In an inner lane in
Lucknow where Kayasthas dominate a residential colony, Election Commission
officials are walking up and down looking for hoardings and banners of
political parties and ordering them to be taken down. The indigo graffiti of
the Bahujan Samaj party on the walls is not on their agenda yet. The graffiti
is for the candidate of the constituency, a Muslim better known as “Pandit ji”,
and who writes that useful epithet in brackets after his name.
Welcome to the Uttar Pradesh Assembly Elections, 2012. It’s a spectacle without a spectacle: the Election Commission’s total crackdown is matched by the political parties’ strange lack of enthusiasm. They have all been uncharacteristically late in declaring their candidates. Travelling in January 2007, the festival of election was in the air even though the election was three months away. This time, everyone was taken aback by the Election Commission bringing forward the election from April to February, and voters are still making up their mind.
The tepid mood is shared by Hriday Narain Dixit, a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader. This is the first time after several elections that he won’t be contesting. Dixit lives in the OCR building, famous for housing legislators, and infamous for suicides from its higher floors. In a modest house he welcomes us, apologetic about the shortage of chairs. He is himself spread on a couch, behind him a BJP banner and the rest of the room adorned with three new calendars in which Hindu gods and goddesses occupy more space than the list of the months ahead. I ask him what the BJP’s chances look like. Before he can answer, he gets a phone call. He tells the caller that no party has an absolute hold among the Other Backward Classes, the peasant castes—not even Mulayam Singh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party (SP).
His hold on his fellow Yadavs has declined, he says, adding that be it Bharat or Misr, India or Egypt, a community’s political character changes. Social mobility gives it independence and reduces the need to rally around a leader of their own community. “This is the principle of society, from what I have read,” he says.
“See Brahmins, for example,” he continues on the phone. “Even a poor Brahmin is high class by virtue of his caste. He does not need a leader. He is already number one. How can he consider anyone else a leader?”
As a Brahmin leader himself, he would know. But he has more examples. “You live in Delhi,” he addresses the caller, “you won’t need to call an MLA [Member of Legislative Assembly]. You will call local authorities. You don’t need your MLA’s help to get someone admitted to a hospital. In the districts people need their MLA to do that.”
He continues for some more time in the same vein about “backward empowerment”, ending with the explanation that he does not think of himself as a leader but as a student. The stack of books next to him is proof.
Even a poor Brahmin is high class by virtue of his caste. He does not need a leader. He is already number one. How can he consider anyone else a leader.
His theory about Brahmins not being in need of a leader continues when I ask him if the Brahmins are as enthusiastic about the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) this time as they were in 2007.
From 2005 to 2007, the BSP, a Dalit-led party, had made an unlikely alliance with Brahmins, organising “Brahmin sammelans” or gatherings, giving tickets to 89 Brahmins out of 406 constituencies. An astounding 46 of them won. Dalit-Brahmin “bhaichara” or brotherhood committees had gone around convincing both groups of the alliance. The alliance succeeded in displacing the Yadav-led Samajwadi Party. It was a marriage of convenience that suited both Dalits and Brahmins, as both of them say they are politically neglected and rendered powerless under the Samajwadi Party’s rule.
The BSP’s anti-Brahmin slogans were replaced by “Haathi nahi Ganesh hai, Brahma Vishnu Mahesh hai”. The elephant, electoral symbol of the BSP because of the animal’s significance in Buddhism, was now re-interpreted as the elephant-headed Hindu icon, Ganesh, and extended to stand for the trinity of Hindu gods, Brahma the creator, Vishnu as preserver and Mahesh or Shiva as destroyer. The BSP’s mantra for five years in power was “Sarvajan Hitaye, Sarvajan Sukhaye”, Sanskrit words that meant they were for everyone’s interests and everyone’s welfare.
But Dixit says Brahmins have not had a good experience with the BSP: they did not get to “dominate” the BSP government the way they would have liked to.
