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Caste, religion key in Uttar Pradesh

LiveMint logoLiveMint 11-05-2014 Gyan Varma

Varanasi/Jaunpur/Ghosi/Gorakhpur: The two things that most trouble Ram Vriksh Nishad, a 71-year-old voter, are frequent power cuts and the state of the national highway that runs close by his tea shop in Ghosi constituency of Uttar Pradesh. But when he goes voting on the final day of polling today he won’t be ranking parties by their promises on infrastructure. Rather, identified as an other backward class (OBC), Nishad’s vote will be defined by his caste.

As the six-week long campaign in India’s 16th general election winds into its final phase today, familiar divisions of religion and caste have begun to emerge as the deciding factors, particularly in the battleground states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, which together send 120 lawmakers to Parliament.

Not even the perceived front runner, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) prime ministerial aspirant Narendra Modi, has been able to steer his campaign clear of these considerations.

While he has not used his OBC credentials to win three consecutive terms in the Gujarat state Assembly, he has used every opportunity in the general election to talk up his caste identity. In fact, he personally intervened to ensure that for the first time the BJP fielded 30 OBCs among its candidates in Uttar Pradesh.

Often accused of being a party of upper castes, dominated by Brahmins, Kshatriyas and traders, Modi and his aide Amit Shah have consciously sought to recast the party. It is no coincidence that in the run-up to 12 May, Modi has raised the pitch on caste: of the 18 Lok Sabha constituencies going to the polls, including four reserved seats, seven BJP tickets have gone to OBCs.

Some experts doubt Modi will succeed in permanently altering the party’s fundamentals.

“A section of OBCs are going towards the BJP but they will soon realize that the party is dominated by upper castes and there is no space for them. The OBCs will also realize that RSS (the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the BJP’s ideological mentor) is more inclined towards the upper caste,” said Kashi Nath Singh, political analyst and professor at Banaras Hindu University (BHU).

But for now Modi seems to have upset his rivals’ calculations.

Sensing that the BJP was eyeing the Bahujan Samaj Party’s (BSP’s) support-base of OBCs and scheduled caste voters, BSP chief Mayawati has decided to pay back the BJP and the ruling Samajwadi Party (SP) in the same coin.

She has given tickets to 21 Brahmins and 19 Muslim candidates in a bid to wean away Muslim voters who are traditionally suspicious of the BJP and, this time around, annoyed with the SP government too after riots in Muzaffarnagar last year killed 64 people, mostly Muslims, and left 50,000 homeless.

Just as the BJP is using its own caste combinations to improve its current tally of four seats from Eastern Uttar Pradesh, the BSP too is playing its caste card to try and check a “Modi wave”. The BSP won five out of the 18 Lok Sabha seats in Eastern Uttar Pradesh in the 2009 elections.

“Many years ago, the Congress party used to get considerable support from Brahmins, OBCs and Muslims in Uttar Pradesh. Mayawati has tried to revive this caste combination. Since the Congress and SP are marginalized this time, the BSP is trying to become the second largest party,” said A.K. Verma, a Kanpur-based political analyst.

Facing anti-incumbency, the Congress party has tied up with at least seven smaller caste- based regional parties to try and remain in the fight against Modi in Varanasi— one of two constituencies that he is contesting—including an alliance with the umbrella group Quami Ekta Manch.

“Apart from getting the support of Muslims, there are smaller parties representing Kushwaha, Nishad and Rajbhar. These smaller parties have influence in their own communities,” said Satish Rai, Congress general secretary in Uttar Pradesh.

Similarly, realizing that Modi may hold the edge in Eastern Uttar Pradesh, the SP chief Mulayam Singh Yadav has decided to contest from Azamgarh where he will try and tap into the party’s core vote-base of Yadavs and Muslims. However, it is not clear if this will be sufficient to overcome the anti-incumbency facing the SP.

“Last time I had voted for the Samajwadi Party because I thought (chief minister) Akhilesh Yadav will work for development. There are four ministers in the UP government from Azamgarh and the member of Parliament is from the BJP but there is no development,” said Manoj Gautam, a 23-year-old marketing executive who belongs to the constituency.

The SP won six out of the 18 seats in Eastern Uttar Pradesh in 2009.

Riding his cycle on the broken national highway to his college in the heart of Jaunpur town, Rohit Kumar Sonkar, a 19-year-old first-time voter belonging to a scheduled caste (SC), decided that he would ignore the appeal of regional parties and instead vote for the BJP, because Modi in his view is the one leader in this election, who has made infrastructure development a key part of his election campaign. The Jaunpur constituency was earlier held by the BJP’s OBC leader and godman Chinmayanand.

“This is my first vote and I will vote for development. The state UP government has not done any development work and Mayawati has also not done enough. We will teach them a lesson,” said Sonkar, a first year BSc student.

Sonkar reflects the growing aspirations of the younger segments of the population —about 120 million of the 814 million voters are first-time voters—and the willingness among a section of them to look beyond the traditional confines of caste and class. At the same time, the fact that they are still a minority explains the strategy of most political parties, including the BJP, to continue to emphasize caste in their campaigns in UP and Bihar.

“A concerted effort was made from the beginning to make development the central narrative of the election campaign. It was a conscious decision to focus on youngsters, especially those who have become majors between 1998 and 2014. It was assessed that the discourse on development will subsume caste issues and regional identity issues,” said Vinay Sahasrabuddhe, a senior BJP leader and member of the RSS.

Some political analysts believe Modi’s attempt to use development as a message to change the image of the BJP as a party of upper castes and traders has appealed to the OBCs and scheduled castes.

Unlike in previous general elections, 68-year-old Mohammed Hansmatullah is confused about his choice of party to defeat the BJP.

“This is a very different election. We are unable to decide which party to support to defeat Narendra Modi. Arvind Kejriwal (chief of the Aam Aadmi Party, who is contesting from Varanasi) talks about anti-corruption and has given hope to voters but the Congress candidate Ajay Rai has been with us and always comes forward to help in the time of need. Muslims are unable to decide who to vote for; probably a decision will be taken closer to the day of polling,” said Hansmatullah as he waits to join his friends for evening prayers.

The confusion within the minority community is not limited to Varanasi. In other Lok Sabha constituencies too in eastern Uttar Pradesh, the community is divided in its support for the BSP and the SP.

“Trust is the main issue this time. We want to vote for a party we can trust. We had expected the Samajwadi Party to deliver but it has disappointed us,” said Zubair Ahmed, a 40-year-old weaver in Machhlishahr constituency, a reserved seat.

Apart from the shift of Muslim votes towards the BSP, there is a clear movement among a section for former Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal. What has impressed them is Kejriwal’s willingness to take on Modi.

“I know Aam Aadmi Party may not win a single seat in Uttar Pradesh but nobody is perfect. The party has started a different kind of politics. It is true that Arvind Kejriwal should not have left Delhi and he should have continued to be in government, but we like the issues he is raising,” said Naseem Akhtar, a 50-year-old weaver in Ghosi.

The Lok Sabha seat is currently held by the BSP and the seat has never been won by the BJP.

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