Near Kapuri Narayan village in Phephana, under the Ballia Lok Sabha constituency in eastern Uttar Pradesh, Dabloo Chaurasia, owner of a paan shop says the SP-BSP gathbandhan has its nose ahead in the polls.
Sitting a few metres away, Anil Kumar Singh, a Rajput, interrupts. “All votes are going to Virender Singh Mast (a Rajput leader and BJP candidate) in the name of Modiji. Only the unlettered and unaware will vote for the gathbandhan. You need someone who can run the country properly,” he says.
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That is the refrain in Ballia, where Brahmins and Rajputs — known to compete for dominance, socially and politically — have historically had an uncomfortable electoral relationship. In this LS seat, the two communities are roughly equal in numbers and together account for around 5 lakh votes.
And while a coalition of upper caste votes along with non-Yadav OBCs like Kurmis, Rajbhars and Nonias can easily trump the gathbandhan’s arithmetic, the competing politics of Brahmins and Rajputs is a worry for the BJP.
The BJP has replaced sitting MP Bharat Singh with Mast, a Rajput and the sitting MP from Bhadohi while the gathbandhan, springing a surprise, fielded Sanatan Pandey, and denied two-time SP MP from former Prime Minister Chandrashekhar’s son Neeraj Shekhar a ticket.
Famous as ‘the rebel constituency’, this erstwhile bastion of the socialist leader never voted for the BJP until 2014. Chandrashekhar won the constituency eight times since 1977 until his death in 2007, losing only once, in 1984.
The gathbandhan’s move to field Pandey has, however, got the Brahmins to sit up and take notice. About 10 km from Ballia city is the Brahmin-dominated Nagwa, the ancestral village of Mangal Pandey, the hero of the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny.
A few metres from a Mangal Pandey memorial in the village, Nitesh Pathak, who worked for a local newspaper until recently, says, “Brahmins were in favour of voting for Modi but after the gathbandhan named Sanatan Pandey as its candidate, the community has decided to go with the alliance. Thakurs are rooting for Mast. So, we Brahmins are also thinking of voting for our caste. Thakurs never vote for our candidate.”
According to a BJP worker in Ballia, Brahmins and Thakurs have rarely voted together. “Every time a Brahmin has contested, he has lost and they blame Thakurs for it. Thakurs always win here. Numerically, both are strong in the region. Bhumihars, too, feel similarly. Manoj Sinha (the current Ghazipur MP and Union Minister) has contested and lost from Ballia in the past.”
The last time the seat had a Brahmin MP was in 1962, when CPI’s Sarjoo Pandey won from what was then known as Rasra constituency.
With Shekhar denied a ticket, the Thakurs are rooting for the BJP. “Had Shekhar got the ticket, the BJP would have had a tough fight on its hands. A large number of Rajputs would have voted for him. He is a grassroots politician. But now it’s a BJP sweep,” says Ajay Singh from Akhara village close to Nagwa.
However, not all Brahmins have rejected the BJP. In Nagwa, several Brahmin voters said they will vote for the BJP because Prime Minister Narendra Modi had brought in development. “Are you watching TV? Whose name is the country chanting? That’s where I am going to vote,” says Dineshwar Pathak.
Aditya Pathak, a music teacher from the village, says, “Brahmins have Modi in their heart and everyone wants to vote for him. But things will be decided in the last two days. If all decide to go for Pandey, so will I.”
In Bairia, the equations are no different. While Yadavs, Dalits and Muslims seem consolidated behind the gathbandhan, Rajputs and a significant chunk of non-Yadav OBCs said they preferred Modi and Brahmins here too were undecided.
Tribhuvan Tiwari says he has been a BJP voter since Atal Behari Vajpayee’s time but is changing his vote this time. He says his reasons are lack of jobs and the poor condition of education under the Modi government. His friend Jamuna Prasad, however, whispers that Tiwari is voting for the gathbandhan because of Pandey.
Dhan Gupta, who runs a paan shop at Haldi Market near Bairia says Mast had a good chance until a Brahmin was nominated. “Now, Brahmins have begun to think about the gathbandhan. But there are still a few days to go. Big rallies are scheduled. This contest could go anywhere,” he says.
But the BJP has hope in what Anil Sahni, a Mallah from Bharsauni village near Haldi, says, “A lot has happened under Modi. He has built the foundation and the walls. We want to give him a chance to build the roof as well. We gave them 60 years. Let us give him 10 years at least.”