UP elections: Does despondency mean anti-incumbency?
Varanasi: Rampur Shakteshgarh village in the Marihan assembly constituency (AC) of Mirzapur district is the back of the beyond in the literal sense of the term. After crossing the bridge on Ganga next to Chunar Fort (Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi was detained here in 2020), it’s an hour long drive through the Vindya foothills, a barren land and very few habitations in between. The village has a drinking water crisis and the small rivulet just before the village flows above the road during monsoons, cutting off access. But there is mobile network there.
Binod (who gave only one name), who belongs to the Kol community, a scheduled caste, voted for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2014, 2017 and 2019 and will vote for the BJP in 2024 as well. 2024 is about national interest. Because of (Narendra) Modiji, the nation has gained, he said. When asked to give an example, pat came the reply: look at how we are successfully evacuating our students from Ukraine, while bigger countries like the US and China aren’t being able to. A fact-check that American students do not go to study in Ukraine would not have made a difference to his belief.
If this were the entire story, and these were Lok Sabha elections, the ongoing elections would not even be a contest. But sometime later in the conversation, Binod reiterates what has become a clichéd phrase in the 2022 elections in Uttar Pradesh. There is kante ki takkar (bitter fight) this time.
We will come to the reason Binod thinks there is a contest in a bit. Stone crushing used to be the main business in this area. During the Samajwadi Party (SP) government, even small leases were given for stone crushing. Binod himself was a player and used to make ₹4-5 lakh in a year. It was this money which made it possible for him to send his son to Kanpur to prepare for government exams and also enroll in a cricket coaching. The monthly bill for this comes to ₹7800. Under the present BJP government, only large leases with bids running into at least a couple of crore rupees are allowed. Binod is not the only one who has lost out. A lot of manual workers used to make ₹400-500 per day working in stone crushing units. It was hard work, but the money was good. Bigger players use machines for every step of the process and there is hardly any manual work now. Daily wages have come down to ₹200-250 and it is difficult to even find work. MGNREGS wages come after months of having worked. The only option is migration. To make things worse, while incomes have fallen, prices have increased. We get ration, but you can’t just live on five kgs of grain, Binod sums up.
It’s these factors that make the BSP his choice in the state election. When the BSP was in power, we got roads in our settlements and pukka houses, he remembers, mentioning the party which was once the automatic choice of the scheduled castes.
A comparison of 2017 and 2012 results in Marihan underlines why voters like Binod could be important. The BJP had a vote share of 5.1% in this AC in 2012. It increased to 44.7% in 2017.
People like Binod perhaps hold the key to the 2022 Uttar Pradesh elections. They reneged on traditional partisanship to vote for the BJP in 2017. With their economic interest compromised, the new loyalty for the BJP is being tested this time, at least in the state elections. The sentiment, in this case at least, is more about going back to the fold rather than making sure that the party which is best placed to defeat the BJP – most agree that it is the SP – sees a consolidation of votes.
For a lot of voters, however, the choice is not as simple as Binod’s. In Khanpur village in the Chunar AC in Mirzapur district, a bunch of Brahmins sitting outside their home are extremely critical of the BJP. Stray cattle are destroying our crops, our children are not getting any government jobs, prices have increased and thanks to the free ration the government is distributing, we cannot find labour to work on our fields, they say. For Brahmins and most upper caste voters though, the BJP is also the natural choice, and the SP a political nemesis of sorts. When they learnt that this reporter was coming from Gorakhpur, they wanted to know what the Brahmins there are doing. That the SP candidate in Chunar is not a Brahmin -- even the BJP one isn’t one, to be sure -- has made the voting decision even a more difficult one for them.
At Tanda villege in Chillupar AC in Gorakhpur district, however, Brahmins were more than willing to vote for the SP candidate Vinay Shankar Tiwari. Vinay is the son of Harishankar Tiwari, one of the biggest bahubalis (muscle men) of eastern Uttar Pradesh and comes from the same village. He was elected an MLA from the BSP in 2017 and has defected to the SP this time. Even though the BJP has put up a Brahmin candidate, local kinship ties are more important than the ideological bond. If we have some work in Gorakhpur, it is their family that helps us, if we do not stand by them, who will, a bunch of Brahmins in Tanda chorused.
On the Azamgarh-Varanasi highway, Suresh Chandra Yadav runs a small eatery. The signboard also describes him as a journalist (he is a stringer for news from his village and nearby areas). Back in 2017, even my wife and daughter-in-law voted for the BJP and they only divulged this after voting. This time they are coming back to the SP, Yadav said. They have realized that the BJP’s promises have not been fulfilled and price of gas cylinder has doubled during this government, he added.
If this election was just about caste arithmetic, all it would take is a weighted average of the caste calculus to predict a ballpark estimate of the results. But not at all castes have been core voters of a political party in Uttar Pradesh. It is among these groups that voting choices will be determined by more than social identity.
At Bachchhao in Rohaniya AC on the outskirts of Varanasi, HT met two Rajbhar men. Both of them voted for the BJP in 2017. However, their political loyalties seem divided this time. The first one, who does plumbing jobs for builders in Varanasi denies that there is any major economic distress. From his perspective, the rich have kept the housing market going. The kind of sanitary fittings they use in Varanasi now can compete with the ones used in Delhi-Mumbai, he said. There is regular work and free ration is an add-on. He is clear that he is voting BJP this time as well. The other, who works as a tailor in the locality, has seen business go from bad to worse in the last few years. If people do not have enough money to buy cooking oil, who will get new clothes, he says. He is inclined to support the SP supported candidate to get rid of the BJP.
This is exactly what makes the 2022 Uttar Pradesh elections a difficult one to call. There are enough signs that there is widespread disenchantment with the BJP and a large number of even their vocal supporters are despondent. But the despondency within the BJP’s 2017 voters does not mean a consolidation behind the SP, something which would have resulted in significant anti-incumbency. A large number of individual and local unknowns – individual economic situation to local dynamics behind the SP, BJP and BSP candidates are some of these – will determine whether this distance can be traversed. We will know the answer to this question on March 10th.