Phulpur in Allahabad district is a qasba, a very small town defined by its market. But not just any qasba. It is the place that gives the Phulpur Lok Sabha seat its name, the seat from where Jawaharlal Nehru used to contest. While Amethi, Rae Bareilly and Sultanpur are Gandhi family strongholds, the domination of regional “caste” parties in Phulpur shows how the forces of Mandalisation have left the Congress and later, the BJP, behind in UP politics.

Nehru won from here in 1952, 1957 and 1962, his sister Vijayalakshmi Pandit in 1967. In 1971, another stalwart of Indian politics, V P Singh won Phulpur for the Congress. The change in national politics was reflected here when Kamla Bahuguna won for the Janata Party in 1977 and B D Singh for the Janata Party (Secular) in 1980.

Until then, the seat had been held only by Brahmins and Thakurs, but caste assertion showed in 1984, a Kurmi, Ram Pujan Patel, won for the Congress. However, he shifted to the Janata Dal, and won again in 1989 and 1991. The Janata Dal’s new avatar, the Samajwadi Party, took over from 1996, with Kurmi leaders winning three in a row, and the “don” Ateeq Ahmed in 2004. In 2009, however, the BSP’s Dalit-Brahmin alliance returned a Brahmin—Kapil Muni Karwairiya.

In this place in UP that has reflected the times, we meet party workers of the four main parties— the BSP, SP, Congress and BJP—to see the UP elections through them.

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Gautam (centre) with other supporters at Dhokri village.

This Vidhan Sabha election, the BSP candidate is a Kurmi, Praveen Patel. The BJP candidate is Jokhu Lal Yadav, who switched after being denied a ticket by the Samajwadi Party, whose Saeed Ahmed hopes to combine the Yadav and Muslim votes to undermine the BSP’s Dalit-Kurmi formula. But there’s a catch. A Kurmi party, Apna Dal, has a Brahmin candidate: Radhey Shyam Tiwari, who may cut into Kurmi and Brahmin votes, hurting the BSP.

When I meet Saroj Kumar Gautam, he has just returned from Praveen Patel’s house. This is February 16, the day after the election, and party workers meet at the candidate’s house to review the voting. How many voters voted, who did not? This is unlike the other workers I met, who were taking rest, sleeping till the afternoon, as if after Holi. One BJP worker told me he dreamt of the election, but Gautam has no time to dream.

His biggest relief is that no Dalits were prevented from voting, as was the case until 2007, when the Election Commission first deployed the central paramilitary in all polling booths. “There has been one case in Karchana,” he says about a neighbouring constituency, but doesn’t know which party, or the caste of the people, was responsible. It used to be much more flagrant, and the higher voter turnout in this election is, for Gautam, an indication of a higher Dalit turnout.

His surname—Gautam—reveals not only that he’s Dalit but an Ambedkarite who believes in Ambedkar’s path of Buddhism as the way out of caste society. He is a “Vidhan Sabha Sachiv”, secretary of the Phulpur constituency’s Bahujan Samaj Party unit.

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Rakesh Tiwari at the farmers institute. He's sceptical of the Congress' chances.

Every “sector” has such a secretary; every sector has 8-10 polling booths under it. The Vidhan Sabha secretary is responsible for making sure the voters turn up, that they are persuaded about the BSP’s ideology and policies. But this isn’t the hardest part. The real leg work involves going house to house and checking for new voters and dead ones, to fill Election Commission forms to get the lists updated; get voters’ Election Commission identity cards, make sure everyone’s name is on the voter list and  to prevent deliberate deletions from the electoral rolls, often passed off as clerical mistakes. The party gives orders for this from time to time.

Gautam has been doing this since 1996, when he joined the party. What does do for a living? He says he’s a marginal farmer. But there’s something about him that suggests he’s more than a farmer. “I do some other work, whatever I can get,” he says.

The other work, responsible for his urban look and his motorcycle, is the work as a government contractor. Gautam agrees with me that the Dalits of Uttar Pradesh have seen relative prosperity and social mobility over the years. He takes me around the Dalit basti of his village, Dhokri, explaining that those with less than five  of land (a bigha is, roughly, a fifth of an acre)  are considered landless by the government, which makes most Dalits here officially landless. A few have no land at all.

