With the ‘lathi, hathi aur 786’ arithmetic on its side, the gathbandhan has a clear edge in Azamgarh.
At the peak of the Modi wave in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Azamgarh was one of the five seats that the Samajwadi Party (SP)—in power in Uttar Pradesh at that time— had won out of a total of 80 from that state. Three years later, in the 2017 State Assembly election, when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swept the state, winning 325 of 403 seats, the SP and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), contesting separately, had managed to save all the five state assembly seats that were part of the Azamgarh Lok Sabha constituency, from the BJP.
Two years since, the SP and the BSP have come together to keep Narendra Modi away from power at the centre. And Azamgarh is the seat where the arithmetic at the core of this alliance —lathi, hathi aur saat sau chiyasi (stick, elephant and 786, symbols of Yadav, Dalit and Muslim communities)—is the strongest.
Yadavs, Dalits and Muslims, three of the largest social groups in the Azamgarh Lok Sabha, form around 19 per cent, 16 per cent and 14 per cent respectively, of the total population of nearly 18 lakh. This explains why the BJP has fielded Bhojpuri superstar Dinesh Lal Yadav 'Nirahua' against SP chief Akhilesh Yadav.
Swarajya visited all the five Vidhan Sabha constituencies part of the this Lok Sabha seat to gauge the mood of voters from different communities.
On the road from Varanasi to Azamgarh, we met a group of young men from the Yadav community in Gaura village of Mehnagar Vidhan Sabha’s Koilsa block. The men, all in their early thirties, are voting for SP chief, Akhilesh Yadav.
Brijesh Yadav, a school van driver, says everything that one can see in the town has been given by Akhilesh Yadav. “He (Akhilesh Yadav) has built a new hospital very close to our area, gave us a commissionary and operationalised a sugar mill. What has Modi ji done?,” Brijesh says, adding that the current government has not built any new roads. “Agar aap yahan ek saal pehle aye hote toh yahan har jagah etne-etne (gesturing with his hands) gadde dikaye dete (If you had come here a year back you would have seen large potholes),” the van driver claimed.
The men seemed unimpressed with Modi’s welfare schemes. Ashok Yadav, a college dropout who works at a mobile shop, said the Modi had announced free gas connections, toilets and houses just before the Lok Sabha elections. “Elaan toh kiye Modi ji , lekin kaha chala gaya sab pata hi nahi chal raha (Modi has announced, yes, but no one can make out where it has all gone),” he said.
Sonu Yadav, who runs a small kirana shop in the village, also claimed that people in the area had not got houses, toilets and free gas connections, but later accepted that some from the area’s Chamar community have benefited.
When asked what they think about BJP candidate Nirahua, the three men dismissed him as a non-serious candidate. “He is here today for elections, but may go back to Bihar tomorrow to sing and dance in movies,” Sonu said.
Few kilometers away, in the Khutwa Chak Khutawa village, three men from the Chamar community, sitting at a tea point, told this correspondent that they were voting for the SP.
Harihar Prasad, a small-time contractor, said “eak purv mukhyamantri lad rahe hain, toh sabhi ko unko vote dena chahiye (when an ex-CM is fighting the election we must all vote for him)”. On being asked if he was upset with Mayawati for joining hands with the SP, he said whatever had happened in the past between the two parties was done by Mulayam Singh. “Akhilesh will never call Mayawati anything other than bua (aunt),” the thekedar said, adding, “We will vote for anyone Bahanji points at”. Ram Kishor, a construction worker in his early fifties, and Rakesh Kumar, a student currently preparing for competitive exams in Allahabad, agreed.
But Guddu Ram, who joined the conversation midway, disagreed and said he may vote for the BJP. A Yadav, Guddu claimed, had fraudulently taken away his property. “Hamare sath atyachar hua hai (We have been cheated),” he said, identifying as Chamar.
Interestingly, there was agreement among the four men on the question of badlav under Modi. They praised the government’s road-building spree and agreed that many deserving families have got gas connections, houses, and toilets.
In the Mehnagar bazar, Bikram Pandey, a farmer from Bhikampur village, said he is voting for the BJP as Modi is the only person who can guarantee the country’s safety. “Hamko yahi chaiye ki hamara desh surakshit rahe. Desh agar surakshit hai toh hum bhi surakshit hain. Hum Modi ke alawa kisi ko vote nahi denge (What we want is that our country should be secure. If our country is secure, we are secure. We will not vote for anyone other than Modi),” Pandey, who claimed to have not benefited from Modi’s schemes, told Swarajya.