“Satish Chandra Mishra is my friend,” he says, referring to the prominent Lucknow lawyer who became the BSP’s Brahmin face in 2007. “He is like a big bureaucrat rather than a political leader. He is a prisoner of his political master. He is not allowed to address the public or meet too many people. I know this is not his nature, only Mayawati’s orders.”
That is true, but only since 2009, when the BSP won only 20 of 80 Uttar Pradesh seats in the Lok Sabha, against its expectation of 60 plus. Until May 13, 2009, when the Lok Sabha results came out, Mayawati would almost never be seen without a much taller Satish Chandra Mishra behind her. She would often let him answer questions addressed to her in press conferences, and he would address rallies after she had done so, making the point that the BSP was not against the upper castes.
A key reason for the poor performance in 2009 was that many Dalits, especially Dalits of sub-castes other than Mayawati’s own Jatavs, did not turn up at the polling booth, or worse, voted for other parties, especially the Congress. This is borne out both by exit poll surveys and by what BSP workers in villages say. The party cadre told Mayawati that Dalits felt the BSP was being taken over by Brahmins; their concerns were not being heard.
Hriday Narain Dixit did not join the 2007 wave of Brahmins shifting to the BSP. Of the seven elections he has contested from Parva constituency in Unnao district, next to Lucknow, he won the first four and lost the last three. Despite arguing that Brahmins are unhappy with the BSP, he refutes the idea that Brahmins “feel” collectively.
In his constituency, not more than 30 per cent Brahmins ever voted for him, he says. He is not wrong, those from his constituency say.
Dixit entered politics through the socialist movement, though he bluntly denies ever having been part of it. He was always a Sanghi, he says, referring to the BJP’s backbone, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh. He quotes not the socialist icon Ram Manohar Lohia but the Jan Sangh leader Deen Dayal Upadhyay, who he says refused to be identified as a “Brahmin leader”.
Now a member of the upper house, Dixit reads 4-5 hours a day, including Shakespeare and Shelley, writes columns for leading Hindi newspapers, where he explains to their young readers what “fantasy” means by quoting Sigmund Freud. “Even when I go among the people, I study them,” he says.
Dixit’s worldview is symptomatic of the BJP, which emerged as the main rival force to the Congress in both UP and nationwide, the early ’90s, thanks to its “Ram Janambhoomi movement”.
That movement, in the backdrop of the Mandal movement, managed to woo UP’s Brahmins away from the Congress. Having failed to foresee that Mandal was going to be a long-distance runner and Masjid a short-distance one, the BJP in UP today is a party in denial.
An internal presentation of the party says they are targeting only 140-odd seats, mostly urban ones.
Even in these, their hope lies in getting the RSS and BJP workers to motivate their core upper caste voters, in individual candidates who are locally powerful, and in the alleged Hindutva-OBC charisma of Uma Bharti, who the RSS forced the BJP to welcome back in the party, much to the dismay of its Hindutva poster-boy, Narendra Modi of Gujarat.
Unnao is an hour’s
drive from Lucknow, made longer by the bad roads and traffic snarls. A district
with a rather large concentration of Brahmins, its urban centre is a small town
whose youth gain an education to migrate to neighbouring Lucknow or Kanpur in
search of jobs. In the Vidhan Sabha seat of this main town is an exciting
contest whose result will be keenly watched. On one side is sitting MLA Deepak
Kumar of the Samajwadi Party, and on the other side Namrata Pathak of the BSP,
a new entrant. Even though the BSP’s Brahmin candidate here stood third in
2007, this time it is the Congress and the BJP who locals say are vying for
They will, however, still be crucial in determining the winner, because whose votes they will “cut” will be important. Kumar is from the Mallah OBC community, the boatmen’s caste, and Pathak is a Brahmin, wife of senior BSP leader and Rajya Sabha MP Brijesh Pathak. It may help Pathak’s chances that delimitation is said to have reduced some of Kumar’s OBC votes. Both Kumar and Brijesh Pathak have been Lok Sabha MPs from Unnao. The current MP from Unnao, though, is a former Reliance Industries Limited executive Annu Tandon, because of the welfare work done by her NGO for years. That election, caste was not in the picture.
