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In Uttar Pradesh, Mayawati’s foot soldiers spread her message

The Bahujan Volunteer Force (BVF) comprises thousands of BSP cadres across Uttar Pradesh who are tasked with ensuring security at the party’s public programmes.

india Updated: Mar 06, 2017 06:52 IST
Aman Sethi
The BSP’s Bahujan Volunteer Force spreads party message through its members.
The BSP’s Bahujan Volunteer Force spreads party message through its members. (Aman Sethi/HT)

The policemen accompanying Mayawati wielded Kalashikovs, but at her rally on the outskirts of Kanpur, the Bahujan Samajwadi Party supremo was surrounded by her own security cordon overseen by a private tutor for mathematics, a teenaged college student in a pink overcoat, and a phalanx of construction workers, rickshaw pullers, cleaning ladies, and farm labourers.

The Bahujan Volunteer Force (BVF) comprises thousands of BSP cadres across Uttar Pradesh who are tasked with ensuring security at the party’s public programmes. They come from all walks of life, and are ready – at a moment’s notice – to slip on a blue and white uniform and report for duty. Their work, as the BVF’s name suggests, is voluntary.

“When the BSP went from village to village in the 1980s, party meetings were often attacked by upper castes,” said Dr Ajay Kumar, who wrote his PhD on the BSP, “The BVF was set up to protect party workers during campaigning.” BSP workers were also wary of UP police, which is drawn predominantly from dominant castes.

Read: UP polls: People will send back ‘outsider’ and reinstall ‘UP ki beti’, says Mayawati

Since then, the BVF has gradually acquired the bureaucratic trappings of any force: BVF district commanders wear three stars on their shirt epaulettes, Vidhan Sabha commanders wear two stars, while their juniors wear one.

At Shivarajpur, 750 BVF personnel fanned out across the rally grounds to direct crowds, cordon off a separate arena for woman, and ensure that the crowd of several thousand dispersed in an orderly fashion.

“The police speak harshly to our people. We are here to reassure our people while also providing security, ” said Sobran Singh, CO Kanpur for the BVF, “Everyone in the party wants to be close to Behenji, but we actually get to accompany her.”

On days when he isn’t on duty, 48-year-old Singh works as a private tutor for high school mathematics and accounts, while his deputy, 20-year-old Saurabh Gautam, is still in college. “In our spare time, we also canvas for the party,” Gautam said, “Our work never stops.”

The organisation has also become a way for young Dalit women to escape the confines of their homes and forge new lives and friendships.

“As a child I was always scared of stepping out of my door,” said Kumari Savitri, an 18-year-old college student who joined the BVF last year, “But the BVF has given me confidence. If Behenji could go from village to village like a young girl, then why can’t I?”

Personal safety, Savitri said, was the single most important issue for UP’s women. “My dream is for a UP without fear,” she said.

Read: Reserved seats not a given, Mayawati tells core voters don’t be misled

BSP campaigns have long been distinguished by their seemingly low-key nature. The rallies are meant as a show of strength to convince dithering voters of the party’s electability and broad-based support, but most the work occurs through BSP affiliates like the BVF.

“We assign 15 workers to each booth,” said a senior BSP functionary, “and give each worker a target of bringing in 20 votes from friends and family, which makes it 300 votes per booth.”

The average Vidhan Sabha has 300 to 400 booths, which means a target of 90,000 to 1,20,000 votes per constituency from the cadre. “We tell the candidate – you get 10,000 votes, we’ll get you the rest,” the organizer said.

The BVF’s cadres are drawn from diverse backgrounds, making it ideally placed to influence followers.

BVF members, Virendra Kumar Gautam and Ram Chandra Gautam work as construction worker in Kanpur, but devote a few hours of his week to attend BVF meetings. They said their distinctive uniforms make their fellow workers curious about the BSP.

Also read: In 2017, UP’s big riddle - where is Mayawati?

“It is a matter of pride to wear this uniform,” Virendra said, “People ask us about it, so we tell about the work done by the party.”

“I wash dirty vessels for a living,” said a BVF volunteer who declined to give her name, “But my personal life doesn’t matter. What matters is that I wear this uniform, and work for my community.”