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In stronghold Agra, Dalits start speaking of BSP again

Agra, with its nine seats in the district, has come to be known for two things. For the Taj Mahal. And, in politics, as the Dalit capital of Uttar Pradesh, fuelled by the 21% of its population that belongs to the scheduled caste.
BSP chief Mayawati (File Photo)
Updated on Jan 28, 2022 09:37 AM IST

His eyes have begun to glaze over with a cataract, his voice croaks with age. But there are some questions to which Hotam Chand Manik, in his eighties, responds quickly and clearly, the answers searing in their conviction. He was a young man in his teens in 1956 when Dr BR Ambedkar came to the place where he has lived all his life, the Chakki Paat Jatav Basti in Agra, and inaugurated a “Buddh Vihar”, a small temple to Lord Buddha, which now has the bust of Ambedkar himself.

“The date was March 18, 1956,” Manik says from memory. Around nine months later, in December 1956, Ambedkar breathed his last. A month later, a young Manik watched as the leader’s ashes were brought to the small monument, carried by his (Manik’s) father, Raghnath Prasad Manik. “The date was 13 January, 1957,” Manik says, without prompting. There is now another answer to which Manik has great clarity, two weeks before Agra goes to the polls in phase one of the Uttar Pradesh elections. “Last time, even some Jatavs broke away from the BSP, and went to the BJP. This time, we will not make that mistake. After Babasahab, Babu Jagjivan Ram, and Kanshi Ram, there is only Mayawati,” Manik says.

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Agra, with its nine seats in the district, has come to be known for two things. For the Taj Mahal. And, in politics, as the Dalit capital of Uttar Pradesh, fuelled by the 21% of its population that belongs to the scheduled caste. It has a large footwear industry, which provides employment to these communities, particularly Jatavs, a core BSP vote bank. This is reflected in election results, too, for the most part, with the district being a BSP bastion of sorts. In 2007, when Mayawati became chief minister, the BSP won six of nine assembly seats in Agra. In 2012, when she didn’t, it still won six of nine. Then, in 2017, the unthinkable happened. The BJP swept all nine seats, the BSP coming second in seven.

In Chakki Paat, from among the crowd of young men that surrounds Manik, Avinash Kumar offers an explanation. “Right across the railway track, behind our colony, is a Muslim colony. Over the years, there have been many fights with them. Everyone was saying that 2017 was an election for Hindus. So at least 20% of us voted for the BJP, both then and in 2019. This time, there is great anger against the BJP, and we will all come back to our leader Mayawati. Only her MLAs take care of us.”

But the BJP’s attempts to unify castes under the Hindutva banner has not changed since 2017; indeed, it has only cemented itself since 2017, under monk-turned-politician Yogi Adityanath. One of the nine candidates in Agra this election is Babi Rani Maurya, a Jatav leader, who resigned as governor of Uttarakhand to contest. There is also broad consensus in Chakki Paat that Mayawati has been far too quiet thus far. There is evidence that an erosion in Mayawati’s base, as suggested in some quarters, may yet be exaggerated. Another answer why lies in the local economy.

Rajgopal Soni stands right next to Manik and Soni, and sweeps his hand in a circle, pointing at the crowd around him. It is a Tuesday afternoon, and they should be at work, but aren’t. “Most people here were workers in the shoe factories. Two years ago, we earned 400 a day, five days a week. Now we earn 200, two days in a week. At a time like this, this government has made everything expensive. Petrol, diesel is close to a hundred, cooking oil is expensive, and nobody has any money.”

Soni acknowledges that, over the past two years, the community has been the recipient of free ration from the UP government, a key factor now in the BJP’s political outreach to the poorest sections in the state. “But they give with one hand, and take with the other. With our incomes cut to less than half, how do we run our lives, send our children to school?”

The BJP’s stunning 2017 results in Agra, where their margins of victory ranged from 23,200 to 65,292 were also built on the crucial shoulders of the non-Jatav Dalit vote, particularly the Valmikis that voted overwhelmingly for the party. Yet, here too, there is evidence of some chinks in the social coalition. Hathras, where a 19-year-old girl died after she was gang-raped, her body cremated in the dead of the night in September 2020, is only 50km away. Then, in October 2021, Arun Valmiki, a 31-year-old sanitation worker, died in police custody in Agra after he was accused of theft. While the state government maintained he died of a heart attack, the family, and the community at large remains convinced that he was tortured to death. In the immediate aftermath of the death, Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra visited the family, gave them a 30 lakh cheque, and promised naming a Valmiki candidate from Agra Cantonment, which she did.

At the Valmiki basti in Loha Mandi, inside Arun Valmiki’s home, three months have passed, but the family is still in grief, his mother always on the verge of tears. Sonu Valmiki, also a sanitation worker like his younger brother Arun says that the immediate family will vote for the Congress, even though he wanted to fight the elections himself. “We will vote for the only party that came and looked after us, even if they have given the ticket to someone else. At least it is a Valmiki,” he said.

Broadly outside Arun Valmiki’s home in the basti, there is less consensus on voting for the Congress. There are still those who will vote for the BJP, some will return to the BSP, even if there is the traditional annoyance that the party favours Jatavs. “Last time, 90% voted for the BJP. But this time, people are talking about voting differently. Some for the Congress for what they have done, some for the BJP, and some for the BSP. At least Dalits have more say and these atrocities don’t happen,” one Valmiki elder said, asking not to be named.

A senior Dalit BJP leader from Agra, who did not want to be quoted, admitted that this was not the same election as 2017. He said: “There is some anger but we have two big Jatav leaders in Babi Rani Maurya, and minister GS Dharmesh who are fighting, we have big margins, and we will still win most seats. We may not win all nine, but we don’t need 312 to win Uttar Pradesh, only 202.”

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