Voters in Phulpur have started using the word gatbandhan as if it were the name of a party by itself.
Ram Chandra Bharti is wearing a red cap and holding a blue flag. He has just returned to his village in Phulpur after attending a public meeting addressed by Akhilesh Yadav, the Samajwadi Party (SP) leader. Is he an SP supporter now flying Mayawati’s blue flag, or a Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) worker wearing the red cap in support?
“Actually,” Bharti, a member of the Pasi-Jatav caste, said, “I voted for the BJP in the last two elections – the Vidhan Sabha polls in 2017 and the Lok Sabha in 2014. As my own party was declining I wanted to try the BJP.”
Otherwise an ardent supporter of Mayawati, his political choice has shifted on account of a radical new coalition experiment in the Phulpur bypoll scheduled for 11 March, Sunday.
“I would have voted for the SP this time even if Behenji had not asked us to,” he said. “I feel cheated by the BJP. They’ve given us poor people nothing.”
Not too far away, the old-age pension of his neighbour Hoob Lal Pasi, 70, has been stopped by the Yogi Adityanath government. He used to get Rs 500 per month under a special scheme introduced by the Samajwadi government Akhilesh Yadav had led.
Very few have received LPG cylinders and solar lights, the two men claimed. Only BJP supporters have received such benefits. The list of complaints is long: MNREGA payments have stopped, jobs are nowhere in sight, and so on.
They are not alone. Feeling left out of access to power, Dalits across the Phulpur Lok Sabha constituency are surprisingly turning up to support the SP this time.
The grand experiment
How could this happen? In the past, Dalits and Yadavs, BSP and SP, have been sworn enemies. From Mayawati and Mulayam Singh Yadav to the village level, they have clashed with each other. They have levelled the same allegations in the past: that Dalits don’t get the fruits of power when the SP is in power, and that Yadavs feel virtually disenfranchised when the BSP is in office.
The enemy of my enemy is my friend, the logic goes. They ask you about the alleged Rs 15 lakh Prime Minister Modi had promised in their accounts, but that is just a ruse. The real issue is that caste relations have shifted on the ground — as upper castes now have access to power, Dalits and Yadavs feel left out.
BSP cadres are reminding voters about the riots against Dalits in Saharanpur last year, in which one Dalit had died. The recent vandalism of an Ambedkar statue in Meerut has also caused disquiet in the Dalit bastis of rural Phulpur.
Mayawati under pressure
On their part, Yadavs are also happily flying the blue flag, as if they had always been waiting for the BSP to reciprocate their love. It’s an alliance for power, an equal transaction both parties feel happy about.
The SP wasn’t expecting it. The BSP does not contest bypolls as a matter of principle, because they say bypolls are usually won by the party in power and thus creates a false perception of popularity.
The Phulpur and Gorakhpur Lok Sabha constituencies fell vacant because Gorakhpur MP Yogi Adityanath became chief minister, and Phulpur MP Keshav Prasad Maurya became one of the two deputy chief ministers. As the bypolls came close, Mayawati herself told reporters that she had asked her party for ground reports and then decided to ask BSP supporters to vote for whoever could defeat the BJP (which meant the SP).
But this did not amount to a pre-poll alliance, she said.
Why she decided to effectively support the SP is clear when you speak to Dalit voters and the BSP’s disciplined cadres. There was a demand from the ground to do so. BSP booth workers say this alliance will result in the BJP getting defeated and then an SP-BSP alliance in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls will be inevitable.
It is a desperate act that Mayawati would have liked to avoid. She has often said publicly that the BSP’s Dalit votes transfer easily to other parties but their vote-banks do not vote for BSP candidates.
But Mayawati has been left embattled by an audacious BJP that made a serious dent on her vote-bank, particularly the non-Jatav Dalits, in 2014 and 2017. If Mayawati’s core voter base shifts away, she will become politically irrelevant. Fighting this slide to oblivion, she has little choice but to listen to what Dalit voters have to say.
BJP may still win
The BJP might still win the Phulpur bypoll. It may win because their support among upper castes and non-Yadav OBCs is mostly intact. This combination alone makes them a strong contender.
The BJP might win because Atique Ahmad, a Muslim criminal-politician, is contesting independently, promising serious damage to the SP.
The BJP might win Phulpur because the Yogi and Modi governments have undertaken massive development of roads, flyovers and highways over Allahabad, of which Phulpur is a part.
The BJP might win because voters don’t want their constituency to be on the wrong side of a government – both at the Centre and in the state.
The BJP might win Phulpur because the BJP’s Kurmi candidate, Kaushalendra Patel, is from the right Kurmi sub-caste, despite being an ‘outsider’ from Varanasi. He also has the support of the BJP’s ally, the Kurmi party Apna Dal.
Still, if the BJP wins the Phulpur bypoll, it will be despite the Dalit consolidation in favour of the SP.
Voters in Phulpur have started using the word ‘gatbandhan’, meaning alliance, as if the ‘gatbandhan’ were a party by itself. The BSP’s support to the SP has created the buzz that the SP is very much in the race, making Phulpur a suspenseful match.
Shivam Vij is Contributing Editor at ThePrint.