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Cashing his notebandi currency, UP’s wish for badlav, Modi lifts himself above the fray

UP elections 2017: Modi’s BJP is also capturing the yearning for “badlav” and “parivartan” (change) — in this, it is helped by its decision not to project a frayed or closer-to-home CM candidate.

Written by Vandita Mishra | Azamgarh |
Updated: June 18, 2020 2:49:42 pm
Prime Minister Narendra Modi (File Photo) Prime Minister Narendra Modi (File Photo)

To track the election in UP 2017 is to frequently hear the UP voter lament the casteism trap. This is true not just in the town but also in the village where caste has etched indelible lines on the ground, with different groups living in their own separate clusters, offering each other a back-to-back neighbourliness.

Yet, listen to Chhote Lal, a Dalit, in village Agasada Mustafabad, district Azamgarh, describe a very real predicament: “Here, there is so much jaat-paat (casteism) that even if I were to vote for the cycle (SP), people will not believe me, they will think I can only vote haathi (BSP). So, even if I don’t want to, I will give my vote to the BSP.” Akhilesh has done good work, he says, “par hamaari majboori hai (I am constrained by casteism).”

WATCH VIDEO | UP Polls: BJP Asks Election Commission To Deploy Women Police To Check Voter ID’s Of Burqa-Clad Women

“Casteism” in his telling, and in that of many voters, is locking voters and parties in predetermined corners — almost against their will.

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To track UP Election 2017 is also to see how all the three main players, SP-Congress, BSP and BJP, are trying to break out of their corners, pitch a wider tent. They are doing so not just by making a specific appeal to another caste or community, like Mayawati to the Muslims, but also by crafting a message that can vault over the faultlines – an attempt that draws strength from the 2007 and 2012 assembly verdicts when UP’s electorate, after nearly two decades of fragmented verdicts, voted across caste trenches to hand majorities to the BSP and SP, respectively.

So, even as a new caste-based party with an even narrower platform intensifies the contest for eastern UP – across this belt, the fledgling Nishad Party speaks to the specific insecurities of the Nishads, a backward caste — the bigger players are framing overarching appeals that can transcend the clutter of caste, candidate, local math.

In Campaign 2017, the BJP is deftly playing this game, interweaving its messages in a manner that may or may not win it this election but has brought it into the reckoning here after almost 15 years.

Even in Azamgarh, which elects Mulayam Singh Yadav as MP and from where the SP has nine out of the 10 incumbent MLAs, the BJP is seen to be “in the fight”.

For now, the BJP’s larger message, that travels beyond its Brahmin-Thakur strongholds, seems less encumbered by the past, less hemmed in by the reality check than that of either Mayawati or Akhilesh.

There is evident goodwill for the affable Akhilesh Yadav, beyond the SP’s Muslim-Yadav base. Yet his promise of development — infrastructure like the Lucknow metro and expressway, and schemes, subsidies and helplines — bumps up against disbeliefs. There are questions about the SP’s commitment to law and order and when in power the party is perceived to favour its own, the Yadavs and those belonging to SP bastions of “Etawah-Mainpuri” in western UP, in particular.

Mayawati wins applause even from non-Dalit groups for running a “tight” administration when she was in power, and specially, in a state of raging unemployment, for presiding over “bharti” (recruitments) for government jobs that were not, as in the SP regime, challenged and stayed by courts because of allegations of nepotism and corruption. But many remain openly sceptical of her promise, made in this campaign, to refrain from spending public money to make Dalit memorials and parks, as she did in her last government, and focus on “vikas” instead.

Especially among the large scatter of small groups that make up the state’s non-Yadav backward castes, the BJP, which has tried harder this time to shed its image of a Brahmin-Thakur party in its ticket distribution — and more specifically Narendra Modi — are being given the benefit of the doubt.

Here, by and large, and despite the visible economic distress it has caused, notebandi (demonetisation) is seen as a project that rises above the fray. It is being looked upon as a leveller, its implementation separated from the idea.

Modi’s BJP is also capturing the yearning for “badlav” and “parivartan” (change) — in this, it is helped by its decision not to project a frayed or closer-to-home chief ministerial candidate and to go with Modi as its only face.