Most houses are pucca; some benefited from a Mayawati government scheme to build houses with government aid of Rs 45,000. Since entire bastis get it together, people call it “colony”; a bunch of “huts” suddenly becomes a row of “houses”.

Of course it takes a lot of work to get a “colony”; it needs recommendations of gram pradhans, and the evil of corruption you know, is at all levels in our society.

As the photographer makes him pose before a blue coloured grille, I ask him why the BSP chose dark blue as its colour. He didn’t know this was because of Ambedkar’s blue coat, but came up with a better apocryphal answer: blue is the colour of the Constitution, the colour of equality.

The ideology of his party, he says, is that it is especially a party of the weak, the Dalit and the oppressed. He proceeds to give me a crash course on the Bahujan Samaj Party, though I haven’t asked for it. Kanshi Ram founded BAMCEF in 1978, DS4 in 1982 and then the BSP in 1984. Dalit and shoshit samaj (oppressed communities) came together in the BSP. When I ask what non-Dalit communities are similarly oppressed, he names a few MBCs who are also landless and should have been classified as Scheduled Castes. In similar vein, he must give me a rundown of the ups and downs of his party’s electoral fortunes right from the first election it contested. 

The way the election is going, he predicts 250 seats. for the BSP.  You see the unprecedentedly high number of Dalits voting because of Central forces. Any goonda could come and rig a polling booth, too. Not since 2007.

The Central government claims to be conducting a caste survey but we don’t have it yet. Booth–level workers give the party structure approximate feedback about the caste composition of voters in their booth, which is aggregated for the entire constituency. This helps the party decide the caste of the candidate it must field to maximise its votes.

This village was earlier in another constituency, Pratapur, but after delimitation it is now in Phulpur. In Pratapur the winning MLA was from the Samajwadi Party, so that didn’t help him use the party to get work done.

We decide to walk across the fields to another end of the Dalit basti. These wheat, mustard, maize, potato fields are owned by Mauryas, an OBC community. For the last two weeks Gautam has done nothing but campaign, before which it was part-time work. He has sacrificed his wages for half a month. The BSP has the strongest cadre, he says, because the poor are the most willing to volunteer. The poor and the weak are the most capable of selfless service, he says.

People don’t become BSP cadres for political posts and power but for the community and its welfare.  This is why it is difficult for another party to lure away the BSP cadre.

I ask whom he targeted during this election. They were Dalits mostly, he said. He goes where the party asks. And what was his pitch?

His personal pitch about the achievements of his government is a small but powerful list.

First and foremost, it is Protection. Protection for the weak and powerless is the foremost promise of our Constitution, he says, and his party is a follower of the Constitution of India.

“Dalits are oppressed and troubled by everybody else,” he says, “You are walking by and someone will say you brushed against them and will beat you up.”

Untouchability, you mean?


The SP’s Ranjit Singh at Rajendra Prasad's house. He feels his party is on a roll.

“Yes,” he replies, “There’s less of it now. The stories I heard from my grandfather, I don’t see many of those things happening. Still, people have a tendency against us, and a big part now is jealousy. If they see a Dalit wear new clothes, they don’t like it, and let their reaction be known.”

He tells me about the role of the SC/ST (Prevention) of Atrocities Act in reducing untouchability and related violence. In five years, he knows of only four or five incidents where a case was filed in his area. The number should have been at least 20-30, he adds, the first hint of disappointment. “Do you know, if someone goes to a Dalit’s doorstep and hurls casteist abuse, even then the Act should be applied?”

I tell him what Randhir Singh Yadav in Utsapur village told me about the Act. He told me the Act has been misused by Dalits under the Mayawati regime, false cases have been filed to settle scores, and that this is a reason many want to replace the government.

He has an answer: “If I’m going down a road, and someone abuses me, and I object to the abuse, obviously he will not appreciate my objection, will he?”

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Ustapur Mohammadabad village snoozing in the winter sun.

I tell him about the specific case that Randhir Singh cited about Utsapur, that a Yadav there lent money to a Dalit to help with his daughter’s marriage. When asked to return it, the Dalit filed an FIR under the Act.

Gautam is surprisingly unruffled. Such a loan may have been given, but what was the interest? How reasonable, and could the Dalit pay? Did that result in violence from the Yadav?

