No cakewalk for Vinay Katiyar

Venkitesh Ramakrishnan

Lakhimpur Kheri

Time was when Vinay Katiyar projected himself as an icon of a pan-Hindu social identity and political consciousness. That was in the late 1980s and the early 1990s when the politics of Hindutva and the Ayodhya Ram mandir agitation were at their peak. Mr. Katiyar was the president of the Bajrang Dal during those days and one could see him moving from one karsevak meeting to the other, loudly proclaiming that the unified Hindu identity had come to stay in Indian politics.

That advocate of a pan-Hindu identity is nowhere to be seen now as one observes Mr. Katiyar's electoral campaign as the BJP candidate from Lakhimpur Kheri in Uttar Pradesh. In fact, the style and content of his campaign here clearly subvert the very concept of pan-Hindu politics.

Mr. Katiyar's socio-political USP at Kheri, like that of his principal opponent, Ravi Prakash Verma of the Samajawadi Party, is the caste card. Both Mr. Katiyar and Mr. Verma belong to the backward caste Kurmi community, which accounts for approximately 12 per cent of the electorate here. And Kheri has a history of sending Kurmi leaders to the Lok Sabha as many as 12 times since the first elections of 1952.

It is this casteist penchant shown by the electorate of Kheri that has impelled Mr. Katiyar to move from the Faizabad Lok Sabha constituency — which includes the Ayodhya Assembly segment too — when things got too hot for him there as the sitting MP. Several local BJP activists at Kheri told The Hindu that Mr. Katiyar, as the BJP's State president, was the tallest Kurmi leader in Uttar Pradesh and this fact alone should propel the electorate towards him. "The voters know that once he gets elected Kheri will become a VVIP seat and that this will bring enormous benefits," says Ira Srivastava, district president of the BJP.

But it becomes increasingly clear as the campaign winds to a close, that it will be no cakewalk for Mr. Katiyar. The sitting MP, Mr. Verma, has strong family connections in the constituency. His father, Bal Govind Verma, has won the seat four times, his mother Usha Verma twice and he himself has won in 1998 and 1999.

The Bahujan Samaj Party candidate, Daud Ahamed, who was the sitting MP at Shahbad, is also putting up a good fight. He was shifted to Kheri by the BSP president, Mayawati, with special instructions to cut into the SP's Muslim vote bank. The assessment of local BSP activists is that they have more or less accomplished the task.

Recent electoral statistics also do not work in Mr. Katiyar's favour. The BJP had lost all the five Assembly segments in the constituency in the 2002 Assembly elections. The party had a total of approximately 1,70,000 votes from the five segments while both the SP and the BSP had outscored it with 2.1 lakh and 2 lakh votes respectively.

Local BJP leaders such as Dr. Srivastava, however, dismiss these statistics as inconsequential. "Katiyarji came in knowing fully well we were third here in 2002. But his very personality has changed the complexion of the contest here. You will see us sailing through," she says.

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