The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Caste cauldron churns, BJP suffers burns

Etah (West-central Uttar Pradesh), May 3: Fakir Chand Aggarwal has no qualms about saying how “joyous” he was when Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated. As a member of the RSS “virtually from infancy”, his house in the central marketplace of this small town has pictures of the greats in the Sangh pantheon: Hedgewar, Golwalkar and Deoras. But there is no portrait of Rajendra Singh alias “Rajju Bhaiyya” because Aggarwal says his “disillusionment” with the RSS began after Deoras died. “The BJP can’t take my support for granted,” asserts Aggarwal.

In the 1999 elections, he backed the Congress candidate, who was a BJP reject. “I even put up Sonia Gandhi’s poster on my door,” he says. In these elections, Aggarwal’s back to backing the BJP, but tentatively so.

Sprawled across his courtyard is a Samajwadi Party banner in the party’s emblematic red and green with the cycle symbol. Unfurled, it had a welcome slogan printed on it on behalf of the Etah traders’ association which Aggarwal heads.

When asked about the banner, he flashes a toothless grin. “This is what politics is all about,” says Aggarwal, adding: “Mulayam Singh Yadav has done a lot for the traders.”

Take a peek at the “khichdi” being cooked in the political cauldron of West-central Uttar Pradesh, taste it if you must but leave your judgement for counting day because you never know what surprises are in store for the major players. Thanks to the caste and communal churnings, the Brahmins are looking at the Congress with renewed interest and willing to do business with “behenji” Mayavati; the Banias, the BJP’s spine, can’t decide whether to choose the BJP or the Samajwadi; and Muslims are wondering who they should trust — the Samajwadi, the Bahujan Samaj Party or the Congress. If you wish to add new phrases to your political vocabulary, listen to the Yadavs and Dalits.

“We have a reserve bank vote,” claims Arjun Singh Yadav, a block development committee member of Nagla Taal, a village in neighbouring Jalesar Lok Sabha constituency. Thirty kilometres away, in Baas Mohansah, a young Jatav, Pappendra Singh Chauhan, speaks of how there is “zabardast dividation (enormous divide)” in the forward castes’ vote. “Only the Yadavs will vote blindfolded for the cycle (the Samajwadi’s symbol) and the scheduled castes for the elephant (the BSP’s). All others are fellow travellers,” he says proudly.

Across the landscape which rolls in barren stretches from Agra to Firozabad, Jalesar, Etah, Mainpuri, Etawah and Farukkhabad — the land that goes by the name of “Mulayam country” — the visible political symbols are the flags and buntings of the Samajwadi and the BSP. The red-and-green and blue splashes are interspersed occasionally with the BJP’s saffron-green and the Congress’ tricolour. While flags and buntings are not a barometer of trends, they indicate the size and extent of cadre presence and engagement. “We are fighting to make Mulayam the Prime Minister. If we don’t have a mukhiya (headman) or raja, what good is life'” asks Ravindra Yadav of Nagla Taal.

If the Congress was outmanoeuvred by new social forces in Uttar Pradesh a decade ago, the BJP is realising, to its peril, how tough it is to balance caste interests and reconcile the aspirations of the forward and backward classes. In Jalesar, for instance, outgoing MP S.P. Singh Baghel of the Samajwadi is sitting pretty on the mathematical foundation of Yadav+Baghela+ Muslim+other backward class votes with a bite from those of the Thakurs.

Although the BJP attempted to fight Baghel by putting up a Thakur and their caste votes to those of the Brahmins and Banias, the calculation went a bit awry after the BSP fielded another Thakur, Updesh Chauhan. Chauhan’s presence has pushed the BJP to third place because, arithmetically, he is more soundly placed than its candidate, Pratendra Pal Singh, thanks to the BSP’s vote base of Jatavs. “Thakurs are divided because even if we hate Mayavati we know Chauhan stands a better chance of getting elected than the BJP man and then he will do something for us,” says Trilok Singh, the pradhan of Usmanpur.

The BJP’s inability to hold on to the social coalition it forged during the mandir phase stemmed from three reasons, explains the party’s R.K. Gautam, a former block pramukh of Jalesar district. First, the organisation was erected on the foundation of the RSS and buttressed by “leftovers” from the Congress and the erstwhile Janata Dal. “I am from the Congress and I think the day it revives itself in Jalesar, I’ll return,” he admits. Second, the RSS, he says, is unable to get a fix on the social churning.

Third, Kalyan Singh is not proving to be the great tonic the BJP had imagined. His caste votes of the Lodhi-Rajputs are getting divided between the BJP and the Samajwadi in West-central Uttar Pradesh.

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