For Brijesh Pathak, this election is a gamble. A counter to Satish Chandra Mishra in the BSP’s Brahmin camp, if Pathak can’t ensure his wife’s victory this election he could become dispensable for a ruthless Mayawati. He realises as much, and is working 16 hours a day to impress every voter. His multi-storeyed house has turned into an election campaign office.
A large image of Gautam Buddha welcomes you as you enter. He’s upstairs, the men say, and after some dithering, let you go. In a large hall Pathak is addressing the mostly Dalit “sector prabharis” of the BSP; every “sector” has eight-ten polling booths to take care of. The meeting is about to get over, and Pathak is saying that the Election Commission has banned party flags and banners only on public property and others’ private property. Those who want to place one on their rooftops are free to do so. Pathak agrees to speak to me for five minutes, for which he takes me into a smaller room.
After accusing various pre-poll survey organisations of being biased and corrupt and counting how many times they got their predictions right, he predicts the BSP will again win over 200 seats. He has little time he says, will I please ask him anything specific and important if I must?
I ask him what Brahmins have gained from the “Sarvajan” alliance, if they are happy with the experience? “In the history of independent India,” he says, “it was the first time that Brahmins got so much respect and representation in power.”
He knows the numbers by heart: “Forty-five Brahmin MLAs in one party alone, unprecedented! Twelve to fourteen of them made ministers, 50 per cent DMs and SPs [District Magistrates and Superintendents of Police] were Brahmin! Chief secretary, advocate general, all Brahmin! He would have gone on if he had time, he knows the answer like a Sanskrit shloka.
Historically, he says, perpetuating a myth the BSP spread to make the alliance possible, Brahmins and Dalits have never been adversaries. But he was wooing others too; he claimed the Lodhi vote, a peasant community, was on his target, and then set off for a gurudwara.
It was the birth anniversary of Patna-born Guru Gobind Singh, tenth guru of the Sikhs. He is welcomed warmly, goes up to the sanctum sanctorum, sits amidst the city’s Sikhs in the prayer hall, agrees to exchange his ordinary handkerchief for a fancier one to cover his head, folds his head and looks solemn. Symbolism is worth a thousand words; politics is performance art.
It is not only the Congress party that is looking to consolidate micro-vote banks this election. In the first past the post system, a candidate could win or lose by a few hundred votes. In a multi-polar contest like this one, the battle is intense.
Sikhs coming out of the gurdwara claimed Unnao had as many as a thousand Sikh votes, and if Pathak’s friend Pankaj Gupta did not contest from the BJP, he would win easily. The word on the street was that Pathak had managed to persuade Gupta to not contest; Gupta claimed on the phone that he still hoped to get the ticket. In all these conversations, nobody referred to the candidate as Namrata Pathak; it was for all purposes Brijesh’s election.
Deepak Kumar of the SP was equally busy in the campaigning, unable to find time to meet us, away in villages, telling his OBC voters to come out and vote and not be complacent.
To test Pathak’s claims that the Dalit-Brahmin alliance is intact and will ensure his wife wins, we go to Gangauli village 18 km away. The BSP’s man here, a former panchayat pradhan, is Ram Khilawan. He runs a PDS shop; to see one that is open and functioning in a village, the smell of oil in the air, is a pleasant sight. Men and women crowd around with ration cards. Some more walk in to find out why we have come.
I ask Ram Khilawan that now that he has his party’s government in the state, what has it done for this Dalit-Brahmin dominated village?
“For the first time since independence,” he says, “a cement road came into the village.” One of the bystanders interrupts: “And sir you just came on that road, you must have seen what a great road they made!”
Ram Khilwan smiles sheepishly, as though he had been shut up. I prod him to list more and he mentions another first for the village: electricity poles and wires reached this village.
The bystander interrupts again: “That is not to say we got electricity! The wires are not aluminium as they should be, they are steel! All this showcase development only for corruption!” Ram Khilawan has been silenced again. I ask the bystander if he is Dalit, too, and he says yes. Ram Khilawan chuckles and the other Dalits around break their silence: he is Brahmin. His name is Sushil Kumar Tiwari and he is agent of the Life Insurance Corporation of India.
