The sprawling village of Kalan is set in 1,200 bighas of fertile land in the southeastern corner of Uttar Pradesh’s Sultanpur district. An early spring sun filters through the trees onto the ruins of Somit Pratap Singh’s hereditary home. He is supervising the building of his new home, as the mountain of bricks before which he sits suggests. Somit has just completed his MSc from the Shri Vishwanath Degree College nearby and hopes to become a primary school teacher, once the Assembly elections conclude and recruitment is resumed.
Three days before polling in the Kadipur Assembly constituency (February 27), in which this village falls, we talk about the electoral prospects of the parties in the fray. It’s BJP versus BSP here, he says confidently. His vote, like that of his fellow Thakurs, will go to the kamal ka phool (lotus, the BJP symbol). He suddenly rushes off and returns with a large notebook, flips it open and shows me a family tree he has drawn up painstakingly. It goes back two centuries. “It’s important that future generations know who their ancestors were,” he stresses.
The Thakurs, BJP loyalists
Indeed, pride in their heritage is a recurring theme with the Thakurs who dominate the village politically, own the largest tracts of land, and are patrons of education. Kalan has many shortcomings, but it has an array of educational options in its immediate vicinity from the government school and degree college to the swish Shivbrat Children’s Academy and an engineering college: it ensures that virtually every child here is getting an education. The last named is administered by Uma Shankar Singh, the former pradhan of Kalan, who studied at Mumbai’s K.C. College and the Mafatlal Institute before embarking on a 25-year-long career in textile quality control that included a stint at Subbu Textiles in Tamil Nadu’s Erode district.
Rajendra Bahadur Singh, a primary school teacher in a neighbouring village, claims his family’s arrival in these parts predates Rana Pratap — a Thakur icon — who ruled in the sixteenth century. His ancestors, he says, came as horse traders from Amer in Rajasthan, overthrew the Rajbhars who were the local rulers at the time and settled down in the village of Khanpur Pilai, less than five km from Kalan. “Today,” he proclaims proudly, “Our clan of Kachwaha Thakurs is spread over 52 villages and the Rajbhars work on our land. But we don’t have any social relations with them.”
It’s a given that Rajendra and his family, including his elder brother who holds a PhD in sociology from Lucknow University and has done research work at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, will vote BJP. “It is the only nationalist party — all educated people will vote for Narendra Modi,” he says.
And then he adds, “This time, the Rajbhars, who are traditional BSP supporters and even voted for the party in 2014, have shifted to the BJP.” The reason? A brand-new Rajbhar party, the Bharatiya Samaj Party, that takes its inspiration from Raja Suhel Dev, ironically enough the Rajbhar king who was defeated by the Thakurs, has allied itself with the BJP this time.
Rajbhars shifting right?
In Kalan, the Rajbhars, an OBC community, are numerically larger than the Thakurs but, barring the Musahars (earlier rat catchers but now landless labourers), are the poorest in the village. Its members largely live below the poverty line. A handful are marginal cultivators not even growing enough to feed their families, while the vast majority are landless labourers here.
The Rajbhar quarter in the village is a tongue of land surrounded on three sides by lush green fields of paddy and mustard. But most of it belongs to another OBC community, the Badhais, traditionally makers of agricultural tools, but whose secondary occupation is cultivation.
The crowded mud hovels in which the Rajbhars live are a far cry from the well-lit havelis and whitewashed bungalows of the Thakurs, equipped with modern conveniences. Some have laid out their string beds outside their homes. To protect themselves from the elements and the mosquitoes, they have opened out used fertiliser bags and stitched them into mosquito net-like canopies for their beds.
“Our ancestors left us no land,” says Sanichara sadly, “so we work on the lands of the Thakurs and the Badhais.” Rajpati and Mala join in the conversation to complain they have the “ lal rang ka card ” (BPL card) but don’t get any of the welfare benefits that others seem to enjoy. “No one cares whether we are alive or dead,” says Mala. “We have no proper drains or toilets, and a kucha (unpaved) road leads to our dwellings.” Her nephew, Munna, is a mason who has seen a bit of life outside the village. “Look at Bihar: have you seen the pitch (tarred) roads there?” he says enviously. “Here we were told that everyone with a red BPL card would get a free bulb, and pay ₹25 on electricity. But we are being made to pay ₹270.” In the hand-to-mouth existence that they live, that makes a big hole in their meagre earnings.
