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Bundelkhand diary: Caste complexities, political banter and paid media

The cliche is you can understand UP only through caste. What may be equally true is you can totally misread UP if you only look at it through caste, and pre-conceptions of which caste group is where. It is dictated by specific circumstances, for all politics is local.

assembly elections Updated: Feb 23, 2017 08:59 IST
Prashant Jha
Prashant Jha
Hindustan Times
Uttar Pradesh elections,Assembly elections,Bundelkhand
Supporters hold up a bicycle, the symbol of the Samajwadi Party, during a joint election rally by Uttar Pradesh state chief minister Akhilesh Yadav and Congress party vice-president Rahul Gandhi in Uttar Pradesh.(AP Photo)

Collapse of caste calculations

Jhansi is Bundelkhand’s biggest city. It goes to polls on February 23rd.

Just an evening talking to voters here gave me an inkling that all the easy theories being peddled back in Lucknow or Delhi about which caste is where -- Brahmans and non Yadav OBCs with BJP, Yadavs and Muslims with SP, Dalits with BSP -- do not translate as easily on the ground.

The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) here has a Kushwaha candidate - a non Yadav OBC who is getting his community votes as well as of Muslims, breaking stereotypes of which community is where.

But as we drove from Jhansi, through Bundelkhand, the complexity of this election became even more apparent.

Take the Mahoba town seat, where the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate is a Brahman, the SP candidate is a Sahu (OBC), and the BSP candidate is a Thakur.

So conventional logic should suggest that Brahmans will vote for the BJP. But we met a Chaurasia - a Brahmin - who said he was voting for the SP candidate and not the person from his caste. Ashish Tiwari, another Brahman, sitting in a chai shop, nodded and said he too will vote SP.

Why? “Because Akhilesh gave me a laptop.”

We met a Bania contractor, Rajender Gupta, who said he will vote BSP. Why? “Banias have always supported BJP. But look what they did with notebandi to us. They haven’t even given tickets to Banias in Banda or Mahoba.”

But don’t interpret this to mean that other upper castes might not be with BJP.

The cliche is you can understand UP only through caste. What may be equally true is you can totally misread UP if you only look at it through caste, and pre-conceptions of which caste group is where. It is dictated by specific circumstances, for all politics is local.

Banter in Banda

On the election trail, you meet journalists in the most unlikely of places. We bump into two fellow reporters from Delhi at Banda’s Comfort Inn hotel during lunch; they had taken the opposite route from Allahabad into Bundelkhand.

As we stepped out and began talking to the hotel manager, election chatter inevitably picked up.

The Banda seat was held by Congress’ Vivek Singh, now a candidate of the alliance. He faces a still challenge from BJP’s Prakash Dwivedi and BSP’s Madhusudan Kushwaha.

The hotel manager told us the BJP will make it. How? “The Muslims will split between SP and BSP. Woh bat gaye, ham nikal gaye. They split, we make it.”

But another gentleman was not as convinced, and said the Muslims will stay with the alliance. He asked, instead, “What about Banias? Will all Banias stay with the BJP after notebandi?” The manager, as he finished his plate of french fries, laughed and said, “Yes, yes, they will be with the BJP. And we will win.”

We talked about how it seemed that only Muslims and Yadavs were voting for the alliance. The manager was called Malhotra. I asked the other person his name. “Let it be. I am with cycle. So you can guess - I am either Muslim or a Yadav,” he replied with a laugh and turned to Malhotra, “We will make the government, not you guys. Just see.”

While we often capture the contestation and the bitterness in elections, we often fail to capture how people can, in such civil terms with a light touch, disagree with each other’s political choices. The banter at Banda was a reminder the battle is only inside, not necessarily outside, the polling booth.

‘Paid media’

In Chitrakoot, I saw the board of a prominent Hindi newspaper and thought this was the best spot to pick local wisdom. The bureau chief was friendly and said the district had two seats.

The Chitrakoot seat, he said, was witnessing a straight battle between the BSP and SP candidates. In the Manikpur seat, the battle was between the Congress and the BJP - the Congress candidate here is Sampath Pal of the Gulabi gang fame.

The journalist, who will have to remain unnamed for reasons which will soon become clear, also predicted that the Bundelkhand would give the BSP at least ten seats. The alliance will get five and the BJP four. At a time when I have been changing my mind every 24 hours about who has the edge in this election, his confidence was striking.

But the conversation took an interesting turn when he referred to paid news. Was the paid news phenomena still alive?

He replied, “Not at our level. But at the top.” He then showed the Jhansi edition of a paper which had the images of leaders of one party, from a rally, displaying their symbols as front page lead. “Yeh kya hai? What is this? Don’t you think they are advertising the symbol? All papers have done deals.”

The ways in which the media - especially the Hindi media - is shaping this election in ways good and bad is probably one of the major untold stories of 2017.

First Published: Feb 23, 2017 08:58 IST