I ask Ram Khilawan about the Dalit-Brahmin alliance, and Tiwari interrupts again. This time I insist I want to hear Ram Khilawan first. Khilawan bluntly says what he feels: “Under Sarvajan Samaj it is the Dalits who have suffered the most,” he says, “Dalits have not been able to make their voice buland (strong). If a Dalit was beaten up, Pathak ji would side with the upper caste oppressor. As for corruption, it may have increased but at least work gets done.”
I ask Khilawan if he could tell me about specific instances of such violence against Dalits where Pathak came to the aid of the upper caste oppressor. He is silent, the Dalits and Brahmins around both voice their opposition about getting into specifics.
Sushil Kumar Tiwari must have his word now. He says that Sarvajan Samaj has helped only the rich Brahmins get richer, it didn’t help people like him. Overall, everyone agrees that no one is left enthused about the alliance. “There isn’t the aandhi, the windstorm of 2007 this election,” Khilawan says, “The BSP’s graph has fallen. Neither Brahmin nor Dalit may work en bloc the way it did in 2007.”
And yet when I question them all on who they will vote for, they are clear: the contest is between Mayawati and Mulayam, and the latter is completely inimical to their interests, so Mayawati it will be. “Majboori ka naam haathi,” says Tiwari. Compulsion, thy name is elephant, the BSP’s symbol.
Ram Khilawan, part of the BSP’s famous cadre that motivates people and brings them out to the polling booth, checking on each one of they voted, is the reason why the Dalit vote will be delivered to the elephant. Similarly, the BSP also has its Brahmin cadres, created as a parallel force that is made to work in tandem with the Dalit cadre through “brotherhood” committees.
The party’s Brahmin man in this village is Prabhat Pandey, whose large double-story house, land, tractors and cattle, all sit with an odd comfort just a minute’s walk away from Ram Khilawan’s humble abode. His brother multiplies the family wealth by buying and selling land. “I am only a farmer,” says Pandey, sitting before his tractors in his courtyard.
It is this class of the trading Brahmin that was most upset with the Samajwadi party rule, affected by both the bad law and order situation, and the favouritism to the peasant castes. “There haven’t been any special benefits for Brahmins in this government,” says Pandey, “but you know, Brahmins are paer se kamzor, weak in the feet.”
He explains the metaphor: you can persuade a Brahmin by touching his feet. In other words, the most important benefit the Brahmins took away from the BSP government was the “respect” they “deserve”.
Only some Brahmin families and clans have benefited from the alliance, says a relative of his. Satish Chandra Mishra’s nepotism, his penchant for getting every distant relative a government post, has been a matter of ridicule. This is true even of others, and when Pandey tells me Namrata Pathak will visit this village tomorrow, that’s his hint: why are the BSP’s Brahmin politicians multiplying within families? Nevertheless, Pandey feels it’s going to be a close contest, and the winner’s margin will be less than 5,000 votes.
I ask Pandey and Khilawan if they’d like to pose for a photograph together, the BSP’s foot-soldiers in Gangauli. They do so hesitatingly, their body language speaking volumes about a political alliance unable to bridge a social gap.
Meanwhile, the BJP announced its list of candidates a few days later. Pankaj Gupta is contesting Parva.
If Unnao is a rural
expanse crying for development, neighbouring Kanpur is an urban disaster, once
a great industrial town, Manchester of the East, but today best known for being
one of India’s most polluted cities. Cities like Kanpur, with their history of
communal violence and high concentration of Hindu upper-caste middle classes,
are amongst the BJP’s last bastions. And yet, of the ten constituencies here,
the BJP won only four last time, the Congress and Samajwadi Party two each and
the BSP one. The two-time sitting Member of Parliament is the hard-working Shri
Prakash Jaiswal who makes himself accessible to people and manages local
alliances and “understanding” with local leaders of other parties.
