter and polisher and staying at Kalyan. Mandi has got him, too, back home from Mumbai. “Even big people have no money to give us for work.” He hopes he will be able to go back to his job soon.
In Sirjam and Gauri Bazar of Deoria, it is very easy to find people who have jobs in cities but are cooling their heels at home. Says Dharmendra Yadav, 26, “I was making steel plates and buckets in Mumbai and am watching how money and options have shrunk. Here too, there is nothing that works, other than the fact that I can eat at home. In Mumbai, there is so much trouble doing bank transactions now. Mummy and Papa send money but even that I was not able to access,” he says.
Dharmendra is campaigning now for the local Cycle (Samajwadi Party) candidate, and has just attended an Akhilesh Yadav rally close by. His friend, Murli Kushwaha, 18, is angry about wapasi having upset his plans. He was in Bhayandar for 11 years, working with cutlery, but has had to return home due to inflation.
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Many of these migrant workers had visited home in 2014 with stories of the “Gujarat model”, which helped burnish Narendra Modi’s claims as the BJP effected near-sweep of UP in the Lok Sabha elections. Those stories are now missing, as people on the wapasi trail worry about money and livelihood.
It is not clear, though, how it will affect their electoral choices on March 4. After having been promised 10 crore jobs in five years by Modi in 2014, how do things stand for the two incumbents — one at the Centre and one in the state?
In Deoria, BA final year student Umesh says of the BJP, “They put us in a line and we know of so many people who lost so many days of livelihood. Is liye unke liye kharaab ho gaya mahaul; the wind has stopped blowing their way. There would have been a wave had there been some work happening, but there is no work to do.”
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Brijesh Srivastava is a BJP supporter but admits, “Nothing has happened. There are no jobs. Some chhut-put work may have happened outside UP but otherwise, no.” Asked what will guide his vote, he says it will be the hope that Modi may yet bring the change that he promised in 2014.
Most migrant workers The Indian Express spoke to across this region seem not to expect UP to miraculously yield jobs. Because of the despair across India, however, they find the BJP pitch tough to accept. Joblessness in UP is not just about lack of jobs in UP; it is also about lack of jobs outside UP too.
Despite this being an assembly election, the BJP is trying to fight the election by reviving, as far as possible, its Modi-as-centrepiece focus of 2014. The megaphones doing the rounds in small kasbas offer advice: “To vote for Modi, press the phool button”. In the 2012 assembly polls, the BJP finished at number 3, getting just 15 per cent of the vote, but the 2014 Lok Sabha polls saw a near-threefold jump in the vote share.
What is making this election difficult to decipher, however, is that a lot of those who had voted for the BJP at the Centre feel it should be given “a chance” in the state. In the worlds of Rajesh Srivastava in Gorakhpur, “BJP’s 14 years of vanvaas (exile) must end, as we have seen the others, both SP and BSP.”
The BSP’s natural supporters have a different prism of looking at jobs and the slowdown. At Jagadishpur in Kushi Nagar, Suraj Kumar, a motor mechanic who works in Lucknow and sometimes in Delhi, says, “There is all this talk of private jobs, which are first slowing down. Then again, they do not provide anything to SCs/STs and reserved categories, so we are even more disadvantaged. Now, if they want to knock out reservation too, what will happen?”