One morning in Kanshi Ram Colony on the Bijnor bypass, Jitender Kumar weighed the significance of his seven-year-old apartment against the bright green electric rickshaw that arrived last month.
“We have five votes in our family,” he said, “So three go to Behenji who gave us a home, and two to Akhilesh who gave us employment with this rickshaw.”
The 140 million registered voters in Uttar Pradesh are likely confronting similar dilemmas as the seven-phase polling gets underway. In 2007, Mayawati’s BSP won on an agenda of stability and social emancipation; 2012 brought the SP’s Akhilesh Yadav and his promise of development. In 2014’s general election, the BJP’s Hindutva and employment platform struck a chord, making the 2017 election impossible to call.
Over the last fortnight, Hindustan Times reporters fanned out across the state to gauge UP’s current preoccupations and understand why people vote the way they do.
In Kanshi Ram colony in Bijnor city, a constituency that is 40% Muslim, and 20% Dalit, both Mayawati and Akhilesh have offered their own brand of development — houses in 2007, and rickshaws, laptops and cash transfers in 2012.
So what must a party do to convince the voters it deserves a second chance?
The Kanshi Ram colony is a fascinating social experiment where UP’s rigid lines of caste and religion have been replaced by a fuzzy awakening of class. “It’s good that poor people like us have been given homes,” said Anita Sharma, a peon in a school. “But now we have to live next to all kinds of people.”
The city has two such settlements, each with about 650 homes divided into 3 storey blocks with four flats on each floor. Inside, the homes are cramped but functional — two small rooms, a kitchen, a toilet, and a bathroom, often shared by large families of up to six members. “Here you’ll find a Brahmin and a Dalit living side by side, a Muslim and a Jat sharing the same terrace,” said Rajbala, who works as a maid .
“No government has done what Mayawati did, by giving poor people — irrespective of caste or religion — a home.”
Many said at least one family member would vote for Mayawati, as pay back for the home, but the rest would consider other options. “My mother will always vote for Mayawati because she gave us a house,” said Nilesh Kumar Singh, 21. “But I think I will vote for the BJP.”
Singh admitted that both he and his sister had received free laptops from Akhilesh Yadav’s government, but said a BJP government in the state might work better with the Centre to bring jobs to Bijnor. “I’ve done a BSc, but I’m giving home tuitions for a living. Maybe Modi will bring jobs to Uttar Pradesh.”
Up a flight of stairs from Singh, Mansoor Ahmed said Mayawati had given them a house, but he had joined the SP as a ward worker because he felt they were best placed to keep the BJP out of power.
The SP, he said, had given schemes like unemployment allowance for graduates and a pension for senior citizens.
Yet each scheme, Ahmed worried, also carried its flaw.
“In 2007, Mayawati did what no other government had ever done,” he said, “but could she give everyone a house? No.” Similarly, Akhilesh had given rickshaws to some.
“We Indians are disloyal,” Ahmed concluded, “For every scheme beneficiary, there will be 10 others who will hate the government because they didn’t benefit. Maybe it is best to do nothing.”