The BSP’s Dalit-Brahmin formula didn’t work any wonders here last time. In 2007, I met Sarvesh Shukla, locally known as “Bum Bum”, once a student leader in Kanpur university with a dabang (strongman) image, that was his big chance in politics. Back then, to convince me of his chances, he showed off the support he was getting from Brahmins in the Generalganj seat, a BJP stronghold. He introduced me to an old RSS leader as his relative, R N Bajpai, white sage-like beard and tilak on the forehead. Bajpai had told me frankly and bluntly that the Brahmins were shifting to the BSP because the BJP’s Thakurs and Baniyas had sidelined its Brahmin leaders after Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s retirement, and the Congress was nowhere in the picture. That is how strongly Bajpai, a Sanghi of 60 years, had felt about the UP Brahmin’s political alienation.
But this time the Congress is in the picture, the BSP’s Brahmin alliance didn’t do well in Kanpur and there is no “wave” for any party to jump into. I meet Sarvesh again, who tells me that old Bajpai has passed away, that he was no relative of Shukla, who did not get a ticket from any party, having been sacked from the BSP. That happened, he claims, because he put up too many posters of himself in Kanpur, something Mayawati and her cadres don’t appreciate as it threatens her supremacy as the sole face of the party.
Shukla repeats the same complaint that many Brahmin politicians seem to have with the BSP: the domination and nepotism of Satish Chandra Mishra, the sacking of Brahmin ministers and MLAs and denying sitting MLAs tickets. Brahmins, Shukla says, are a confused lot.
Delimitation has meant shifting of vote banks from one seat to another. Old politicians have jumped constituencies and new ones have sprung up to exploit new caste and religion combinations and try their hand at the game of numbers. The most Brahmin-dominated seat is called Kidwai Nagar. The contest here, unlike most of UP, is between the Congress and the BJP. The Congress’ Ajay Kapoor is a stalwart, a two-time victor despite his rivalry with the Congress’ Kanpur MP Shri Prakash Jaiswal. BJP’s Viveksheel Shukla is trying to displace Kapoor.
Kapoor is a Hindu
Punjabi Khatri, a well-to-do local businessman, the sort of person usually
identified with the BJP. Viveksheel Shukla is a gentle Brahmin of the sort who
fits better with the Congress. If both seem to be in the wrong party, it is
because Kapoor’s hold in the area is regardless of his party. In the basement
of his multi-storied building are parked two ambulances with his name on them;
on the first floor is an office where people with problems of any kind show up
for help, and on the third floor is the campaign office.
Kapoor is not in town and some say he is in Delhi. Others say he is in Mumbai, but his large cut-outs don’t let his absence be felt, even though they reduce his girth by several inches. There are so many trophies and metal mementos all around you’d think he’s felicitated once a day.
In the office of his campaign manager, Shoaib Khan, hangs a calendar printed predictably by Kapoor Electricals. When I am introduced to Khan as a visitor from Delhi, he wonders if I am “the SMS guy”. Khan tells me how it’s an easier election for them because delimitation has halved the number of voters. A phone call interrupts the conversation.
“Why do you have to put a flag on your car for booth committee duty?” he asks agitatedly on the phone. “We’ll have to tell the Election Commission about it and add the car expenses to the election budget. If we can move without a flag why can’t you?”
Khan returns to tell me how they have been mobilising people for some months now. A great show was in October, when they held a cricket tournament called the Kanpur South Premier League (KSPL). Sixteen teams played, twelve of them fall in Kidwai Nagar. The winner, Kidwai Nagar Lions, won a Tata Nano. The tournament’s “ambassador” was a famous local resident: the enormously popular Hindi stand-up comic and TV celebrity Raju Srivastava.
The BJP’s Viveksheel Shukla sneers at Kapoor’s star power. “He is not in town because he has gone to Mumbai to hire B-grade actors and rejected models for his campaign,” says Shukla. As we drive in Shukla’s SUV with him on the front seat, it is clear they are up against a wall. Their campaign is focusing on attacking Kapoor for his wealth, his hiring of stars, even his girth. “In eight years as legislator he has accumulated so much, from 55 kg to 200 kg!” Shukla says, “He is trying yoga these days!”
