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In Taj backyard, Modi wave ebbs

- East of riot-scarred Jat heartland, caste overrides religious fault-lines

On Monday night, MG Road was dressed in festoons of lights and flowers in anticipation of nightlong celebrations.

Music of all kinds played: the qawwali hamd in praise of Allah, paeans to Babasaheb Ambedkar set to Bollywood tunes, and bhajans to Sherawali Mata in the small temples dotting the 10km road running through Agra.

Sufi hymns wafted outside the dargah of Shah Alauddin Mujzub. The Ambedkar faithful huddled outside the stalls set up to celebrate his 123rd birth anniversary.

In this multiple manifestation of faith and politics, was there a place for the Sangh-BJP’s version of Hindutva that seeks to subsume the smaller strands of beliefs under a pan-Indian version of nationalism?

“If you equate the BJP with Hindutva, then, sorry, I am not a Hindutvawaadi,” said Sujit Khandelwal, a businessman, standing outside a Mata Mandir.

“I live in a city that respects every religion. We have taken care to preserve the historic monuments, the churches and dargahs going back to the medieval and Moghul times and British rule.”

He added: “If you ask me whether I shall vote for the BJP in these elections just because I am a Hindu, my answer is that I am undecided, because the Samajwadi Party candidate is very good.”

The BJP won from Agra in 2009. Five years later, its outgoing MP, Ramshankar Katheria, is battling unpopularity, largely arising from complaints of being “inaccessible” to the cadre and “unhelpful” to the people at large.

Katheria’s campaign manager Naveen Jain, like several of his peers in Uttar Pradesh, is banking on the “Modi wave”.

“Sure, we’ll lose votes, but the Modi factor is working to the extent of 10 to 15 per cent in Katheriaji’s favour,” Jain said.

A Sangh pracharak (whole-timer) admitted that there was “no place for Hindutva” in the BJP’s discourse.

“We are using nationalism to the extent of telling people that this is an election to vote in a stable national government on big issues like development, economic growth, securing the country’s borders and so on,” he said.

“We are not saying that Hindutva is equal to nationalism. Our target audience is the city’s youths. Issues like the Ram temple and cow slaughter ban make little sense to them.”

As one crosses the riot-scarred Jat homeland of western Uttar Pradesh and moves into the region southwest of Bareilly, called Braj Bhoomi because Krishna was born in Mathura, the electoral context changes. There is no place for the Hindu-Muslim polemics that dominated poll talk in Moradabad and Amroha.

Rasoolpur-Puthi, the first village outside the Bareilly area, is something of a signpost for how normal these elections can be. It is part of the Badayun Lok Sabha, which had elected the Samajwadi Party’s Dharmendra Yadav in 2009.

A nephew of Mulayam Singh Yadav, Dharmendra leveraged his kinship ties to deliver goodies galore to Badayun: a medical college, longer hours of electricity, an overbridge, better roads.

But Kuldeep Singh, a dairy farmer, couched his support for the Samajwadis in ideological idiom: “We dislike the BJP because it is a jhagdeloo party (one that instigates conflicts). Modi is the most jhagdeloo politician.”

As communal fault-lines recede, caste dominates the equations. Gajendra Patel, who manufactures mint oil and calls himself a Samajwadi sympathiser, works out the caste arithmetic in Badayun.

“The farmers and the backward castes, or at least most of them, are with Mulayam. Even Kurmis like me are with him because he has given seven tickets to Kurmis while the BJP has given only four,” Patel said.

“The Muslims too are with the Samajwadis. Because Modi is from a backward caste, 10 to 20 per cent of the Other Backward Classes may go with him.”

Little wonder then that as the “Modi wave” recedes and familiar equations dominate the scene, the BJP has cause for worry.

Last week, Indrajit Singh Chouhan, elected as Agra’s mayor from the BJP, quit and joined the Samajwadis, taking away with him a huge chunk of Dalit-Valmiki votes.

Jatavs make up the largest sub-caste among Agra’s Dalits. So far they have indicated they would vote for the Bahujan Samaj Party. Therefore, the BJP’s strategy was to work on the other Dalit sub-sections like the Valmikis.

“If we increase our core strength by taking away leaders like Indrajitji, there is a fair chance we may get the 10 to 15 per cent floating votes that could take us to the winning post,” claimed Samajwadi spokesperson Avneendra Yadav.

Fatehpur Sikri, Agra’s neighbour, exemplified how local concerns trumped the “big picture” the BJP’s appeal was centred on.

Mahavir Singh, a former pradhan of Jaingara village, disputed the existence of a “Modi wave”, arguing that if there was one, the BJP had snuffed it out by fielding a “rotten” candidate, Choudhary Babu Lal.

Babu Lal was with Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal until recently and defected after he was denied a ticket. “There was a ripple of support for Modi. But once the BJP announced its candidate, it was over,” Mahavir said.

Conversely, Akshay Yadav, the Samajwadi candidate in Firozabad, is up against a formidable caste wall despite having a notionally unbeatable Muslim-Yadav axis on his side.

His rival, the BJP’s S.P. Singh Baghel, a military science professor at Agra College and a former Mulayam associate, has succeeded in coalescing the non-Yadav castes, including the Dalits.

B.P. Singh, a Dalit doctor in village Makhanpur, explained how the dynamics worked: “The Yadavs rule the roost; they bully the rest of us. We will be silent until polling day. But the Samajwadis will get their comeuppance through our votes. Wait and see.”

Agra, Fatehpur Sikri and Firozabad vote on April 24