Dharmendra Soni, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) coordinator of the Aligarh region, was supremely confident that the BSP’s alliance with the Samajwadi Party (SP) would be more “productive” and “enduring” in 2019 than it was in 1993, when the BSP’s founder-president Kanshi Ram linked up with the SP chief Mulayam Singh Yadav to jointly fight the assembly election and defeat the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The raison d’etre was identical but Soni believed that the essence was not the same.
“The foundation of the earlier understanding was shaky, there was mutual distrust. Dalits regarded the SP’s Yadavs as land-grabbers and oppressors. The Yadavs thought of us as infra dig. The BJP exploited the cracks and took away the BSP. We now understand that the backward castes, scheduled castes and Muslims are natural allies, ‘shudras’ who were artfully divided by the upper castes to thwart a coalition. Mayawati (the BSP president) will fight for Dalits and Akhilesh Yadav (the SP head) will fight for the backward castes and together they will ensure that Muslims will be protected. See the contempt with which the BJP looks at Akhilesh. Once Akhilesh vacated the chief minister’s bungalow (in Lucknow after losing the 2017 elections), his successor (Yogi Adityanath) performed a ritual to cleanse the place because it was occupied by a backward caste person,” said Soni, who works out of Awagarh in Etah district.
To try and underscore that the Mayawati-Akhilesh re-union was not a one election partnership, Om Prakash Jatav, a BSP worker also at Awagarh, said, “The BJP has earmarked a 10 percent quota for the upper castes but after the elections, the BSP and SP will launch an agitation to demand a 52 percent reservation slot for the backward castes and Dalits, equivalent to our population, and a caste census.”
In the eight constituencies voting on April 18 (Etah polls on April 23), the “gathbandhan’s” belief was that the demography entwining Dalits, Yadavs and some other backward castes with Muslims and the Jats (via the Rashtriya Lok Dal or RLD) was enough to trump the aces the BJP held in the shape of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the persuasive sway of “nationalism” and an equally strong social matrix that braided the upper castes with certain backward and Dalit sub-castes to commingle into an equally strong whole. However, after the first phase of polling, both players realised that they needed to work harder to shore up the flanks instead of depending on numbers to level the turf.
At Jawda village, also in Etah, Shishpal Singh Yadav, who headed the BJP’s Braj region farmers’ wing, spoke of the ‘trophies’ his party amassed last week: Avadh Pal Singh Yadav, a former BSP leader from Aliganj, that is among the five assembly constituencies in Farukkhabad Lok Sabha seat, and Shishpal Singh, a former SP legislator from Jalesar that falls in the Agra parliamentary constituency. “These leaders are coming to us because the Yadavs know who the winner is. Nearly 70 percent of the Yadav ‘pradhans’ are with the BJP and will help us in seats like Agra, Fatehpur Sikri, Etah and Farukkhabad,” claimed Yadav.
The tactic of co-opting local influencers, notably “pradhans” and town councillors, who were sufficiently competent to impact a few thousand voters at a given point, is a module of a party’s master plan. However, Kailash Yadav, a veteran Congressman of Etah, put the strategy in perspective. “Avadh Pal and Shishpal are not as significant as the ‘pradhans’ the BJP inducted. With the ‘pradhans’, it’s a mutually beneficial equation because 80 percent of the local business contracts and 20 percent of the ration dealership are handled by them and, therefore, they need to network with the ruling party. Here, caste loyalties don’t count. But I doubt these Yadav ‘pradhans’ can take away the SP’s votes,” he said.
All the eight seats polling Thursday were bagged by the BJP in 2014. It is up against tough fights in Hathras and Fatehpur Sikri where Raj Babbar of the Congress reportedly cut across a swathe of caste votes to score an advantage over the BJP’s new nominee, Raj Kumar Chahar. Babbar won from Fatehpur Sikri’s neighbour, Agra, twice but as an SP candidate before he switched over to the Congress. In seats such as Bulandshahr, Aligarh and Mathura, the incumbent MPs including film star Hema Malini were battling anti-incumbency. The BJP hoped that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘enduring’ charisma and credibility will combat and neutralise the negative sentiments. Deepti Mittal, a Bulandshahr social worker, said, “There are lots of complaints against our sitting MP (Bhola Singh) but there’s no opposition to Modi.”
Things may not pan out the way BJP supporters imagined. Next door to Bulandshahr, in Aligarh, Kalyan Singh, a former chief minister and now Rajasthan Governor, churned the votes of his caste, the Lodh-Rajputs, who account for a few lakhs in these two seats as well as Agra by openly registering his dissent against the re-nomination of the Aligarh candidate, Satish Gautam, a Brahmin. Singh sought Aligarh for a relative but the BJP refused to accede, saying his son, Rajveer Singh was fielded for a second time from Etah while his grandson, Sandeep Singh, a legislator from Atrauli, was a minister in the Yogi Adityanath government. Singh was allegedly ticked off after which he publicly affirmed his support for Modi as PM again. The Election Commission complained to the President Ramnath Kovind against Singh’s partisanship. Manoj Yadav, the “pradhan” of Gaddi Bendula village in Etah district, said, “Singh’s loyalists, who are Lodh-Rajputs, are not getting respect in the BJP. They are not working in the elections.”
Indifference was also visible among the BJP’s Jat supporters at its Bulandshahr office. “Even if our government returned, what can I look forward to? Better returns for my produce?” asked Yashpal Singh, a Jat farmer of Jauligarh village.
At the heart of the matter is a problem of plenty. The BJP controlled every power structure in these constituencies. There were too many favour-seekers and too few were obliged, leaving a vast population of the disgruntled. In Agra, the MP is from the BJP, the nine MLAs are from the BJP and the local bodies were ruled by the BJP. The upshot? Ravi Rajput, the area representative of Mohan Singh Lodhi, councillor of Agra’s Nagla Arhar ward, admitted, “How many petitioners can I oblige?”