He has more to say about what the BSP did for Dalits. Since 1976, this is the first time Dalits in large numbers got land. Some 28 people in this village alone got titles or pattas, very little though, less than a bigha each. There are those with old pattas but their land is occupied by OBCs or upper castes. To get possession of such land, the gram pradhan has to endorse that this land is illegally occupied. The gram pradhan in this village is Kurmi.

I point out that the BSP candidate here is a Kurmi and there must be Dalit-Kurmi bhaichara or brotherhood committees. Can’t there be a little brotherhood for land?

No, he says, he is not independent. He can’t do it even if he wants to. He has to face pressure from those who have occupied it.

Your government lasted five years, surely it could have got it done?

The government did in some cases, but so many people who occupy land aredabbang, dominant, that they come back and occupy it again. There is a law against such repeated illegal occupation of land, and 2-3 people in Allahabad district have indeed been jailed for it, he claims.

“Dalits have very little land. What if a Dalit boy wants to go to the city and study and make a career? How does the family finance it? An upper caste family has enough land. But a Dalit may have to sell part of his already small holding. Every family faces such demands, it could be education or marriage or health. So there has to be economic uplift,” says the BSP man.

One of the first things Mayawati did when she came to power was to raise the minimum labour wage rate to Rs 100 a day from the previous Rs 50-odd, so that even when there is no MGNREGA work – it lasts only 120 days a year at the most— labourers can earn a little better. Similarly, the pension for widows and the elderly was raised from Rs 150 to Rs 300 and in 2004, to Rs 400. These things have benefited not only Dalits, but everyone who is poor.

“The central government was asked to conduct a fresh Below Poverty Line survey,” he says, “The 2001 cards are all wrong, the poor didn’t get BPL cards and people who were already rich did. But the centre did not allow a fresh BPL survey.”

But he has more schemes to tell about, one that deposits Rs 22,000 in the name of newborn girls in poor households. It can be withdrawn only when the girl is 18, by which time it will be Rs 1 lakh.

That is quite a list to persuade the Dalit voter. But this government was in the name of “Sarvajan Sama”—society for all. A lot of non-Dalits feel this wasn’t the case, that the government worked for Dalits alone.

Before he answers that, we notice the MGNREGA-built pond we have reached. It has little water. We begin talking about development in general, and the topic changes to how all of Allahabad is dug up, and the city is in a mess, as if it had been bombed. Gautam says it is a sign of  work, new sewage lines are being laid. In this constituency of Nehru, he says, the Congress never did much.

We return to “Sarvajan Samaj”. Look, he says, this is not about caste. These schemes are for the poor. Now take Mahamaya Awas, the scheme for building colonies of houses. They benefit those who can’t afford their own houses. It gives them a pucca house with a kitchen and bathroom. The beneficiaries have been upper caste poor, too. But some people who have everything are greedy. They want more. The poor may remain poor, but they don’t care.

Specifically because of the Dalit-Brahmin alliance, people now listen to us Dalits. They take us seriously. We are now part of the power structure. But change is slow because Brahmins are casteist. Where they see a Brahmin candidate, they vote for him. We Dalits vote for the party, regardless of the candidate.

I ask him about the biggest change the government brought about in this village. I haven’t asked specifically about Dalits, but his answer is about Dalits. We got Respect, he says, respect from other castes. He then starts counting backwards to India before the Constitution. And the only period in which there was justice for everyone, in which there was no caste discrimination, was the rule of Ashoka (who made Buddhism his state religion in 260BC). And the work of this government has led to that kind of a society for the first time in history.

It is happening, he says, because Dalits united under the banner of a party. People realise they can’t disrespect us and get away with it anymore. That is how we are building a society for all, “Sarvajan Samaj”.

“Specifically because of the Dalit-Brahmin alliance, people now listen to us Dalits. They take us seriously. We are now part of the power structure. But change is slow because Brahmins are casteist. Where they see a Brahmin candidate, they vote for him. We Dalits vote for the party, regardless of the candidate.”

I tell him how the Brahmin Congress worker I met from his village, and many others, felt caste politics was bad, that it divided society, impeded development and progress.