In Auradant village, district Mau, the BJP is seen to be in the reckoning for the first time in recent years. It is the only party to have fielded a backward caste candidate in this Vidhan Sabha seat — the Congress and BSP have Brahmin candidates. “This has created a backward-forward polarisation, and the non-Chamar SCs and non-Yadav OBCs will go with the BJP”, says local resident Brijesh Chakravarty.

But it’s not just the BJP’s fleetfootedness in seizing the caste opportunity in the constituency. It is also notebandi. “Because more than us, the rich have suffered. Those who stuffed their pillows with notes, those who don’t pay tax”, says Shyamdev Patel who runs a small general store.

He is full of praise for Akhilesh, too, because of the visible development in Azamgarh: “Every state should have a chief minister like him.” But he still wants “parivartan” or change. Guddu Chauhan, who has a furniture business, agrees: “Akhilesh is good, but change is better. If we don’t like what we get, we will reverse it in the next election”. (Patels and Chauhans are counted among the OBCs).

In the Kurmi cluster in Chhittauni village, district Azamgarh, old Nandlal Singh Patel is bitter about Yadav domination of the OBC category. “They eat up our (Patels’) share of the reservations.” So, it is either the BJP or BSP for him this time. “In Mayawati’s time, shasan (governance) was good, officials worked on time, and there was no danga-fasaad (disorder and violence)”, he says. But “Modiji notebandi theek kiye hain. Ameer log ka paisa videshon main jama hota tha (demonetisation is a good decision because the rich had spirited away their money abroad)”. Has it come back? He doesn’t know. He is not sure, either, if there is any immediate benefit in it for him, or for the poor. “Pata nahin milega ki nahin milega”, he trails off uncertainly.

In the same village, Bimla, who works in a self-help group, is agitated and articulate — and on notebandi, hopeful. “We need vikas, not laptops. Koi samajik kaam nahin hota (nothing is done for the general public good).” Notebandi is good because “sab barabar ho gaye hain (everyone has been made equal)”. True, it was only the poor who lined up for their money, while the rich found other means, but “that is due to sabotage by bank officials”, she says.

On the lack of the BJP’s CM candidate, “in any case we don’t see our leaders”, she says. “It is good the PM will oversee everything”.

Others in the district make grander, even incredible, claims for notebandi – that it has already brought a stop to stone-pelting in Kashmir, to infiltration by terrorists, to crime in general. Nobody has the evidence, but for now it doesn’t seem to matter to many that there is none. “Humko lagta hai.”, I feel this is so, some say. And others have “seen it on TV”.

To be sure, on notebandi, there are voices, too, of another kind. In Auradant, Pradyuman Kumar, a Dalit daily wager, asks: “Hamko kya fayada hua?” even as others in the group voice their support. “It is the rich who gained”, he says, “and we had to stand in line for our paltry savings of Rs 200-400”.

And in village Sekhwalia of Phulpur Pawai assembly segment, there is visible agitation. This area is known for its bright red chilli, used to make pickle. Here, they say, the price of the chilli, after notebandi, crashed from Rs 2000 per 56 kg to Rs 1000. “Where is the black money? Who has seen it?” asks Lalit Mohan. “First Modiji was searching for it abroad, then he began looking for it at home, and meanwhile, we had to stand in line”. Ashok Yadav makes a distinction: “It is only 10 per cent of the village that tunes into the news. About 70 per cent only watch films on TV and it is the latter who support notebandi.”

The BJP senses its opportunity. In Mohanat village, Rajeswar Singh, RSS member and principal of the Saraswati Higher Secondary School, has come to its Brahmin cluster to distribute a “jagran patrak”, or pamphlet.

Here, Gorakhnath Pandey, a school teacher, says: “Brahmins and Thakurs have nowhere to go but the BJP, we have no other way”. Yet, the RSS pamphlet, whose format has come all the way from Nagpur, urges people to turn out to vote the BJP without naming the BJP.

“Aakhir alp sankhyakon ko is desh ke rajneetik dal itna mahatva kyun dete hain kyunki ve ekjut ho kar vote dete hain”. The punctuation is missing, but the pamphlet actually poses a question and then answers it: “After all, why do political parties of this country give such importance to minorities? Because they vote as a bloc”.

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