PHULPUR, Uttar Pradesh -- Sitting with her neighbours and relatives in a village inhabited by people who were once called "untouchables" by society, Amaravati had the room in splits as she narrated her woes about voting in the 21st century.
"I'm telling you there is something funny with these electronic machines. I press on the elephant, but I think the vote goes to the lotus, every time," she said, referring to the election symbols of Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Narendra Modi- led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
As the sound of laughter made its way outside the small thatched hut in the Dalit village called Sikhlana Kimroti in eastern Uttar Pradesh, more people joined in. "Do you think there is some wire inside the machine that takes the vote from the elephant to the lotus?" she asked.
Even as she made light of her disappointment at the electoral failures of the BSP supremo Mayawati and her party, a champion of the Dalits, the 65-year-old woman made no attempt to hide the quiet desperation in her voice.
"I say openly that I vote for caste because there is nothing else for us labourers and beedi makers," Amaravati told me. "Whether it is Mulayam, Mayawati or Modi, we were poor, we are poor and we will remain poor, but I vote Mayawati because she belongs to our Chamar community."
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"I vote for her, every time, but she never wins. I don't understand why and it makes me sad. She did win once, but then it seems as if people thought, 'how did we let a Dalit woman rise to the top? We will never let it happen again,'" she said.
Whether it is Mulayam, Mayawati or Modi, we were poor, we are poor and we will remain poor, but I vote Mayawati because she belongs to our Chamar community.
Brushing aside the many criticisms levelled against Mayawati, from rampant corruption to running ineffectual election campaigns, Amaravati said, "No matter what they say about her, I have always voted for her and I always will."
When I asked her about Mayawati's decision to support the Akhilesh Yadav-led Samajwadi Party (SP) in the by-polls underway today in the Lok Sabha constituencies of Phulpur and Gorakhpur, Amaravati took her time to reply. "I don't know whether it is good or bad, but I will press on the cycle if that is what she wants," she said, referring to the symbol of the SP.
I don't know whether it is good or bad, but I will press on the cycle if that is what she wants.
Phulpur is a seat held by a diverse group of political leaders over the decades, ranging from Jawaharlal Nehru and his sister Vijaya Laxmi Pandit to Atique Ahmed, a politician with a long criminal record. It was recently vacated by UP's deputy chief minister Keshav Prasad Maurya.
The by-poll in the constituency of 19 lakh voters was always going to be an exciting contest between the BJP, the SP, Congress Party and Ahmed, whose last-minute decision to run as an independent candidate from prison triggered speculation about a split in the Muslim votes. But it was Mayawati's decision to back her archenemy after some 25 years of bad blood that elevated the electoral battle to what has been described as a forerunner of the 2019 general election.
The question on everyone's mind is whether the BSP and the SP, an exponent of the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and the Muslims, can work together to defeat the BJP, and can the BSP-SP tie-up lead to Mayawati's revival?
Can the BSP-SP tie-up lead to Mayawati's revival?
The questions that then follow are whether a BSP-SP partnership could be replicated in Uttar Pradesh's 80 Lok Sabha constituencies in the 2019 general election, or would such an alliance require sacrifices too great for the regional rivals to make. And is there any guarantee against Mayawati ditching the SP and then forming an alliance with the BJP like she did in 1995. Furthermore, will the Dalits vote for OBCs and vice-versa given the intense and inherent animosities between the core group of both parties.
Is there any guarantee against Mayawati ditching the SP and then forming an alliance with the BJP like she did in 1995.
Political analysts are divided. Some view Mayawati's support only as a short-term stratagem in exchange for SP lawmakers voting in favor of a BSP leader in the Rajya Sabha polls to be held later this month. The Dalit leader has offered a similar deal to the Congress: support for its candidate in the Rajya Sabha election in Madhya Pradesh if all seven Congress lawmakers back BSP's candidate in UP.
Others, however, see the development in Phulpur as a test run for 2019 given that both the regional parties are facing an existential crisis at the moment. The SP and the BSP were routed in the Modi wave that swept UP in the 2014 Lok Sabha election as well as the 2017 Assembly election.
BSP's vote share has declined from almost 31 percent in the 2007 Assembly election to less than 26 percent in 2012 and just over 22 percent in the 2017 polls. In the Parliament election, the party's vote share went down from over 27 percent in 2009 to less than 19 percent in 2014. It did not win a single seat in the Lok Sabha.
Ashutosh Misra, a political science professor at Lucknow University, said the alliance could be either "momentary or momentous." But given that Mayawati has gone out of her way to clarify that her support is confined to the by-polls in Phulpur and Gorakhpur, the constituency vacated by Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, Misra is inclined to believe the former. "SP and BSP will have to sacrifice large numbers of party-ticket aspirants if there is a pre-poll alliance. Are you that large-hearted? Will you create a rebellion among the party workers?" he asked.
SP and BSP will have to sacrifice at least half of the numbers if there is a pre-poll alliance. Are you that large-hearted? Will you create a rebellion among the party workers?
Still, the images of SP and BSP workers campaigning together, with the flags bearing the elephant and cycle side-by-side, have been powerful ones.
Ramesh Dixit, a political analyst based in Lucknow, believes not only a BSP-SP partnership for 2019, but Mayawati can also stage a comeback. "There was too much arrogance and she was out of touch with ground realities. Her functioning has antagonized her colleagues, who have deserted her, but she is changing after the debacle. She is trying to reach out to her supporters directly and that wasn't the case before," he said.
Her functioning has antagonized her colleagues, who have deserted her, but she is changing after debacle.
