New Delhi: Two allies of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are independently vying for the Nishad community votes — a dominant subcaste spread over the banks of the Ganges across Purvanchal in Uttar Pradesh and the borders of western Bihar.
The community is extremely important to the national party’s re-bid for power in the 2022 UP Assembly election.
Both parties, the Vikassheel Insaan Party (VIP) in Bihar and the Nishad Party in Uttar Pradesh, are trying to leverage their hold over the community that form 14 per cent of UP’s population. Up for grabs are almost 70 seats in west UP where the group — mostly fishermen castes — has a large presence.
VIP National President and lone minister in the Nitish Kumar cabinet, Mukesh Sahani, has announced he will contest 150 seats in the upcoming UP polls.
Chief of Nishad party, Sanjay Nishad, will also contest polls in alliance with the BJP, but with a caveat — he wants the post of the deputy chief minister, as well as several berths in the UP cabinet.
Both parties, though not on the same page yet over an alliance, want more representation of their community in the state assembly.
The two Nishad parties
Mukesh Sahani, also known as the son of Mallah or boatman, inaugurated his party office in Lucknow last week and announced he had identified 150 seats to contest in Uttar Pradesh. He said party offices in 18 divisions would be ready in the state on 25 July — the death anniversary of Nishad community stalwart and bandit queen Phoolan Devi. Events will be organised in all district headquarters on this day, he said.
More importantly, Sahani has invited Nishad Party chief Sanjay Nishad to join him in contesting the polls together.
But Sahani played it safe when directly asked about the alliance. “My doors are open for any party but my first preference would be the BJP,” he told ThePrint.
The VIP mainly represents fishermen in Bihar. Sahni got 11 seats to contest after switching sides from RJD-led Mahagathbandhan to Nitish Kumar’s camp in the last Bihar election. Though Sahani lost, four of his party members made it to the Bihar Assembly.
Sahani was accommodated in Nitish Kumar’s cabinet on the instructions of Union Home Minister Amit Shah. He was appointed the animal husbandry and fish resources minister.
Having grown in clout, Sahani recently sent the Nitish Kumar coterie into a huddle after he met prominent Dalit face and another NDA partner Jitan Ram Manjhi. The Nitish-led NDA government is precariously balanced by both Sahani and Manjhi.
Nishad Party chief Sanjay Nishad rose to prominence when his son Pravin won a 2018 by-poll with help from the Samajwadi Party in Yogi Adityanath’s stronghold Gorakhpur.
The party was founded in 2016 and managed to win only Bhadohi out of the 62 seats it contested.
In 2019, Amit Shah stitched an alliance with the Nishad Party and Pravin won Sant Kabir Nagar constituency. Ever since, the party has been restless to carve out a meatier role in the state cabinet. It is understood Sanjay Nishad wants to be the next deputy chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. He also wants to contest in 50 seats in 2022.
Nishad, however, downplayed any suggestion of an alliance with the VIP. The party has no base in Bihar, Nishad said, adding, “Yet he is inviting me to join him!” Nishad was sceptical about VIP’s prospects in UP since “it has no organisational structure”. “If VIP truly wants to enhance the interests of the Mallah or fishermen community, he should first ensure reservation for them in Bihar,” he said to ThePrint.
Nishad said it was in plain sight who had “worked for the community in Uttar Pradesh” and that it was up to the BJP to stitch an alliance with the right partner.
A top leader of the Nishad Party added: “It is a BJP ploy to encourage the VIP to fight in Uttar Pradesh. They want to snub our demands. But this strategy will only harm the BJP because the VIP has no party presence in Uttar Pradesh.”
Mukesh Sahani, however, scoffed at allegations that they are fighting on behalf of the BJP. He said: “We are an independent party. Both states share a bond over the Ganges and concerns of the Nishad community. That is why we are exploring options in UP. I have invited Sanjay Nishad to join hands to strengthen the Nishad voice.”
The Nishad factor
The Nishad community comprises 22 subcastes like Sahni, Bind, Kaul and Tiyar which collectively is a dominant political force on the banks of the Ganges, Yamuna and Gandak.
They stay in Purvanchal, Uttar Pradesh and the bordering districts of west Bihar.
The tallest community leader in Bihar was former MP Jai Narayan Prasad Nishad. In Uttar Pradesh, there was Phoolan Devi and Samajwadi Party politician Vishambhar Prasad Nishad.
In Uttar Pradesh, the Nishads make up 14 per cent of the demographics and influence over 70 constituencies from Bhadhoi, Jaunpur, Gorakhpur, Varanasi, Ballia, Deoria to Basti.
Nishads claim they are descendants of Nishadraj, a boatman king, who helped Lord Ram cross the Ganges with Sita and brother Laxman during his exile. This ancestry, Nishads say, makes conspicuous their “status as natural partners of Hindu politics”.
Top BJP leaders believe that a split in the Nishad vote would harm the party’s prospects in Purvanchal. One leader said, “The Nishad vote is an important block for the BJP in 2022. The party has already honoured the community’s demand to put up a statue of their king Nishadraj in Prayagraj. Amit Shah has also assured Sanjay Nishad that all other concerns would be debated.”
The foundation stone of the 180-foot statue was laid at Shringverpur, the capital of the erstwhile Nishadraj kingdom, three months ago. It will cost Rs 34 crore.
UP BJP Vice President Vijay Bahadur Pathak said: “Only the BJP has fulfilled its promises to the Nishads. Apart from the statue, the party also sent Jai Prakash Nishad to Rajya Sabha.”
Another BJP leader told ThePrint: “Seat-sharing talks have not yet started. The Nishad Party is unnecessarily flexing its muscles. The BJP high-command is not averse to power-sharing provided it is justified. At the same time, BJP will try not to split the Nishad vote in Purvanchal.”
Given the Nishad Party’s past alliance with the Samajwadi Party, the BJP is treading softly to not antagonise the father-son duo.
It is learnt, the SP is also trying to woo the party back to its fold.