In this erstwhile Yadav bastion, both Mulayam and Modi are hugely popular, for different reasons.
But while many secretly root for Modi as PM, publicly, they have to display support for the alliance owing to ‘community controls’.
At our first stop in Etawah city in Uttar Pradesh, we meet three men, all in their late 50s, at a grocery shop. Ram Prakash Yadav, Rakesh Kumar Goswami (a brahmin) and Kuldip Kumar Nai (a dalit). All three say they want Narendra Modi as the next prime minister.
However, not all will be voting for the Bharatiya Janata Party when the Etawah Lok Sabha constituency goes to polls today.
Yadav gives his reasons why he would vote for the gathbandhan. "We know Kamlesh. He often visits our area and even touches out feet," he says. Kamlesh Katheria, son of former Samajwadi Party MP Prem Shankar Katheria, is the candidate for SP-Bahujan Samaj Party alliance.
Ram Prakash Yadav says he cannot think of any alternative to Modi and that Modi is good for the country. "But we have to stand with our community. Anyway, one vote wouldn't make a difference," he says, and adds, "Ayega to Modi hi (Modi is sure to come)."
Goswami says his family has always voted for the BJP and this time would be no different. Kuldip Nai, an SP voter, says he will vote for the BJP for the first time. "Modi is good. He is good in every way. He is good for the country and good for Indians," he says. He seems thrilled about voting for Modi.
Ram Prakash Yadav cuts in, "Even my son will vote for Modi. Young people do not think like us."
A little away in the same market, Mohammad Irshad, 40, is repairing electrical appliances. He says he will vote for the gathbandhan because all the development we see around in Etawah has been done by Akhilesh Yadav. He, however, adds that he is not against Modi. "I don't say Modi is bad. I wouldn't mind him as the next PM, but Akhilesh deserves to win from here," he says.
In Etawah LS constituency that has about 18 lakh voters, Chamars and Yadavs dominate the voter demography. This gives the SP-BSP gathbandhan a natural edge. However, several other factors could swing the elections in the favour of BJP, which toppled SP here in 2014.
First, a quick glance at the success that the SP-BSP alliance tasted here way back in 1991, which was a social experiment of sorts. At a time when BSP founder Kanshiram was trying to consolidate the Scheduled Castes in UP into a political force but had failed in his last two consecutive LS polls in 1988 and 1989, he announced his candidature from here.
Etawah was a Yadav stronghold, and birthplace of Samajwadi Party patriarch Mulayam Singh Yadav. The senior Yadav backed Kanshiram's candidature and, in a surprise result, Kanshiram defeated Bharatiya Janata Party's Lal Singh Verma by about 20,000 votes.
Shortly later in the 1993 Assembly polls in UP, this alliance managed to stop the victory march of the BJP at the peak of the Ram Temple movement. It was the first election in UP after demolition of the Babri mosque.
Twenty-eight years later, the two parties are again in an alliance against a confident-looking BJP and it is being said that the union will deliver favourable results again.
However, much has changed since in all these years. Etawah, a reserved LS seat, is now Dalit-dominated. Dalits now comprise about about 26 percent voters in Etawah, almost half of them being Jatavs (the rest are Chaks, Katherias, Koris, Katherias, Valimikis and Dhobis). This has happened especially after the Jaswant Nagar Assembly segment became part of the Mainpuri seat after the fresh delimitation of constituencies in 2008, shifting a considerable chunk of Yadav voters out.
Moreover, the BJP is no more a party of only the upper castes as it used to be, and now counts as its voter bank a sizable number of non-Yadav OBCs (other backward castes) and non-Jatav dalits. In 2014, the BJP had won all 17 reserved seats in UP.
This time, BJP's sitting MP, Ashok Dohrey, a Jatav, is fighting on a Congress ticket. Instead, the BJP has fielded its incumbent Agra MP Ram Shankar Katheria against Kamlesh Katheria.
Ram Shankar Katheria, who is also the chairman of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes, has been a Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh pracharak in Etawah and has been working towards consolidating non-Jatavs for the BJP.
Here's how the caste break-up looks like: Apart from dalits, there are about 1.80 lakh Yadavs, 1.5 lakh Lodhis, 2.25 lakh Brahmins, 1 lakh Shakyas and 1.20 lakh Muslims. In 2014, SP and BSP together had a vote share of 48.89 percent against BJP’s 46.71 percent.
If the gathbandhan is banking on the consolidation of Yadav-Chamar-Muslim votes, the BJP stands to benefit from the Shivpal factor. Akhilesh's estranged uncle Shivpal, who has fielded Shambhulal Dohre as a candidate for its newly formed Pragatisheel Samajwadi Party-Lohia (PSP-L), is expected to shift a sizable chunk of the SP’s core Yadav voters.
He has also made a dent among Shakya voters. In the same market, we meet Subhash Chandra Shakya, who is buying vegetables. He says he had decided to vote for SP but as its most prominent Shakya leader, Raghuraj Singh Shakya, has joined Shivpal's party, his vote too will go to (PSP-L). On his choice as the PM, Shakya, again, named Modi.
Our conversations with several members of the Yadav caste reveal that the community will not vote for SP en masse. In Bharthana, a 61-year-old man, a Yadav, says he will vote for the BJP as "he admires Modi". However, as soon as others join in, he changes his statement completely and begins rooting for SP. He later explains quickly, before leaving the spot, "Biradri se alag bolenge to ye hamein dhamkayenge (if we speak differently from the community, they will threaten us)."
However, in villages, Yadav voters are firmly with SP, or in their words, “firmly with our community”. Shiveer Yadav, a farmer in a village in Dibiyapur, complained that Modi hasn’t given him the Rs 2,000 promised under PM-KISAN scheme. He, however, said that even if he got it, he would only vote for SP.
Several Jatavs we spoke to, also stood firmly with the gathbandhan. Their reasons, mainly, were that demonetisation and Goods and Services tax (GST) had hit them hard. Vineet Kumar, a Jatav, was also against digital India. "Half the times, their machines don't work, whether it's for Aadhar biometrics for ration or in banks. It used to be much simpler. BJP has only harassed us," he said.
Vineet said he wanted to see Mayawati as the next PM.
On our way to Auraiya, Sandeep Singh 'pandit' and Tejpal Thakur, are sitting at a tea shop. Both are upper castes and ardent supporters of Modi. They don't mention any reason why, but ask in return, "Who else will you vote for? Pappu?", and have a good laugh.
Asked about the current MP, the two say they have no special dislike for Ashok Dohrey nor any liking for Ram Shankar Katheria. "Out vote is for Modi and Modi alone," they say in reply.
In Dibiyapur, Dharmendra Kumar Gupta, 48, who owns a grocery store, says the BJP will sweep Shakya, Lodhi, Brahmin, Thakur, Baniya, Katheria, Dhanuk and Dhobi votes.
“Not even one member of these communities will vote for anybody else. Take it in writing from me,” he says. Prashant Rao, a 24-year-old student who happens to visit Gupta’s shop, says he is behind Akhilesh as he has seen him in rallies.