According to The Times of India, in Phulpur, there are 2.5 lakh Kurmis, 2.5 lakh Muslims and three lakh Dalits, Yadavs and Brahmins each. The BJP and SP have fielded Kaushalendra Singh Patel and Nagendra Singh Patel respectively, both Kurmi candidates, a non-Yadav backward caste which is dominant in Phulpur. The Congress, which last won the seat in 1984, has fielded Manish Mishra, a Brahmin, whose father J.N. Mishra has served as the personal secretary of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
One local SP worker, who first hesitated and then laughed while giving me his name because he too is called Akhilesh Yadav, believes that a BSP-SP tie-up can actually produce results, but both parties need to proceed with caution. "I believe that we can beat the BJP in Phulpur and then in UP, but we have to see the results. Look at what happened with the Congress. That was a disaster," he said, referring to the SP-Congress alliance of the 2017 Assembly election.
Salik Ram, the headman of Sikhlana Chimroti village, compared the BSP-SP tie-up in Phulpur to "politicians doing a dance."
Dalits For BJP
The Jatav/ Chamar community to which Mayawati belongs, who constitute almost 55 percent of the Dalit population in UP, have always been her core support. There was a time when everyone in Amaravati's village would vote for Mayawati en masse, but the situation has been changing since Narendra Modi came into the picture in UP almost five years ago, Salik Ram told me.
"Not everyone votes for the BSP even among the chamars. It's not like how it was before," he said. "Earlier, people were more open about who they were going to vote for, but these days even family members don't tell each other."
Not everyone votes for the BSP even among the chamars. It's not like how it was before.
It was at this point in the conversation that Rahul, Amaravati's grand-nephew decided to reveal that he had voted for the BJP in the UP civic polls, last year, and he intended to do so again in the by-poll.
When I asked him why he had voted for the BJP, the 20-something did not say "Modi," the reason that one often hears from people who have shifted loyalties. Instead, the young man said that he had liked a local BJP leader named Amarnath Yadav, who had served as a chairman of their ward for over a decade. (Yadav lost the municipal election in 2017).
"He was helpful and really nice to talk to," Rahul said. "Actually, come to think of it, this is the first time that I'm telling my family that I voted for the BJP."
Actually, come to think of it, this is the first time that I'm telling my family that I voted for the BJP.
Shaking her head, Amaravati said that her family members were free to vote for whomsoever they choose. "They should tell me, has anyone, whether the SP or the BJP, given us the kind of law and order that prevailed in the time of Mayawati," she said.
The elderly woman continued, "When I witnessed a Dalit woman rise to a position of power, I felt proud. Does that mean that the atrocities against us stopped? No, of course not, but I still felt proud."
When I witnessed a Dalit woman rise to a position of power, I felt proud.
Before the rise of Mayawati, Amaravati voted for the Congress. "I liked Indira Gandhi," she said. When I asked her about Prime Minister Narendra Modi, she said, "Everyone says that he is very smart so he must be. But I wonder why our situation does not improve. I think about Modi and wonder if he is making wrong decisions or is the people in the middle who cannot carry out his instructions."
The BSP has won the seat from Phulpur just once in the past, while the SP has taken it four times. Phulpur, a seat which former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru won thrice for the Congress Party, once by defeating the veteran socialist, Ram Manohar Lohia, voted overwhelmingly for the Narendra Modi-led BJP in the 2014 general election. Keshav Prasad Maurya, in a boost for the non-Yadav backward castes, received 52 percent of the vote share. Then, in the state election last year, BJP won all the five Assembly seats in Phulpur.
For many Dalits like Amaravati, the BJP is a party which is dominated by power brokers from the upper castes, ultimately thriving on Hindutva and the religious polarization of Hindus and Muslims. For others, the BJP is a party that seeks to unite the majority under the Hindu identity irrespective of caste, while the two regional parties draw strength from heightening these differences.
The BJP, led by Modi and BJP president Amit Shah, is different from the saffron party of the nineties when the SP and the BSP first made a pact against the BJP. Two years later, however, Mayawati pulled out of the alliance, formed the government with the BJP and became the chief minister.
While campaigning on the Hindutva plank remains at the core of its politics, Modi has also positioned himself as the messiah of development. Not only has the Hindu nationalist proven to be nothing less than a lean mean fighting machine in election after election, Shah's social engineering scheme - partnering with non-Jatav Dalits and non-Yadav backward castes - has gnawed at the voter base of both the SP and the BSP.
In the neighboring village called Sikhlana, which is home to non-Jatav Dalits called Pasis, Ram Naresh Bharatiya declared that he would vote for BJP in the by-poll. The 42-year-old labourer has even convinced his younger brother and his wife to vote for the BJP for the first time.
"There was a time when I used to vote for Mayawati, when there was a Mayawati wave just like the Modi wave. If she is losing now, it is because of her own failures. You see all these houses, all of them are Pasi Dalits and they will vote for the BJP," Ram Naresh told me, pointing to the end of the narrow lane that runs in the middle of his village.
There was a time when I used to vote for Mayawati, when there was a Mayawati wave just like the Modi wave. If she is losing now, it is because of her own failures.
The Pasis, who are a dominant community in Phulpur, constitute almost 16 percent of the Dalit population in UP. They are a distant second to the Jatavs/Chamars, but still a significant number for the BJP to wean away.
When I asked him why he voted for the BJP, Ram Naresh gave the same reason as Rahul, citing the "helpful" former chairman Amarnath Yadav; but then he added that supporting the BJP made him feel part of the Hindu majority.
"Once Hindu-Muslim came into politics, as it happened in UP after the Ram Temple, only an SP or a BJP can win," he said. "I don't want fighting between Hindus and Muslims, but when it is a question of Hindus then there is no place for caste differences. Hindus have to stand together."
When it is a question of Hindus then there is no place for caste differences. Hindus have to stand together.
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