Putti Lal, a Dalit, lost his job as a cook in the primary school in Harak block in Zaidpur (SC) constituency in Barabanki district as the children from the upper castes refused to eat the food cooked by him.

Ram Sewak Yadav of Satrohanpur village in Daryabad constituency has to get his quota of DAP manure at the black market rate of Rs. 1,000 per bag, and urea at the rate of Rs. 450 per bag. Reason: the bulk of the fertiliser and manure are cornered by the “dabang” (powerful), not necessarily from the upper castes. The Kurmis in the region are rich farmers and equally powerful.

Welcome to Barabanki, the caste cauldron of central Uttar Pradesh, once famed for its opium cultivation conjoined with the dubious distinction of being part of illegal drug traffic in the State. Barabanki is a curious mix of metalled roads, dusty hamlets, lush fields and negligible industries. This is typical of a district where the upper castes and the “dabang” exist side by side with the lower castes and the downtrodden. Small wonder that both, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Congress (read Union Steel Minister Beni Prasad Verma) are eager to net maximum gains through their own method of caste arithmetic. Their weapon is caste politics. Also aiming for a share in the caste pie are the Samajwadi Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Since Barabanki is Beni Prasad Verma's home district, the people here talk about the ‘Beni factor' dominating the Congress poll campaign. “Potable water is a problem area but Beni babu cannot be faulted for it,” said Mansha Ram Verma of Birauli village in Daryabad Assembly constituency.

The contest in Daryabad is an interesting one with the Steel Minister's son, Rakesh Kumar Verma, pitted against three-time MLA of the Samajwadi Party, Rajiv Kumar Singh. Also in the fray is Vivekanand Pandey of the BSP.

The constituency has about 65,000 Rawat or Pasi scheduled caste voters, followed by around 30,000 Gautam or Chamar SC voters. The Kurmis, the OBC caste to which the Union Steel Minister belongs, number around 20,000 in Daryabad. Besides, there are 25,000 Muslims, 18,000 Brahmins and 20,000 Yadavs.

Barabanki is one of the districts with a large concentration of Dalit voters, around 7.2 lakh. Here, the Kurmis also exercise a domineering influence on the outcome of the elections. And among the Dalits, it is the population of the Pasis which exceeds that of the Gautams — or Chamar sub-caste of the Dalits — the caste to which the Bahujan Samaj Party president belongs. So it is not surprising to find the caste factor overshadowing the more pressing issues of development and basic needs of the people when it came to the selection of candidates.

“Mayawati has mastered the technique of building cross-caste alliances, as was evident in the BSP's success in the 2007 Assembly elections. Her approach in the forthcoming polls towards stitching an alliance between caste groups opposed to each other is no different, the ability to solicit the support of her core vote bank of the Chamar Dalit sub-caste has helped her”, said a professor of Saket Post Graduate College in neighbouring Faizabad.

In fact, Barabanki presents a classic case of the distribution of candidates taking into account their castes alone — this is true elsewhere in the State. In two Scheduled Caste constituencies of Zaidpur and Haidergarh, the BSP president has given tickets to Ved Prakash Rawat and Ram Narain Rawat, in the hope that the Pasi votes will combine with the Chamar votes to ensure her victory.

As Putti LaL of Harak village remarked, “The Harijans (to be read as Chamar) will vote for Behenji (Mayawati) and the ‘jaati' ( to be read as Pasis) votes will go to the two Rawats”. In the caste politics of Uttar Pradesh, the Chamar and Pasi sub-castes of the Dalits have always been at logger heads. The Pasis, who are mostly into pig-rearing in the rural areas, have not progressed in comparison to the other Dalit sub-castes, mainly the Gautams (Chamars).

The Congress too is not far behind in playing the caste card for electoral gains. For instance, Mr. Verma's son Rakesh from Daryabad is a Kurmi, Baijnath Rawat in the Pasi-dominated Zaidpur (SC) belongs to this caste; and RK Chaudhri, fielded from Haidergarh (SC), is also a Pasi.

Incidentally, the Steel Minister has been accused of managing about 60 percent of tickets for the OBCs — Kurmis and Yadavs — in the 55 constituencies where elections are to be held in the first phase on February 8. Apart from the constituencies in Barabanki, Mr. Verma's clout extends to Bahraich and Gonda districts as well.

In this mad rush for caste votes, development has merited just a passing reference in political speeches like: “U.P. kyon pichhra (why is U.P. backward)?” No political party, however, is ready to take the blame for the lack of development, especially in rural areas.