It's a humid day and retired college principal Shobnath Pandey (77) is cooling off under an Ashok Tree (A tree of no sorrows).
His village Khain, in the Trans-Yamuna region of this district, falls under the Bundelkhand Development Scheme. Yet, like much of the region, it is reeling under incessant power cuts, which have reduced water supply and hampered irrigation causing crops to dry, consequently, leading to heavy losses for farmers.
"No party has been able to solve our basic problems. I have lived through the rule of all the parties. Now if you ask me which party, I will submit that I have become a nirashavawadi (pessimist). It’s smarter to pick a candidate who will work for your issues," Mr. Pandey says.
Located on the Allahabad-Mirzapur highway, this tiny village is hardly representative of the mood in Uttar Pradesh. Its 6,000 odd population suffers from the same malaise that any other village in eastern UP would relate to: unemployment, bad roads, water shortage, insufficient power supply, crop failure and so on. But it could offer important lessons for the major parties ahead of next year's general elections.
Across the village, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party are perceived to have weak regional structures and lacking in local reach and candidates. By the looks of things, if elections were held today in Khain, the SP would once again tussle it out with the Bahujan Samaj Party for the top spot, despite the growing discontent against Akhilesh Yadav's regime, especially on the miserable law and order issue. The villagers agree that law and order has always been a problem for the party, but the State government's waiver of farmer loans, free water for irrigation and free laptop schemes are fair consolation for them.
No appeal for BJP
The BJP, and its prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, are not seen with much favour. If Mr. Modi contests from here (Allahabad), "he will stand third," predicts Amitabh Pandey, an upper caste contractor. "Modi is a media creation, only on television. This 'wave,' if it exists, is restricted to cities. Ask around if you see any BJP wallahs? What Modi?" Regardless of Mr. Modi's much talked about entry into the State, which holds 80 Lok Sabha seats, villagers view the BJP as a wholly urban oriented party, with less "zamini netas" (ground level leaders).
This is why they think senior BJP leader Murli Manohar Joshi lost his Allahabad seat in 2004 after three consecutive terms. The two Lok Sabha seats in the district, Allahabad and Phulpur are currently held by the SP and BSP. The SP's Reoti Raman Singh has held the Allahabad seat since 2004. Notably, Mr. Joshi's wins coincided with the pro-BJP wave in 1990's post the Ram Mandir movement. "The party's popularity extended to the rural areas then," says Shobnath Pandey, also a former pradhan.
This time, the villagers are not so sure. Even among the youth, there is little support for the BJP or for its prime ministerial candidate.
For the main opposition party at the centre, which depends heavily on upper and upper middle caste and urban votes, the biggest challenge in UP remains the rural votes, feel analysts.
The recent communal violence in Muzaffaragar has evoked debates on polarisation of votes, in favour of the BJP. But villagers of Khain are quick to brush aside that theory. The vice-like grip of caste and preference for local candidates neutralises any form of communal voting, villagers feel.
"Communal politics may help you in the town. Here, people still give preference to caste. And the SP and the BSP look to retain these caste banks," says Mohanlal Yadav (40). On Mr. Modi, he quips: "There's no way you can compare him (Modi) to Vajpayee. He is not capable of leading the nation. UP will reject any form of dictatorship."
Moreover, besides the Ram Mandir issue, the BJP has nothing that can appeal to rural UP, he feels.
SP supporters brushed aside accusations that the SP and BJP are playing a "fixed match" for polarizing communal votes, blaming the latter entirely. "Gone are those days. Very few people will be fooled today. Even the most illiterate persons understand what the party (BJP) is trying to do," says Parashnath Patel.
Congress lacks structure, but does better than BJP
While the villagers are wary of the BJP and lack confidence in the Congress over issues like corruption and price rise, they would pick the latter over the former if it came down to the two parties. "Corruption", they feel, is a lesser evil than "communalism."
Notably, the Congress has failed to win this seat in three decades since local boy and actor Amitabh Bachchan sealed it in 1984. The Allahabad and Phulpur seats have historically been political bastions for the Congress, with the likes of Jawaharlal Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri and Vishwanath Pratap Singh holding the seats for multiple terms. Now, media has been rife with reports that Mr. Modi could contest from a seat in UP, Allahabad being one of the possibilities.
Dalits, landless and hoping for change, Muslims in dilemma
The village has around 1,500 Dalits, most of them landless. While the majority serve as labourers, those with some capital are engaged in liquor trade, which extends beyond the periphery of this village. Santhulal Bharti, who sells liquor, points out various bighas of State land, which are lying unused. He is unhappy that the State has not allotted the land to the landless Dalits.
"Without land and work, why won't we sell liquor? If we get to do some farming why will we do this work?" he asks.
While the Dalits in the village aren't particularly unhappy with the SP, they feel the BSP will give them a better deal. In the last assembly elections, in Khain the SP secured 1,900 votes, BSP 427, Congress 38 and BJP 32. Khain has a fair population of landed Bhumihars, Brahmins, Thakurs Yadavs and Patels. The voters included 300 Muslims, who are faced with their usual dilemma of picking the candidate who can defeat the BJP candidate. Despite their mounting anger towards the SP, they will be cautious before voting for the Congress, unless it fields a "solid candidate." Some pockets of Muslims even picked the BSP ahead of the Congress.