On the night of 23 April, over dinner at a friend’s place in Lucknow, I was invited by Anshuman Dwivedi, a teacher at a local coaching institute, to attend a gathering at Kudia Ghat in Old Lucknow. The aim, Dwivedi said, was to pledge to protect the Gomti, the river that bisects the city.
But Dwivedi, who was the event’s main organiser, soon admitted that the meeting had another, hidden motive. “We’ve invited Rajnath Singh,” he said. He paused, presumably to allow the words to sink in. “We can’t put it because of the Model Code of Conduct that it’s a gathering by caste. But it’s basically a gathering of Brahmins.”
Wooing the Brahmin vote is particularly important for Rajnath Singh, who is competing against three other Brahmin candidates for the parliamentary seat in Lucknow, which non-Brahmins have won only three times in 63 years. The Brahmin community is perceived to be insecure over its marginalisation in these elections, with leaders in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, such as Murli Manohar Joshi, Harin Pathak and Lalmuni Choubey being shifted or denied tickets, while Thakurs such as Brij Bhushan and the new entrant VK Singh are being brought to the forefront. Singh himself is a Thakur and his appearance at the Gomti gathering was an attempt to gather Brahmin support for the BJP, couched within an environmental issue.
But Dwivedi insisted that his primary agenda was the environmental one. He listed some problems. “There are no water reservoirs,” he said. “Even small rains are creating big floods. Why? We are cutting the trees. So when there is a rain, there is a flood, when there is no rain, there is a drought.” He shook his head disapprovingly.
Three days later I arrived at Kudia Ghat at sunset. The predominantly male audience was dressed traditionally, in white lungis and pale shirts, some with golden orange stoles. Many foreheads were streaked with red and white tilak. More men arrived and a white sheet was thrown down next to the rows of chairs to accommodate the growing number of guests. The organisers busied themselves with the statue behind the speakers’ table, a 25-foot-tall female figure supposed to represent the Gomti river, holding a tilted vessel.