But Shukla knows his real hope lies in the slight increase of the percentage of Brahmins in the seat thanks to delimitation. Will the 30 per cent Brahmins of Kidwai Nagar vote for their popular leader or one of their own? Add Uma Bharti and her Hindutva-OBC appeal to that. Shukla has been a political confidante of Bharti, leaves the BJP when she does, and his is the only case, he says, for which Bharti exercised her veto to make sure he gets a ticket.
To be sure, Viveksheel Shukla doesn’t have to play the Brahmin card. His surname does it for him. On a crossing, he rolls down the window pane to greet someone on a bike. The young man introduces himself with a Brahmin name, drops the name of his well-known uncle, and says that he’s a worker of the Samajwadi Party. “I am a Brahmin,” the young man on the bike says, “on this seat my support is for you.”
Shukla invites him to join the BJP but he declines.
The example of Ajay
Kapoor is typical of the Congress focus on choosing and cultivating popular
“winnable” candidates. The Congress is said to have used independent surveys to
find out the popularity of candidates. That does not mean that the Congress is
not doing what is popularly known as “caste politics”. On the contrary, the
Congress has come up with a Nitish Kumar-like caste strategy to make an
alliance between all those small and big castes who feel left out in the big SP
vs. BSP binary.
Until the rise of Mandal and Masjid that wiped the Congress out in UP, its vote base was a coalition of extremes and Dalits, Muslims and Brahmins. That is to a great extent the formula that the BSP turned on its head. Just before the 2007 elections, Rahul Gandhi was looking around for a caste formula, but there was none. In 2009, the Congress did not win because of any caste formula even though it had started wooing Dalits.
Rahul Gandhi’s team realised that the Jatav Dalits, who are more than two-thirds of all Dalit voters in UP, are tied to the BSP like a horse and carriage. So began the Congress efforts to woo the non-Jatav Dalits, particularly Pasis in central UP. The Congress wanted to revive its old formula.
However, thanks to the social scientists who advise the Congress and also double up as political commentators on TV and op-ed pages of newspapers, the Congress’ Nitish Kumar-like strategy has a big surprise. For all the tug of war between the BSP and the Congress over the last five years, for all of Rahul Gandhi’s targeting of Mayawati and her Dalit vote, the Congress is really out to get the Samajwadi Party. The Congress sees a bigger opportunity in the SP’s Muslim and non-Yadav OBC vote than in the BSP’s Dalit vote.
With such plans, the Congress office in Lucknow has hope in the air. Unlike 2007 when it looked abandoned, it is now full of politicians and candidates and journalists milling around. In the media room, spokesperson Ram Kumar Bhargava is in a hurry. He agrees to sit down and talk for five minutes, but his attention is more at an assistant who is not putting enough roses into a bouquet.
He gives me the usual Congress spiel about how the Congress hasn’t been tried by UP’s voters for 22 years, that Rahul Gandhi is asking for a chance now. That sounds like the 2009 Lok Sabha strategy, when an assistant comes in with the latest table on caste-wise break-up of the first four phases.
Of the 271 seats declared by then, 13.28 per cent have been given to Brahmins, a few per cent more than their population, 14.02 per cent for Thakurs, who despite their enmity with Brahmins are also old loyalists that the Congress wants to wean away from the Samajwadi Party.
Some 5.53 are Vaish, usually with the BJP, as are the Kayasthas, who have been given 1.84 per cent seats. The 15.86 per cent seats for Muslims are less than their population, and the 25.46 per cent for “SC” are more than their population, but these percentages may change when all 406 seats are announced. The real story, however, is visible even in this list: 15.49 per cent “BC” or Backward Castes and 11.80 per cent “OBC”. The Congress is not only playing well, it is playing for the long-term, interested more in increasing vote share than seats, establishing itself as a serious player in the evolving political process of Uttar Pradesh.