Rajender Prasad, who runs a battery repair shop in the Mehnagar bazar and identified as a Dalit, said he too will vote for the BJP. Hesitant to speak at first, unlike Bikram Pandey, the battery mechanic said his community had benefited directly from Modi’s schemes.
Santosh Chauhan, a Dalit who runs a stationary shop in the market, and Ankit Kumar, a carpenter from the Vishwakarma community listed under Other Backward Classes (OBC), are also voting for the saffron party. Apart from praising Modi’s welfare schemes, Santosh said this government has broken Pakistan’s back with surgical strikes. “Surgical strike kar ke Modi ji ne kamar tod di hai Pakistan ki (By doing the surgical strikes, Modi has broken Pakistan’s back),” the shop owner said.
Ankit, who did not give his reasons for supporting Modi, said there is fear among the non-Yadav voters in areas around his village. “Hamare ghar ke samne Yadav samaj ka ek aadmi zabardasti gate khol raha hai. Panchayat me bhi hum log bol chuke hain. Vo log bolte hain jo karna hai kar lo (Right in our land one man from the Yadav community is making a path to his house. We have complained to the Panchayat. They say do whatever you have to do),” the carpenter added.
Santosh, who initially told this correspondent that gundagardi (rowdyism) in the area had stopped under the Yogi raj, recalled an incident from Phanehni village where some villagers who had put up BJP flags on their houses were threatened by SP workers, including a Member of Legislative Council, Kamala Yadav, to remove them. Hindi daily Jansatta had reported this incident from Phanehni on 29 April. The Indian Express also reported a similar incident from Maukudubpur village on 6 May.
Arvind and Sakaldeep Vishwakarma, who work in an iron workshop in the market close to Santosh’s stationary, are also voting for the BJP. The workshop where the duo works has a flag of the BJP placed prominently at its entrance.
In Mehnagar’s Ambedkarnagar panchayat seat, at a pan shop a few kilometers away from the market on the same road, we met Praveen Singh, who was working in Delhi until recently and is back at home currently. A BJP voter, Praveen says, “Modi has been working tirelessly for the country. Just recently, we scored a diplomatic victory with UN’s ban on Pakistani terrorist Masood Azhar”. Deepak Kumar, a Dalit teacher who is at the pan shop to buy his daily dose of tobacco, is not impressed. “All of Modi’s schemes are jumlas (empty statements)”, he says. Deepak is voting for the cycle (SP) as Mayawati, who he says is the community’s only leader, has asked Dalits to do so. Ramauta, a Dalit lady who has a small fruit shop along the road, will also vote for the SP giving similar reasons. “I won’t lie. I have got a gas connection but not a house,” she says.
But women in a Dalit colony a few steps away have decided not to follow Mayawati’s directions. “Who else, if not Modi?” asks Chanauti, who’s daughter-in-law, Meena, has got a house, a toilet and a gas connection from the government. Her neighbours Kripa and Phoolmati, who have also received these benefits, will also vote for the BJP.
On our way to Azamgarh city, we met two auto electricians in Mehnagar, Mahmood Ahmad and Mohammad Haroon, who say they are unhappy with Modi’s interference in religious matters such as Triple Talaq. “If things aren’t good between husband and wife, the former has the right to stop talking to her at first and in case of no improvement, is allowed to be strict and can hit her if need be,” says Haroon, adding, “Modi’s interference is completely wrong. This is not his job”.
When this correspondent asked if they had benefited from Modi’s welfare schemes, Haroon said he had, but added that all Modi’s schemes are aimed at “giving individual benefits to people rather than doing something for the society”.
In Azamgarh City
Our next stop was in Azamgarh city (under the Azamgarh Lok Sabha constituency ), where we met Shadab Ahmed, who is a garment shop owner, and Anwar Mustafa, who is planning to set up a new business. The two men recalled Yogi’s last visit to Azamgarh, during which, they claim, BJP workers who were part of the road show made tact-less comments against the Muslim community, to which provocation they responded with stone pelting. Both Ahmed and Mustafa are voting for Akhilesh Yadav, who, they say, has delivered development in the region, including a hospital, which most SP supporters mention.
