Lucknow: In 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi wielded a broom to launch Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, the nationwide campaign for a cleaner India. Modi chose Valmiki Nagar in Delhi — where Mahatma Gandhi once stayed — to launch the campaign.
This struck a chord nearly 500 km away, and inspired many residents of Valmiki Basti in Lucknow’s Luv Kush Nagar to shift their loyalties to the BJP. Luv Kush Nagar, a Dalit-dominated colony, has around 4,000 Valmiki families.
Now, seven years later, seemingly taking a cue from the PM, Congress general secretary in-charge of Uttar Pradesh Priyanka Gandhi visited the Valmiki Basti, cleaned the floor at the Valmiki temple and met many of the families that live there.
Several residents ThePrint spoke to said they were surprised to see Priyanka, adding that the Congress leader has won many hearts after her visit.
Rekha Valmiki, 30, one of the two women who picked up the broom to clean the temple floor along with Priyanka Gandhi, told ThePrint that for the first time in her life “I saw such a big leader standing in front of me”.
“When I was cleaning the floor of the temple campus, Priyanka said she would clean it by herself. Later she came to our locality also to see our houses and meet everyone,” Rekha said.
Another resident, Vinay Valmiki, echoed Rekha. “We have seen such a big personality visiting our area for the first time. I will remember this moment for the rest of my life. When I asked for a selfie she put her hand on my shoulder. Generally, big leaders avoid touching us because we are from the Valmiki community but she touched us, even hugged a lady here.”
Priyanka’s visit could see some of the members of the Valmiki community in this basti shift their political allegiance once again, going by what residents said to ThePrint.
However, it’s difficult to say if Priyanka’s visit to one Valmiki colony would make any impression on the community across the state. The Congress had secured only 7 seats in the 403-member assembly in the 2017 election, and the organisation remains in shambles, with many former legislators jumping ship in the past few months to join other parties.
Dalits, a traditional vote-bank of the Congress, have switched their loyalty to other parties over the past three decades. Until two decades back, the Valmikis in UP were traditional Congress supporters. But ever since, they have voted for a different party every five years.
In 2007, they voted for the BSP. Then, in 2012, their vote went to the SP. In 2017, they supported the BJP, after PM Modi’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. Coincidentally, on all three occasions, the party they voted for went on to form the government.
Now, they say they will once again vote for the Congress.
The residents say they voted for the BJP hoping that the party will fulfil its promises, but that never happened.
“Modi also picked up a broom, it attracted many of us, but Priyanka’s visit had a personal touch. Some of us voted for the BJP, but now will vote for her. She listened to our issues. She promised to solve these issues if the Congress comes to power,” said Sapna Valmiki.
Another resident, Babita, agreed with Sapna. “We voted for Samajwadi Party earlier but this time we will go with Priyanka didi. People from our families are still unemployed, some are working on contract basis as safai karamcharis (sanitation workers) but they are still not permanent. This government made several promises but didn’t fulfil any of them,” Babita said.
Dalits comprise nearly 20 per cent of the population in Uttar Pradesh and are a crucial vote-bank. Except Jatavs, other Dalit castes have supported the BJP in the last few elections.
Experts, however, say it’s too early to comment on who the Valmikis will vote for, although Priyanka’s visit did manage to create an impact.
“Valmikis were traditional Congress voters till the 1990s but later on they supported Kanshi Ram and Mayawati. When the BSP became weak, they found Modi as an alternative as the BJP was focusing on non-Jatavs since 2014. But if they are now thinking of ghar wapsi, it is an interesting point in UP’s Dalit politics,” said Kaviraj, professor of political science at Lucknow University.
“Earlier, the Congress had strong support of Dalits. Their core voters were Brahmins, Dalits and Muslims, but they lost them in the 1990s. If Priyanka is able to bring back (their votes), even half of them, then the Congress could improve its performance.”
Dr Shilp Shikha Singh, a UP-based political analyst and assistant professor at Lucknow’s Giri Institute of Development Studies, added, “It’s too early to say that they will decisively vote for Congress but yes, Congress seems to be making a lot of effort and Priyanka’s presence is being noted by people. She seems to have some potential to draw people’s attention, but things would materialise only if Congress sustains its efforts by taking the right position on important issues.”
‘SP for 2022, Congress for 2024’
Not everyone in the basti Priyanka visited is as keen on the Congress as the residents quoted above. Some said they would vote for different parties in the 2022 assembly elections and 2024 Lok Sabha elections.
Raju Valmiki, 55, claims half the people from the basti will vote for the Congress and the other half for the SP.
“We think SP is better for 2022 state polls, and we will go for Congress in the 2024 Lok Sabha election … SP has strong local leadership, that’s why people from our samaj may tilt towards SP in state polls,” he said.
Satveer Valmiki, another resident, said the councillor from the area is a Samajwadi Party leader who belongs to the Valmiki community, and that makes a lot of difference when deciding whom to vote for.
“At the end, local leadership matters a lot. We have huge respect for Priyanka Gandhi, at least she visited us. We will vote for whoever can defeat the BJP in the upcoming polls, so, as of now, can’t say whether it will be SP or Congress.”
(Edited by Neha Mahajan)