So has anyone come to seek your votes, I ask. Yes, says Rajpati, someone from the BSP. But when I ask who they are voting for, the women say, “ Kono palan nahin (We haven’t decided yet).” Mala adds, “ Jahan public jutegi wahan jayenge (Wherever the majority is going, we will follow).”
Sanichara’s father-in-law, Motinath, with matted long hair and a straggly unkempt beard, is more forthcoming: “The cycle [the SP symbol] is looking at its community, the elephant [the BSP symbol] at its community. We are trying something new: we’ll vote for the kamal .”
As I turn to leave, there is a surprise. Sanichara, Rajpati and Mala follow me. As soon as they are out of earshot distance from their menfolk, they grab my arm and whisper in my ear: “We like Mayawati: we have attended her rallies in the past. We are going to vote for her. Don’t you think that’s a good idea?”
Camp BSP: the Dalits
If the Thakurs of Kalan have memories of military triumphs stretching over several centuries that gives them the self-confidence to take on the challenges of life, the BSP phenomenon has empowered the Dalits over the last 25 years. Indeed, though Akbarpur, the birthplace of the socialist leader, Ram Manohar Lohia, is less than 40 km away, only old-timers in the village have fleeting memories of him, with a statue and a few educational institutions named after him there. Instead, with BSP founder Kanshi Ram making this region — of which Kalan is a part — one of his social laboratories, it is the BSP that continues to have influence here.
In Kalan, numerically too there are roughly the same number of Dalit families as there are Thakur households, adding to their sense of power. As I walk to the Dalit quarter, right at the heart of the village, this is immediately visible, especially among the women and the younger generation.
Uneducated Dalits like Ramachal and his wife Usha are marginal farmers, who supplement their income by carrying bricks at building sites. But they have nothing left at the end of the month. Ramachal’s ailing father gets a pension, but that’s about it. They complain about notebandi (the demonetisation exercise) and are a bit subdued, but their eldest child, Sonu, who is in Class XI at the local government school, is not. He says he wants to be an engine driver and see the world. His mother butts in to say sourly, “Where will we get the money for the bribe?” But Sonu remains cool and instead explains the Pythagorean theorem with aplomb — a tribute both to him and the school where he studies.
At 17, he doesn’t have a vote but clearly takes an interest in politics, for it is he who says that his parents will vote for the elephant. “ Behenji [BSP chief Mayawati] ran a very good government and the BSP is our party. We are all elephants,” Sonu stresses.
Like Sonu, one of their neighbours, Sunita Devi, who works at an Anganwadi, has her own world view. An attractive young married woman, she is the mother of three little girls, and has studied till Class X. “Modi had said ghar ghar sauchalaya [a toilet in every house], but we have no toilets yet,” she says. “We will vote for Behenji because she gives the most benefits. When my eldest child was born, she was in power and the government gave ₹1 lakh insurance for the baby. When my daughter turns 18, I can use the accrued money for her marriage.”
I tell Sunita I had heard that a BJP representative visited the Dalit quarter, and ask her what she thinks of the Prime Minister. “Yes, Rajesh Kumar [a BJP activist] came here and said, vote for kamal ka phool. I told him we are haathi [elephant] people, so forget about it.” And then she takes off on the Central government: “I was expecting my third child last November and had gone to my parents’ home in Azamgarh district. Thanks to notebandi , my parents had such a tough time raising the ₹5,000 for me to have the child at a private hospital.”
So what does she expect of the Prime Minister? “When we choose a Prime Minister, we do it in the hope that he creates a harmonious atmosphere, and works for the welfare of all the people. Then everyone will be happy. We don’t expect notebandi — everyone sitting at home and crying,” she says.
If the Dalit women are committed Mayawati supporters, some of the men are considering other options. Ramprakash, a bus conductor who earns ₹4,000 a month, says, “We are haathiwalen but it’s not necessary that we will all vote BSP. Modi has done some good work: let’s try him once.” His fiery young wife, Shashikala, and their neighbour, Meera, turn on him: “Rubbish! He has done nothing. We women at any rate will vote BSP.”
And then comes another surprise. Meera says, “Our grown-up sons are considering another option — Akhilesh Yadav [of the SP], because he has given cycles and laptops.”