Some Hindus who own businesses in the same area tell a different story, and many of them will be voting for the BJP.
Sudhir Gupta, who owns a plasticware shop says the opposition’s only aim is to stop Modi. “The only motive of all the parties in the opposition is to stop Modi at all costs as all their sources of earning money have dried up in the last five years. All they do is blame Modi for everything that happens in the country. They do not offer any solutions for problems that the country is facing today. How can we elect them?” says Gupta, a resident of Mukeriganj. Ravi Kumar Madhesia, a tobacco trader, Ganesh Modanwal, a tea seller, and Sashi Prakash Maurya, who did not wish to disclose his profession, are also voting for the BJP.
But Harish Yadav, who runs a cyber cafe across the road, is supporting Akhilesh Yadav.
“I feel Akhilesh Yadav has brought a lot of projects to this area. I have a lot of respect for Modi ji. He is constantly working for this country’s betterment. But I can’t see its effect in Azamgarh. I see a lot of development in areas around our city, especially Gorakhpur and Varanasi. But I feel that my city has been left out,” he said. And so is Manoj Kumar Jaiswal, who calls himself a ‘Bhajpayee’. “I am voting for Akhilesh Yadav keeping his stature in mind. I have voted for the BJP all my life and would have definitely voted for the saffron party again this year had it fielded a leader senior than the former chief minister,” the kirana (grocery) wholesaler said.
A Stop at Mulayam Singh’s Adopted Village
Next, we visited Tamauli, the village adopted by SP patriarch, Mulayam Singh Yadav, under the Sansad Adarsh Gram Yojana, after winning from the Azamgarh Lok Sabha seat in 2014. The village, around seven kilometers from the city’s main railway station, has over 4,000 residents, around 80 per cent of whom are Yadavs. No one from the Yadav clan has visited the village in the last five years and almost all of the facilities brought here after the adoption are now in tatters due to oversight and zero maintenance. And yet, most from the village’s Yadav community are voting for the SP.
Rajender Yadav, who works for a private firm in the city, and Mahesh Kumar Yadav, a truck driver who operates in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, say Modi’s schemes have not reached their village and all the development one can see in the village has been executed by the Yadav clan and their representatives in Azamgarh.
“Mulayam Singh has built roads in the village, and brought a Parag milk collection centre and a water purification plant to the village. No one from the family has visited us in these years, but their officers have got all the work done. If the work continues, we can do without seeing their faces,” says Rajender, standing in front of a toilet being constructed under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan.
Mahesh, when asked about the condition of roads in UP and Bihar, says, “Modi has not not got any new roads constructed in the last five years. All the work that you see in UP was passed by the Akhilesh government”, the truck driver said.
Jaisingh Yadav, a truck driver who operates throughout India, swiftly dismissed Mahesh Yadav’s claim. “No government in the past has built more and better roads than the Modi government. It has made my life so easy,” he says. But that’s not his reason to vote for the BJP. “Mayawati had once said that she will bring Yadavs to fall at her feet and she seems to have achieved that with this alliance,” Jaisingh says, adding, “uska kya bharosa. Kya pata kab gathbandhan tod de. Mai gathbandhan se khush nahi hun (How can we rely on her? Who knows when she will break the alliance? I am not happy with this alliance)”.
Both the reverse osmosis water purification plant and the Parag milk collection centre set up in the village after its adoption by Mulayam Singh are not operational now. The milk collection centre, 19-year-old Divakar Yadav says, was a “flop idea” because it used to procure dairy products at a very low price. “People in the village preferred selling milk directly in the city instead of giving it here as they earned more that way,” he said. The water purification plant, Master’s student Ajay Yadav says, has not been functioning for over a year now. “Hum log complaint kar chuke hain. Koi nahi sunta hamari (We have already complained. But nobody listens to us),” he says. Nevertheless, both of them will be voting for SP chief, Akhilesh Yadav.
The village also has a small Dalit community. Lalchani, a Dalit women who was sitting on a charpoy outside her house, refused to say who she would vote for. Her family has received funding for a toilet, but she wasn’t aware which government had sent it. “Sauchalaya Modi ji diye hain? (Has Modiji given this toilet?),” she asked this correspondent.
