Uttar pradesh

Unhappy memories haunt voters in Firozabad 

Jatav bangle artisans at work in Shikohabad

Jatav bangle artisans at work in Shikohabad | Photo Credit: Anuj Kumar

“Sab tittar bittar ho gaya hai ji [it’s all scattered],” said a Nishad churan seller, selling Hajmox, a locally-made digestive concoction, alongside the Yamuna river on the road connecting Agra to Firozabad. He was not only referring to the scattered vote in the region, dotted with Nishad (boatmen community) villages that could decide the fate of many closely contested battles, but also the fluid state of elections in Uttar Pradesh.

The gateway to the Yadav belt, eight of the 16 districts that would vote on Sunday, Firozabad with its five seats, in many ways, reflected the wind of change and the chaos beneath the silent veneer of the ongoing Assembly election.

There is a swell in the anti-BJP sentiment but the past image of patronising the unruly elements continues to haunt the SP. While the BJP believes it would be able to garner a section of Dalit votes because of its social benefit schemes, the SP is confident of breaking the strong lower OBC caste network of the BJP. Defying predictions, the Bahujan Samaj Party continues to be a factor and can spoil the game of both the claimants to power.

The SP poached BJP’s Nishad face Mahesh Verma and fielded him from the Shikohabad constituency of the district but the BJP believed as long as Nishad party chief Sanjay Nishad is with them, the local face won’t matter much. It has fielded Omprakash Verma who also hails from the boatmen community and had won on an SP ticket in 2012.

A few kilometres ahead, in Chura Ka Nagla, the young daughters of Triloki Nishad were busy drying newly prepared bangles in the winter sun. He said the income has come down by half but “yahan phool hi khilega [only lotus will blossom here]”. “We still remember the days when our cattle was lifted at gunpoint after midnight. At least, we feel secure during the BJP rule,” said Triloki, pointing at the road that was jam-packed with SP supporters just a day before, as Akhilesh Yadav’s re–purposed vehicle passed by.

The fact that at least 60 people, most of them children, died and thousands were affected because of dengue and scrub typhus in September 2021 in the district doesn’t seem to be an election issue. Poor hygiene because of open drains was cited as the reason but the electorate smells the stench selectively, mostly on caste lines.

Like the Nishads, the Baheliyas also support the BJP despite massive discontent over lockdown and the subsequent drop in incomes of those working in the unorganised bangle industry. “When my son fell sick, I had to take him to a private hospital as the government hospital has been reduced to a referral centre unless you apply political pressure,” said Shravan Kumar, who had to switch from bangle work to a vegetable cart because of lack of work and delayed payments. “I am a craftsperson but what to do. I used to get ₹3,000 for 100 todas of bangles. Now, it has come down to ₹2,000-2,300.”

In the Nayi Abadi area of Shikohabad, the Jatav artisans in the bangle business sing praises of PM Modi for free ration and providing homes under the Pradhanmantri Avas Yojna but push a bit further and you find that most would still vote for the BSP. “We will shout Modi Modi but vote for Behenji [Mayawati],” said Mayashri, who embellishes the bangles, earning ₹50, a day. The SP, she said, is not even a choice. “I hail from Jaswantnagar. I know how the Yadav boys don’t allow us to fetch ration." Whatever jevar (ornaments) she has, she feared would be snatched away if the SP returned to power.

Brijesh, a Dalit activist, said it was not that Mr. Modi had farms from where he was providing us free ration. “It is our money, the ₹1,000 that we are paying to get our gas cylinders filled. Under this government, the bangle business has been ruined. We are being paid half of what we used to get and that too not on time.”

The locals said they could not send children to school and were forced to push them into bangle-making. Lal Singh, a post–graduate who worked with the U.P. government for a brief while, said even if the BSP finishes second, their job is to maintain the “janadhar [mass base] of the party.”

