Despite government schemes, caste alignment holds the key to eastern UP polls

To counter the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party are relying on their combined vote bank of Yadavs, Muslims and Jatavs. Diego Cupolo/NurPhoto/Getty Images
19 May, 2019

Thirteen Lok Sabha constituencies in eastern Uttar Pradesh vote in the last phase of the ongoing polls on 19 May. The Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies won all 13 seats in the 2014 general election, as a “Modi wave” swept aside caste equations. This year, the candidate selection of the BJP and the gathbandhan—an alliance between the Samajwadi Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Rashtriya Lok Dal—show that both are banking on caste arithmetic to win the polls.

The Apna Dal, a BJP ally, is contesting two of the thirteen seats—Mirzapur and Robertsgunj, and the ruling party is challenging the opposition in the remaining 11 seats. The BJP has nominated six upper-caste and three non-dominant Other Backward Class candidates in the unreserved constituencies, and one non-Jatav Dalit in the reserved constituency of Bansgaon. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is contesting from Varanasi. The social support base of the BJP consists primarily of these three communities, as reflected by the distribution of tickets.

Among the upper castes, four tickets have been given to Brahmins—in Gorakhpur, Kushinagar, Deoria and Chandauli. Ravi Kishan Shukla, a popular Bhojpuri singer and actor, is the BJP’s Brahmin candidate in Gorakhpur and the Uttar Pradesh chief minister Adityanath has been camping in the city to ensure a BJP victory. Manoj Sinha, from the upper-caste Bhumihar community, is contesting from Ghazipur, while Virendra Singh, a Thakur, is the candidate from Ballia. That the majority of the upper-caste tickets have gone to Brahmins is an indication that that the party is trying to woo the community, who are upset that party stalwarts such as Murali Manohar Joshi and Kalraj Mishra have been denied tickets. Moreover, the appointment of Adityanath, a Thakur, as chief minister had led to a rift between the party’s Thakur and Brahmin voter base.

To counter this the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party are relying on their combined vote bank of Yadavs, Muslims and Jatavs. The Yadavs are a dominant OBC community and the Jatavs are the largest Dalit sub community in Uttar Pradesh. In addition, to disrupt the BJP’ s caste arithmetic the gathbandhan has also given tickets to candidates from upper castes and non-dominant OBCs. In Gorakhpur, Rambual Nishad is the gathbandhan candidate from the Samajwadi Party and is expected to get a large number of Nishad votes—a community that comprises several non-dominant OBC sub-castes. The community traditionally votes for the BJP. Meanwhile, the Congress has fielded a Brahmin, Madhusudan Tiwari, which could eat into the BJP’s Brahmin vote bank.

In Deoria, a constituency neighbouring Gorakhpur, the BJP’s candidate is a Brahmin, Ramapati Ram Tripathi, while the gathbandhan has given the ticket to a Bania, Vinod Kumar Jaiswal. The Banias traditionally form part of the BJP’s voter base. The Congress has nominated a Muslim Niyaz Ahmad, who may divide the Muslim votes between the gathbandthan and the Congress.

“In Poorvanchal, the BJP’s ticket distribution reflects its social base, with an emphasis on upper castes, while the gathbandhan and Congress have tried to disrupt this by giving tickets to upper castes and OBC groups that vote for the BJP,” Shashikant Pandey, who teaches political science at Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar University in Lucknow, told me. “The BJP giving four tickets to Brahmins in the phase-seven constituencies is a signal that the party is with the community, but at this point, upper castes are rallying behind the BJP blindly.”

When I asked him about whether the schemes introduced by the central government would have any impact, Pandey said, “Schemes like PM Kisan, PM Awas, Ujjwala have percolated down to the lowest level to some extent.” PM Kisan is a reference to the Prime Minister’s Kisan Samman Nidhi scheme, which aims to transfer Rs 6,000 to small and marginal farmers annually as minimum-income support. PM Awas refers to a scheme to provide affordable housing, and the Ujjawala scheme aims to provide gas cylinders to families below the poverty line. “Those are the pluses for the BJP,” he added. “But the minuses that are going against the party are the disruption to the cattle economy and lynchings of Muslims.”

While travelling in rural Gorakhpur, I met Durbal Prasad Rajbhar, a 42-year old auto driver. Rajbhar said he was “voting for Narendra Modi and not Ravi Kishan,” the BJP’s Gorakhpur candidate. As soon as she heard this, a co-passenger, Kapura Devi Vishwakarma, added that she got a cooking-gas cylinder and Rs 4,000 in two installments from the central government schemes. “I will vote for Modi,” Vishwakarma said. Indrajit Gond, another passenger, declined to say who he was voting for, but added that 90 percent of the Gond community would vote for Narendra Modi. While Rajbhar and Vishwakarma are non-dominant OBCs, Gonds are classified as both a Scheduled Tribe and a Scheduled Caste in Uttar Pradesh.

In the Gorakhpur constituency, I also met Zahir Hussain and his friend Ghulam Ghouse at their village of Piprauli. Hussain, 32, owns a small cloth store and sells life insurance in his spare time to supplement his income. He said that under Adityanath’s government, the electricity supply had increased from 12 hours to 20 hours. But he added that he would vote for the Samajwadi Party. “I voted for the SP in 2014 and in 2017 and see no reason to switch,” he told me as we sipped chai at his shop. “We were safe during the SP’s rule,” Ghouse added. “The Narendra Modi government wants to divide society. Citing the triple talaq bill, which the Modi government introduced to make the practice of instant triple talaq a penal offence, he said, “No government should interfere in the personal affairs of any community.”

In Kushinagar, another constituency bordering Gorakhpur, both the gathbandhan and the Congress have nominated candidates that could eat into the BJP’s non-dominant OBC vote. The Congress candidate is Ratanjit Pratap Narain Singh—or RPN Singh, popularly known as Raja sahib—who has previously held ministerial positions in the United Progressive Alliance government. He is from a Saintwar family. The Saintwars, also called Kurmis, are a non-dominant OBC community who own large tracts of land in Kushinagar.

“RPN Singh has a good image here and a connect with voters, but it is his own initiative and not because of the Congress party,” Gurudutt Giri, a Kushinagar-based journalist, told me. Kushinagar comprises approximately twenty-four lakh voters, including 40–50 percent from OBC communities, such as the Saintwars, Kushwahas and Yadavs. The gathbandhan’s non-dominant OBC candidate, Nathuni Prasad Kushwaha, is expected to get a large segment of votes from Kushwahas, another community that traditionally voted for the BJP. Meanwhile, the BJP fielded a Brahmin candidate, Vijay Dubey, who is likely hoping that a division of votes between its rivals will ensure his victory.

At the Jatav mohalla in Padari village, located off the highway that connects Gorakhpur to Kushinagar, I met Chandan Kumar Gautam, an 18-year old first-time voter. “Friends have called me to campaign for the BJP, but I will vote for the elephant,” he declared, referring to the BSP’s symbol. This constituency was allocated to the Samajwadi Party as part of the gathbandhan’s seat-sharing agreement. “I have no problem voting for the cycle,” Chandan said, when I asked if he would vote for the Samajwadi Party.

Sanjay Gautam, from the same village said that he, too, had received Rs 4,000 in two installments under the PM-KISAN scheme. He refused to reveal who he would vote for, but added, “We all want to see Mayawati become prime minister, you can guess who I will be voting for.”