Every party seems to have a control room in this increasingly hard-to-predict election; each staffed with supposed geniuses, skilled in the dark arts of psephology.
But the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) has something no one has – the boundless enthusiasm of Avadesh Kumar Verma and the wide network of the Arakshan Bachao Sangharsh Samiti, an organisation to protect public sector reservations for scheduled castes.
“Our people are everywhere,” said Verma, the ABSS convener, “Our teachers are on election duty, our policemen are on security duty. They secretly Whatsapp us – at such and such poll booth, Dalits are being intimidated; at this spot goons are standing near the poll booth.”
Verma collates the information and then passes it on to his contacts on the ground.
Public sector employees have long played a crucial role in Dalit politics. Those with government jobs contribute generously to Dalit causes, and wield considerable influence within the community.
Prior to setting up the BSP, founder Kanshiram began the All India Backward and Minority Communities Employees Federation, or BAMCEF – which, as its name suggests, agitated for the rights of government employees.
The ABSS is not formally allied with the BSP as government employees are not allowed to support any particular political party, Verma said, “But we are free to oppose anyone”.
In this election, the ABSS is opposed to everyone except for the BSP for reasons of existential importance to its members: promotions in reserved jobs.
In 2001, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led government passed the 88th constitutional amendment that amended Article 16(4A) to allow states to create laws that allowed for reservations in the matter of promotion of government servants.
“Our people would get entry into government jobs, but would be promoted much slower than others due to caste discrimination,” Verma said.
The constitutional amendment aimed to fix that, but the amendment was challenged, and after a protracted legal tussle, the promotion laws in Uttar Pradesh, and several other states, were held to be ultra vires.
“Other governments stalled, challenged the courts, and asked for more time, but in Uttar Pradesh, Akhilesh Yadav demoted lakhs of government employees after they came to power in 2012,” said Verma, “Many Dalits didn’t vote BSP in 2012, but after the promotion issue, they realized their mistake.”
The official term for the process was “reversion” – in which almost 16,000 SC/ST government servants were demoted to lower posts, while about two lakh more were dropped down on their respective seniority lists – extending time it would take before they were eligible for promotions.
“In September 2015, I received an order that I had been reverted to head constable from sub-inspector,” said Hari Prasad Ahirwar. Ahirwar’s single epaulette star was taken, service revolver turned in, and he was discharged from his post at Hazartganj and told to report to police lines with immediate effect.
“I felt humiliated. I was promoted through an open competitive exam, not reservation,” Ahirwar said, “But the government just assumed that every Dalit must have come through reservation.”
At the police lines, Ahirwar and his fellow Dalits were constantly taunted by their upper caste colleagues. He challenged his reversion order, won, and was reinstated a year later.
“But by then the damage was done.” Ahirwar said, “My colleagues look at me differently now.”
In 2013, the ABSS launched its “Mission 2017” outreach programme.
“We focused on 35 districts where the Dalit vote is above 25%, and on the 85 reserved seats,” said Dr Ram Shabdh Jaiswara, an ABSS member, “Our members campaigned extensively: everywhere our message was the same: stay united and vote for a government that supports reservations.”
Now as the election rolls on, the ABSS is monitoring it at every step.