Interestingly, here the anti-incumbency seemed to be against the State government and not the local candidate. The BJP has repeated two-time MLA Manish Asija, a Sindhi, who continues to find support across communities, including a section of Muslims, in the city of glass. The division of Muslim votes is expected to make his task easier.

Firozabad’s city seat is a classic example of how the caste equation works while deciding the Muslim candidate as well. The SP has chosen Saif Ur Rahman, who hails from the Fakir community, over trusted upper-caste lieutenants Azeem Bhai (Pathan) and Khalid Naseer (Siddique). Making use of the fault lines, the BSP fielded Azeem Bhai’s spouse replacing its candidate Babloo Singh Rathore. All India Majlis-e-Ittahadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) was quick to field Mr. Rathore.

Anurag Garg, who runs a glass factory, said he is a hardcore BJP voter but he doesn’t like the polarising pitch of the Chief Minister. “He may have his political reasons but so far his speeches haven’t affected the close-knit business ties between the two communities. They know I will vote for the BJP. I believe they will vote for the SP. Period. I don’ feel threatened by their skull caps and not concerned about whether they send their women out in hijabs or not.”

Mr. Garg said “he would still vote for the BJP government for the security it has provided from extortionists and organised robbers”. He admitted the rate of corruption had increased during the BJP rule but only for those who want to get their illegal jobs done. “Unlike the previous governments, those who go by the book don’t have to pay up. The online processes have brought transparency in day-to-day dealings with the government,” he said.

Naseeruddin Kaptan, a local activist, said the community’s only grouse is that the BJP leadership is using Muslims to create an atmosphere of fear all the time. But he has no answer to why so many Muslim leaders are seeking tickets from the BSP when the ordinary Muslim voter feels that only the SP could challenge the BJP.

In Tundla reserved seat, the SP has fielded two–time BSP MLA Rakesh Babu, a Jatav who is trying to weave an unlikely Jatav–Yadav combination. Here, the BSP, observers said, has missed a trick as it has brought in a debutant Amar Singh, a retired PCS officer who is not as malleable in his social behaviour as his seasoned opponent. The BJP has fielded Prempal Singh Dhangar who is hoping to cash the goodwill of SPS Baghel who won from here in 2017 before winning the Agra Lok Sabha seat and is now contesting against Mr. Akhilesh Yadav in Karhal.

The BJP has attempted to cover the loss of Shikohabad in Sirsaganj, an SP bastion with over a lakh Yadav votes, by poaching sitting SP MLA Hariom Yadav. Mr. Yadav is said to be part of the Shivpal Yadav team and has often spoken against Ramgopal Yadav, the two brothers of Mulayam Singh Yadav who share cold vibes even in the best of times. Observers, said Mr. Hariom, whose niece is married to the son of the eldest brother of SP patriarch Mulayam Singh Yadav, was expelled because of the changed equations in the family.

“The family is together for now and any Yadav candidate put up by the party will win. Like the Jat-Muslim consolidation in the west, the Muslim-Yadav voter is mobilised behind the SP here. Plus, the party is expected to benefit from a fraction of votes from the Jatavs and the lower OBC caste alliance that Akhilesh has created this time,” said Mitrapal Yadav, a professor in Shikohabad’s Paliwal PG College. Security, he said, is an issue in urban areas but the rural voter is more concerned about the stray cattle and rising prices. “The BJP is left with only the Hindutva pitch and that is not working this time,” he said.

“Sometimes we think, we are getting very good marks but when the result comes out, we realise the mistakes we committed. Yogiji will experience the same,” said Ramesh Yadav, a student who voted for the BJP last time.

However, neutral observers feel the fight is much closer, with no clear winner. “Caste is the primary factor and there is a semblance of the anti-BJP wave. It was 4-1 last time, in the BJP’s favour. The SP is expected to turn it to 3-2.” said Jitendra Sharma, a senior journalist.


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Printable version | Jun 24, 2022 7:57:48 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/elections/uttar-pradesh-assembly/the-die-is-caste-in-firozabad/article65065549.ece