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POLARISATION

- Modi may be pitching for development but a cocktail of secular and religious grievances, imagined or otherwise, is setting the agenda in western UP

Surjeet Singh, 42, was a chai-wallah (tea vendor) like Narendra Modi apparently was decades ago. Unlike Modi, Surjeet does not dream big. All he wants is that elusive “do paisa ka sahara (two cents worth of help)”.

Surjeet is a Dalit-Jatav like a hundred others in this village off the Rampur-Bareilly highway, roughly 195km to the east of Delhi.

When Mayawati was the chief minister, Surjeet became hopeful and petitioned local officials in Rampur for a job as a temporary safai karamchari (janitor). His application seems to have been tossed away for some inexplicable reason.

A couple of years ago, when the local government water board spread the word by mouth that it wanted someone to run a tea stall at an office close to his village, Surjeet grabbed the opportunity.

“By then, Mayawati was out and a Samajwadi government was in, so at least a little help came my way. I was making Rs 150 a day but soon realised that the officers were short-changing me. They made me buy the tealeaves, sugar and milk without ever reimbursing me,” the father of two said.

“One day I decided that it was better to get seasonal work on somebody’s farm and earn Rs 300 a day. I wound up the chai business, although I today feel proud to hear that a chai-wallah may become my Prime Minister.”

But it isn’t Modi’s humble-origin narrative that has drawn Surjeet to the BJP. The turning point for the former Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) voter came in May 2012.

That month, he alleges, a temple to Sherawali Maa (an incarnation of Durga) was demolished “stealthily at night”.

“By then, the Akhilesh Yadav government was in. The police wouldn’t register our complaint. Those who demolished the temple got away scot-free and began lording it over us. We have to cross their hamlets to reach the main road. They taunted us,” Surjeet said.

“So, when these (Lok Sabha) elections came, we Hindus collectively took a call to vote for Modi. Once the other hamlets heard of our decision, they started behaving themselves.”

The people from some of the hamlets mentioned by Surjeet denied the charges, including allegations that they had a hand in the demolition.

Across the swathe of land stretching from Amroha to Pilibhit, in a sub-region of western Uttar Pradesh called Rohilkhand, the buzz is that this is a “Hindu-Muslim” election.

The atmosphere is “several times more charged than the election (of 1991) fought under the ‘Ram wave’,” stressed Rajesh Tripathi, who helms the Brahmin Mahasabha in Moradabad and comes from a family of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh volunteers.

Mayawati’s Jatavs and Mulayam Singh’s Yadavs are tilting in varying degrees towards the BJP, Tripathi claimed, adding that the lower castes “no longer live in mental ghettos”.

“Socially and culturally they might be inhabiting private physical spaces, especially in the villages,” he said, conceding that the physical ghettos still exist. “But I have been noticing that their political thinking has become more and more like ours.”

In Hasanpur town, some 50km to the west of Moradabad, Jatav voter Teerath Prakash said he had switched his loyalties from the BSP to the BJP six months ago. The reason was not religion but country.

Prakash said he would “naturally” vote for the BJP candidate from Amroha Lok Sabha constituency, Choudhary Kanwar Singh Tanwar, though the Gujjar businessman from Mumbai mattered far less to him than Modi did.

“I say confidently that 90 per cent Jatavs are not voting for the BSP because this election is an election for India. Mayawati will not become the Prime Minister. When there’s an Assembly election, we can think of going back to her,” Prakash said.

Among the Yadavs, a chant portraying Mulayam’s “sellout” to the minorities has gone viral in these parts.

Roughly translated, it goes: “We voted for granddad Mulayam and he bequeathed our votes to Akhilesh. We voted for Akhilesh and he gave our votes to Azam Khan.”

The Election Commission has banned Azam, a senior state minister from Rampur, and the BJP’s Amit Shah from campaigning in Uttar Pradesh because of their communally inflammatory statements.

Veer Pal Singh Yadav, a 23-year-old farmer from Milak in Rampur, was disenchanted with the Samajwadi Party a year ago and will vote for the BJP.

“Mulayam and Akhilesh took our votes but Muslims mean everything to them. They give Rs 30,000 to Muslim high school-pass girls as Kanya Vidyadhan but give our girls only Rs 10,000. They dance so much to Azam’s tune that on public platforms they only take Muslim leaders’ names but not those of Yadavs,” Veer Pal said.

“That was why we Yadavs voted for (Independent candidate) Jaya Prada in Rampur in 2009. To us she was a good Hindu who had to be protected against Azam. This time, Hindus will vote as one for the BJP to defeat Azam’s man in Rampur.”

Modi and his party may have officially positioned development as the centrepiece of their campaign but it’s “Hindutva” that underpins the new support they seem to have gained in western Uttar Pradesh.

● Rampur, Moradabad and Amroha vote on April 17