Kumhari, another Dalit women from the village, who now has a gas connection, a house and a toilet, says she will vote for the BJP. “Modi ji is bearing my family’s burden. I have got a gas connection, a latrine, and a pukka house in which you are sitting,” she said. When asked who she had voted for the last time, Kumari said, “hathi (elephant)”.
Anirudh, a Dalit man who works in fields owned by the Yadavs, is voting for the SP chief. “The promises Modi ji made have not been fulfilled. Not just that, the Yogi government has now let loose cattle who are eating up the crop,” he said. Anirudh also mentioned that he had voted for Mayawati’s candidate in the last election and recalled that the Yadavs had stopped Dalits from casting their vote. “We were stopped from casting our vote for Mayawati’s candidate Munna Singh. We were told that our vote will be cast (un logo ne kaha tha ap log vote mat dalo, aap logo ka vote daal diya jaye ga). There was violence and we had to call the police to intervene,” he said. Interestingly, many Yadavs in the village confirmed Anirudh’s claim.
In Sagri, Gopalpur And Mubarakpur Vidhan Sabha Constituencies
The next day, our first stop was at Anjan Shaheed village on the way to Sagri Vidhan Sabha constituency. Ganga Prasad Thathera, who runs a steel utensils shop, is voting for the BJP. His neighbour, Vinod Kumar, who runs a photo studio, did not disclose his choice, but said he is impressed with Modi’s work. “There is no one like Modi. He is working hard inside the country and outside. He should be the country’s prime minister for five more years,” Vinod told Swarajya. However, he is unhappy with the choice of candidate. “Modi kyo nahi kisi bade neta ko ticket diye yaha se? (Why didn’t Modi give a ticket to some big leader from here?),” he asked, saying Nirahua will not be able to attract voters from the Yadav community.
A few kilometers away on the same road, outside the campus of the Sagri Tehsil office, Nabi-ud-Deen Khan, who runs a stationary shop, said he will vote for the SP. When this correspondent asked what he feels about Modi’s work, he said, “Hum logon (Muslims) ko to unka koi kaam nahi dikh raha hai, jisko dikh raha ho wo vote de (We people cannot see any work that he [Modi] has done, those who can see it can go vote for him)”.
Chandhari from Ulemapur and Sushil Kumar from Allipur, both of whom are from the Dalit community, had voted for the BSP in the 2017 state assembly elections. This time, they are supporting Akhilesh Yadav because of the gathbandhan. “We will go where Mayawati ji goes, even if it is the BJP,” Chandhari said.
At a snacks shop a few meters from the Tehsil gate, Rahul Modanwal, who serves tea, admitted to being a Modi ‘bhakt’. Rahul, who keeps track of Modi’s activities through his Facebook page, said the prime minister has made sure that those attacking India are killed in their homes by our soldiers. “Pahle ki sarkar sirf jawano ko marte dekhti rehti thi, kuch karti nahi thi. Ye Modi ji badal diye hain (Earlier governments would just watch our soldiers die, they would do nothing. Modiji has changed this),” he told Swarajya. Devender Patel, who was having tea at the shop, said he too will vote for the BJP.
On our way to Bilariyaganj in the Gopalpur Vidhan Sabha constituency, we met a group of men from the Nishad community. The men, who were heading to the market to sell fish, said they will vote for Nirahua. Mukhai Nishad, the senior most of them all, said he had received Rs 4,000 under PM Kisan Samman Nidhi Yojana. Badri Nishad, who is from the lake village of Azmatgarh, recalled the surgical strikes and air strike as Modi’s best decisions. “Humko Modi ji se kuch nahi mila, par unpar vishwas hai (We got nothing directly from Modiji but we place our trust in him),” he said.
The Nishad Party, which has a strong hold on this community, had joined the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in April after supporting the SP-BSP alliance for the Gorakhpur and Phulpur by-polls in the state last year. Praveen Kumar Nishad, who had won the Gorakhpur by-poll on a SP ticket, too joined the BJP last month.
In Jiyanpur bazzar, Mahendra Kaushal, a tobacco trader, and his neighbour Arvind Kumar, who owns a sweet shop, will also vote for the saffron party. “Modi has not just given people houses and toilets, but has also taken care of smaller things. A few years back, one had to wait in line for hours to get a gas cylinder. Today, we can book it using our mobile phones and it is delivered to our place without hassle,” he said.
