Caste cloud on Modi narrative in east Uttar Pradesh

The Balakot air strikes and the threat from Pakistan have little resonance among the backward castes

By J.P. Yadav in Ghazipur (Uttar Pradesh)
  • Published 18.05.19, 5:29 AM
  • Updated 18.05.19, 5:29 AM
  • 3 mins read
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A Samajwadi Party supporter clicking a selfie with party president Akhilesh Yadav in the background in Ballia, eastern Uttar Pradesh, on May 14. (PTI)

The BJP’s seeming desperation in Bengal appears to be rooted in Uttar Pradesh, particularly in its eastern region, parts of which have voted and another 13 constituencies scheduled to go to polls on Sunday, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Varanasi.

There is hardly any challenge for Modi, but in constituencies off Varanasi, the party looks to be struggling to hold on to its 2014 sweep.

This is not only due to the challenge posed by the combined might of Mayawati (BSP) and Akhilesh Yadav (SP) but there are signs of cracks among its caste base voters. Barring Azamgarh, it was a clean sweep for the BJP in east UP in 2014.

Apprehending losses in UP, which had fetched the party 71 seats in 2014, the BJP is desperate to reap a handsome harvest in Bengal and Odisha.

The dominant Balakot-powered Hindutva nationalism narrative of Modi is being undercut here by a micro but strong caste narrative. The overarching “desh ke liye Modi (Modi for the country)” chant seems to have lost steam in these backward eastern regions where caste still remains a potent determinant of voting choices.

While the backward Yadavs, Dalit Jatavs along with Muslims look solidly united and determined to defeat the BJP, the saffron party’s backers apart from the upper castes, the non-Yadav or minor OBCs and the minor Dalits, who had powered the BJP’s sweep in 2014 and the 2017 Assembly polls, look listless, veering towards the gathbandhan on some seats and in the process damaging the Modi narrative.

“Casteism desh ko barbad kar dega, casteism will destroy the country,” said Bablu Singh, a Thakur, the frustration evident in his voice. “Manoj Sinha has done so much development and despite this if he loses then it’ll be a tragedy for Ghazipur and purvanchal (east UP),” he added, betraying a sense of despair about the prospects of the BJP nominee, a central minister.

Singh’s angst is due to the caste and community arithmetic of Ghazipur. He said that if the Yadavs, Jatavs and Muslims vote together for gathbandhan’s Afzal Ansari, contesting on the BSP’s elephant symbol, then Sinha stands little or no chance.

Sinha belongs to the Bhumihar caste and won by a margin of just over 30,000 votes last time.

The BJP had hoped the undercurrent of Hindutva would sway the Yadavs — gau-rakshaks due to their caste profession — to vote for the BJP, given the gathbandhan candidate’s Muslim identity coupled with his brother Mukhtar Ansari (a BSP MLA, currently in jail)’s notorious criminal image. But Yadavs look to be driven by caste, and not Hindu, identity.

“Afzal se kya matlab hai, humlog Akhilesh ko dekh rahe hai (What do we have to do with Afzal, we are looking at Akhilesh Yadav),” said 65-year-old Jaikishun Yadav of Lalanpur. His young sons and other Yadavs of the village too said they were with the gathbandhan.

The Jatavs are more aggressive about supporting the alliance.

Gathbandhan Modi ka hawa nikal dega, Ghazipur me hi nahi, poore UP mein, (The alliance of BSP-SP will take the steam out of Modi not only in Ghazipur, but entire UP),” said Jaiveer Jatav of Jangipur.

In Chandauli, adjacent to Modi’s Varanasi, BJP state president and a prominent Brahmin face of the party, Mahendra Pandey, too is battling “casteism”. The gathbandhan has fielded Sanjay Chauhan, of the most backward Nonia caste. The strategy is to get the backing of the Yadavs-Jatavs-Muslims, who have a strong presence here, and wean away a chunk of Nonia caste voters.

“We are visiting Chauhan (Nonia) villages and convincing them to reject caste and vote for development. We are telling them ‘Modi ko dekho’ — who has given toilets, houses, gas etc. and more will come when he comes back,” BJP worker Puspanjali Chauhan said. She acknowledged the pull of “casteism” was strong but hoped her caste-brethren would finally choose Modi for “vikas” and “desh”.

The Balakot air strikes and the threat from Pakistan have little resonance among the backward castes. It’s limited to upper castes, but there too, it’s not dominant. The minor OBCs account for nearly 30 per cent of the state’s population and in many constituencies of eastern UP, their concentration is very high.

“Modiji has built houses, toilets and roads. He has done good work. But we have to strengthen our caste leader too, like others are doing,” said Jaiprakash Rajbhar of Dighaut village referring to Yadavs and Jatavs. Om Prakash Rajbhar, the BJP partner in the Yogi Adityanath government, has rebelled and fielded candidates on 39 seats on his party’s symbol “chhadi” (stick) and seems to be preventing the seamless transfer of the caste votes to the BJP.

“Here 70 per cent Rajbhars will vote for ‘chhadi’. Om Prakash is our leader,” claimed Jagat Rajbhar. Though the Rajbhar youths appeared more inclined towards Modi, they too did not deny a split.

To skew the BJP’s caste base further, Congress ally Jan Adhikar Party (a party championing the cause of backward Kushwahas) has fielded Shivkanya Kushwaha in Chandauli. The Congress, seeking to aid the gathbandhan, has also fielded a Kushwaha in Ghazipur.

Modi supporters across this region acknowledge the BJP’s 2014 tally in UP could come down drastically, but their hopes lie in Bengal and Odisha.

“Casteism ke karan number to kam hoga hi, par sarkar to Modi ji ki banegi. Bangal aur Odisha se seat aayega jo UP ka loss make up kardega (Due to casteism the number will surely come down but the government will be of Modi only. Seats from Bengal and Odisha will offset the UP loss),” said Harish Dubey at the Ghazipur market.

  • Ghazipur and Chandauli vote on May 19