The split backward vote
But Mayawati has other admirers among the backward castes. In Kalan, there are half-a-dozen homes of the Lohars, traditional blacksmiths, but who have now turned to carpentry, with many moving to Mumbai. The Lohars have some land, but it is not enough to feed them. Saroja Surajlal Vishwakarma, the young daughter-in-law of one Lohar household, is an ardent Modi admirer. But her aunt-in-law, Parvati, who lives in Mumbai and is here on vacation, hates the Prime Minister. She had to pawn her jewellery to get her husband treated after demonetisation devastated their carpentry business. “Someone who begs for your votes should not oppress you. Life was best for women under Mayawati. I have been to her rallies,” she says firmly.
But not all communities who vote BSP have been empowered. Take Kalan’s only Musahar family. Ram Chander, his two brothers, and his wife Lakshmina, who suffers from a nervous disorder, live on the edge of the village. Three decades back, they lived in a small room in the nearby kasba , and would travel to Kalan for work. One day, a Thakur said that he would give them a piece of land in exchange for which they would have to make sal leaf pattals (plates) and clear away the soiled plates. Now no one eats from those plates and they do odd jobs to eke out an existence. They also have a little stall on the main road where they sell chewable tobacco, potato crisps and toffees.
If the Lohars are divided, another backward caste, the Chaurasias, traditional betel growers and a community that has social relations with the Thakurs, are firmly with the BJP. Kalan’s current pradhan Bimla Devi was away in Mumbai to attend to her husband Chottey Lal, who is admitted in a hospital there after he sustained a heart attack. They have a thriving betel leaf and motor parts business in that city. That is evident from the imposing three-storey house they are building in the village, with tiered, carved balconies that curve around the structure.
Their younger son, Krishna, who has a BSc degree, is standing in for his mother. He reels off all the improvements he has made to the village — drains, roads, electricity — and says he hopes to contest the seat when it is de-reserved. His elder brother Mukesh, who is going to sit for the entrance exams for a government job, and he are both BJP supporters. Mukesh says he likes the BJP but wishes the party would not try and divide society — also he makes it clear that reservation for OBCs must continue. But Krishna likes the party for its anti-Muslim stance: “They tease our girls in Muslim-dominated areas and the SP gives them protection,” he says, adding, “I want Yogi Adityanath to be Chief Minister.”
In Kalan, however, the Muslims are a miniscule minority, no more than six families, two of whom live on one edge of the village. But the two — related to each other — have quarrelled over land, and a wall separates their homes. Tabassum is a young widow. She and her daughter live with her mother and sister-in-law. They have no land, so her brother who works in Mumbai sends home money to support them. “My daughter, Saina Bano, has friends at the private school she attends, but none in the village.” For much of the year, they live in splendid isolation: “Most people don’t know we are Muslims, so we go and play Holi,” she says and then adds, “We invite people for Bakrid.” Yes, she will vote, she says. “I hear people are voting for Mayawati. I’ll do the same.”
The Yadavs in Kalan are predictably supporters of the SP: they are largely educated and financially on a stable footing. Sangeeta, a young housewife who also works at an Anganwadi, lives in a joint family. Her brother-in-law Rajesh has an MA degree and is looking for a job. But the family has enough land to not only to feed itself but also sell in the open market. Everyone here says they are voting SP, but it is the younger members who answer the difficult questions. The cherubic-looking Saurabh is only 16, but clearly sharper than his elders: when I ask the family what they have to say about the Yadavs cornering all the benefits, it is he who responds, measuring his words carefully: “Do only OBCs walk on the roads or benefit from the ambulances and police vans? Are they the only ones who get pensions? Yes, there may be many Yadavs in the police and forces because we are a martial people. But the bureaucracy is dominated by Kayasthas and Brahmins. Why not talk about that?”
And then Saurabh springs a surprise. He will be of voting age by 2019 and he says: “I am very impressed by Modi’s personality. I think many in my family will vote BJP in 2019.” His uncles demur but he has let the cat out of the bag. After SP patriarch Mulayam Singh Yadav came to power, through the 1990s and the 2000s, political power helped the Yadavs prosper materially and enter the middle class. Their aspirations have changed and many no longer wish to be associated with a party associated with lathi-wielding musclemen. If the advent of the polished Akhilesh Yadav has held them back, the results of the current elections could well determine the future voting patterns of the community.