Ram Sujan Nishad is satisfied with the performance of the Narendra Modi and the Yogi Adityanath governments — he has got a free power connection, a toilet and is hopeful of getting a house soon. “That road you see behind us, that also got cleaned. It used to be filthy.”
Along with a group of other Nishad men, Ram Sujan is playing cards near a field in Rural Gorakhpur, of the five Assembly segments that make up the Lok Sabha seat considered a bastion of Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath.
Ram Sujan’s appreciation of the BJP government may be enough to convince him to vote the party on March 11. But it is also cemented by another factor: his mistrust of Sanjay Nishad, the founder of NISHAD Party, which has allied with the Samajwadi Party for the bypolls.
“In the last election, he went about criticising the SP and even alleged that the party got Phoolan Devi and [former Gorakhpur MLA] Jamuna Nishad murdered. Has he forgotten that? What do we Nishads believe,” asks Mr. Ram Sujan.
Bandit-turned-politician Phoolan Devi is an icon among members of her caste, the Mallahs, of which the Nishads, Kewats, Kashyaps and other riverine communities are sub-castes in UP. This most backward caste is a critical voting segment in Gorakhpur with over 3 lakh members.
Bandhu Nishad, however, differs with Ram Sujan. His vote will go to the SP, not because he is impressed by Akhilesh Yadav or hasn’t seen much change under the BJP but simply as the party has fielded a Nishad. The SP candidate is a young engineer, Pravin Nishad, who is Sanjay Nishad’s son.
“He is our caste-brother. No other reason,” said Mr. Bandhu, a small farmer. “Had the SP not fielded him, I would look for an alternative. And if I find that Muslims are uniting behind the SP, then maybe I will think twice about it,” said Mr. Bandhu, also giving hints of the underlying communal divisions in the State.
The SP hopes that Nishads like Mr. Bandhu don’t change their mind at the last minute.
In the Gorakhpur bypoll, not only will the SP hope to make huge gains with the support of the BSP, by nominating Mr. Pravin of the NISHAD Party, Akhilesh Yadav is attempting to bring together the caste and the Yadavs on the same page. With Dalits and Muslims, they become a potent force, at least on paper.
And this was expressed by Akhilesh Yadav in his speech in Gorakhpur on Wednesday, where he appealed Dalits and OBCs, though without naming them, to unite and show their “large numbers” by pressing the vote button. “They lose when it comes to numbers, and they know that,” he said.
He also conveyed to voters that Mr. Adityanath had insulted Dalits and OBCs by comparing the BSP and SP alliance to that of a snake and mole rat taking shelter together during floods. In his speech, Mr. Pravin referred to himself as the “son of the backward community.”
On social media, the NISHAD Party has been terming the contest as one between the 85% and the 15%, the majority consisting of Dalits, OBCs and Muslims. Though a minor force at the State-level, the NISHAD Party is capable of influencing the result in parts of eastern UP, especially Gorakhpur. In the 2017 Assembly poll, it secured over 5.40 lakh votes in the 72 seats it contested, mostly in Purvanchal.