When asked why he isn’t voting for Akhilesh Yadav, Arvind Kumar, who is from the Halwai community listed as OBC, said that under Akhilesh’s government, all the seats meant to be filed with OBC candidates went only to the Yadav community. “Non-Yadav backwards do not exist for the Samajwadis. Take the example of the the sugar mill operationalised by his (Akhilesh Yadav’s) father. Around 151 people employed in the mill have been brought from their area, Etawah and Mainpuri,” he told this correspondent.
At our next stop in Gopalpur’s Bilariyaganj market, we met a group of men from the Yadav community at a tea and sweet shop. Baijnath Yadav, a farmer, and Ramsagar Yadav, an auto driver, said they are with the gathbandhan. “I have never seen a prime minister who has spent so many days outside the country,” he said, borrowing from one of the opposition’s most common attacks against Modi. “Agar Mayawati pradhan mantri ban jaye, Modi aur Yogi pakka jail jayenge (If Mayawati becomes the Prime Minister, Modi and Yogi will surely go to jail),” Ramsagar Yadav said, with most men from his community nodding in agreement.
Vikram Vishwakarma, a carpenter who runs a small shop in the market, said he will vote for Modi. “I have voted for different parties at different times. But this time, I like Modi and will vote for him,” the carpenter, in his sixties, said while some men from the Yadav community heckled him. “Ask these men what wrong Modi has done. They will not let me speak,” he said, even as the heckling continued. “Modi imandar aadmi hai, pakka aadmi hai. Unke kaam ko koi kaat nahi sakta hai (Modi is an honest and trustworthy man. Nobody can take away the work he has done),” he added.
Gita Devi Modanwal, a widow who runs the tea and sweet shop, said she too will vote for the BJP. “We are very happy with Modi. What hasn’t he done? Has he not given us toilets, houses and gas connections?,” she said. “I won’t lie. I haven’t got any of these benefits from the government. But may deserving families have. Modi has done his job exceptionally well and everyone should accept this truth,” she added.
The heckling continued while the elderly women spoke with this correspondent.
From these conversations and many more that this correspondent had in this Lok Sabha constituency over two days, multiple trends emerged:
One, Dinesh Lal Yadav ‘Nirahua”, although very popular in this part of the state, does not seem to have made much impact on the Yadavs. Most Yadav voters Swarajya met either dismissed him as a “nachania, padania” (words used for performers in a derogatory sense) or said he does not have the same stature as Akhilesh Yadav. Some Dalits and traditional BJP voters too see him as a non-serious candidate.
Two, Dalits, who are likely to be the kingmakers in this seat, face a tough choice. Having benefited from Modi’s schemes, they are not bitter with his government. In our interactions with this community, it was clear that the Dalits who have benefited directly from Modi’s welfare schemes, both Jatav and non-Jatav, are behind the BJP. Others, who are voting for the SP, suggest they will vote for anyone Mayawati ties up with.
Three, most non-Yadav OBCs, such as Viswakarmas, Prajapatis, Mauryas and Halwais, are firmly behind the BJP. This trend is consistent with reports from other parts of Uttar Pradesh. The BJP has fielded at least 27 candidates from non-Yadav OBC background, a figure marginally higher than the 24 it fielded in 2014.
Four, in parts of the constituency, some Dalits and non-Yadav OBCs complained about 'gundagardi’ by the Yadav community. Given their large numbers, some voters from these communities told this correspondent, the Yadavs always succeed in having their way. This too is likely to affect voting patterns here.
Five, a large number of upper caste Hindus, present in significant numbers in the Azamgarh Vidhan Sabha seat, are voting for the BJP.
Six, Muslims, even those who have benefited directly from Modi’s schemes, are firmly behind the gathbandhan. With SP and BSP coming together and the Congress not fielding a candidate, the choice for Muslims appears easy.
With the ‘lathi, hathi aur 786' arithmetic on its side, the gathbandhan has a clear edge over the BJP. But, if nothing else, a mix of Modi’s welfare, vikas and nationalism is making sure winning Azamgarh is not a cake walk for Akhilesh Yadav.