Mirzapur was clogged. Buses were lined up with people coming in from rural areas. Flags were fluttering. Slogans were being chanted. But the twist in the tale was that these buses and supporters belonged not to a single party, but to two parties.
At one point on the Mirzapur road, if you took a right, you would head towards a Narendra Modi rally. If you took a left, you would head towards a Mayawati rally.
I decided to walk with supporters to the rally, and turned left.
Ram Briksha was walking purposefully, with two other men, towards the BSP rally. We began talking and he told me had been a party voter ever since its inception. “It has been 30 years, from the time of respected Kanshi Ramji.” What was it that the party gave him? “Nothing.” What, then, motivated him to stay on? “I mean party gives me nothing. But when the party wins and is in power, when Behenji is in power, our voice is heard. Hamari sunwai hoti hai.”
‘Sunwai’ is a word I often encountered from voters in UP, especially Dalits. Marginal in the village economic landscape given their low to non-existent land holdings, and outside the social interactions that guide the village dynamics, they have little social and economic capital.
When a local policeman visits a village, he ends up going to the house of the pradhan, to the more economically prosperous, or to those of his own caste. When a development scheme is to be implemented, the priority is on building a road which passes through the homes of the dominant castes.
The only way for Dalits to access the state is through politics. And that explains the almost impenetrable hold Mayawati has over her core Dalit supporters. As Ram Briksha explained, “When she is in power, I can go to the thana and register an FIR. When she is in power, I can file a complaint under the SC/ST atrocities prevention act. When she is in power, I feel safe, and my voice is heard.”
The unshakeable faith
If it is the desire for ‘sunwai’ that motivates Mayawati’s voters, it is deep and abiding ‘shraddha’ (faith) and asha (hope) that lies at the core of the Modi phenomenon.
I turned back after Ram Briksha reached the rally venue, and headed to Modi’s event. On the way, I bumped into Sunil Yadav and Sandeep Patel.
Yadav looked so young that I had to ask him if he would be able to vote. “First time, yes,” he said, with a laugh. And was he going to the Modi rally because he supported Modi, or because he just wanted to watch the PM? “Because I will vote for Modi. I think there is only one leader in the country, and that is Modi.”
I asked Yadav what was it that Modi had done which attracted him to the leader. “He opened bank accounts, and now he will deposit money in it.” Had he already got money? “No, but we will get it if he wins this time. Then he will send Rs 5000 to each account.”
I wondered where Yadav had heard this because, to be fair, BJP had not made any such promise in this election, at least publicly. It seemed that the narrative post demonetisation - the rich had been punished, money was with the state, and the poor would benefit - had struck deep roots, even breaking traditional caste barriers. I asked Yadav, if as a young man from the community, he ever veered towards Akhilesh. “No, for me it is Modi and Modi alone.”
One was to hear exactly the same sentiment a day later in Varanasi’s Rohingya constituency. Sanjay Pandey, a college teacher, was sipping tea near the Bishnupur village, and said he was with Modi. Why?
“Vishwas (trust). He is decisive, he is strong, and people think he cares for the poorest, that he will do something for society. It is this faith.”
The fact that Modi can command the faith of people across Hindu castes, three years into his term, remains a remarkable testament to his political genius.
And the cry for izzat
Varanasi is a nightmare at the best of times. And when half of Government of India’s ministers, the top political leadership of the country, and all of Delhi and Lucknow’s political reporters including television crews land up in the city, moving around is impossible.
And that is why I followed the tip of a senior TV editor and hopped onto a bike, to make it on time for a news show.
Zafar had to go to meet a friend, but he said he would take me to the venue first. He had studied till high school and then got into the family tradition of weaving. The Akhilesh-Rahul roadshow had just concluded, and when I asked Zafar who he would vote for, he said, “Cycle and panja, hand- SP and Congress.”
Zafar said his family had got deeply affected by demonetisation. “Modi ruined our business. Is this the way to treat people?” But would he have voted for Modi but for demonetisation?
“Beizzat karte hain humein, they humiliate us. They come up with something or the other to always keep us out.” Zafar said he preferred Akhilesh because the SP was a ‘positive’ party. “He does not stir up fights between Hindus and Muslims.”
This search for dignity and honour - even more than security - was central to the concerns of many Muslims we spoke to in Varanasi. Some felt that BSP was best positioned to provide it; others, like Zafar, were ardent supporters of the alliance.
As UP elections draw to a close, these threads - the desire for access to power and justice, the faith in a leader and hopes of a better future, the search for dignity - are intersecting and colliding. Irrespective of who wins, these impulses will remain strong within different fragments of society. And democracy would truly succeed if the victor is able to weave all these aspirations and construct a whole, rather than cater to a fragment.