They say this today, he says, but who started caste politics? They did. They bore the seeds of it, whether you look at thousands of years of history, going  back to the Manusmriti, or you see 40 years of Congress rule in UP. Whom did the Congress promote, whom did it benefit? It was always the Brahmin. I am not saying Brahmins are bad people. But it is they who oppress, who grab land and practise untouchability.

Clearly, the Sarvajan Samaj discourse has slipped from his mind now; he’s now the classical BSP ideologue. I ask if it isn’t true that most land disputes of Dalits are with OBCs, and its main rival in the village as well as in the chief minister’s chair is the Yadav? Weren’t Brahmins also suffering the goonda raj Yadavs were accused of under Mulayam Singh Yadav’s rule?

All that is fine, he says, but who planted the seeds of casteism? The Brahmins.

I ask if his government’s manoeuvring of the “Sarvajan Samaj alliance”, its focus on governance and development, changed after the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, when the BSP won a third of the number of seats it expected to win, and its vote share dropped from 30 per cent in 2007 to 27 per cent?

He doesn’t agree, and points to the focus on law and order in its early period, and counts the number of mafia and criminal types put in jail. I prod him more about the pre-2009 period, and he says look, what happens is that when you work a bit too well, people start opposing you.

What sort of a paradox is that?

He points to a wild shrub before us, as we start making our way back to his house. If 10 people in the village say this is a mango tree, and you say it is a wild tree, will they like you? You will earn ten enemies instead. This is the culture of our society. Change, thus, must be slow.

And so it is that the complaints he received from Dalit voters while campaigning were to do with the other BSP of Indian politics, bijli, sadak and paani: electricity, roads and water.

In response, he points to the fast pace of development in villages chosen as Ambedkar villages, which by definition have more than 53 per cent Dalits.

What about villages that are not Dalit-dominated?

“Their turn will come,” he says, “but the priority is those sidelined by other governments.”

In 2009, the BSP didn’t do too well because, according to him, Brahmins let the party down and didn’t vote in seats where the candidate was not a Brahmin. Secondly, voters were more enthusiastic about the Congress because it was the ruling party at the Centre.

Will he at least admit that the Dalit-Brahmin electoral alliance is not working?

He smiles and agrees. “It’s not working,” he says, “Brahmins are casteist, will vote for Brahmins and not BSP.” He admits, even, that the bhaichara committees aren’t working too well.

So what is the solution? He has none, but says his party will win because it delivered on law and order. And it worked for the poor, and the poor are greater in number.

So how many seats does he think his party will win this election?

About 250, he says, as compared to 203 in 2007.

What if the seats decrease, what if the Samajwadi Party does better than the Bahujan Samaj Party? If that happens, what will he have to say?

“I will say that this society does not want its social system to change. I will say that people want these distances between poor and rich to remain.”

Rakesh Tiwari is also a thekedar, a civil works contractor, and he too is from Dhokri, but that’s where the resemblance with Gautam ends. For one thing, he’s been a Congress worker almost since he was born. For another, he’s a Brahmin, as his name indicates. Right now, the 42-year-old is busy at the IFFCO urea fertiliser factory in Phulpur. He does whatever is needed–dig a pit, make a road, lay cement. He is busy at IFFCO and then must leave for Allahabad on business. Tiwari is the typical trading Brahmin who effortlessly straddles the gap between city and village, business and farming.

As we walk around the IFFCO campus, he tells me the factory was established by Indira Gandhi in her father’s memory. He’s never had the urge to shift parties as the times changed, but admits he is in a minority of 10 per cent.

I tell him about his neighbours in the Brahmin basti whom I met earlier. Most said they were old Congress voters who had shifted allegiances. Yes, that’s because the Congress hasn’t been able to win. Some shifted to BJP because of religion, some to Apna Dal this election because the candidate is a Brahmin.

The Congress party’s Shyam Surat Upadhyay would win often even in these 22 years out of power, because he worked with the people and his work was visible. Now, he says, the party decided the candidate for this seat only 15 days before nomination. “Is that how you win election? A candidate needs 2-3 years to make contact with people and convince them that they must vote for him. In other parties there are caste combinations so you can parachute and hope to win. But in the Congress that is not the case. The Congress declined because the party forgot its job is to work for the people, as Upadhyay did.”