High stakes for Yogi Adityanath as Gorakhpur starts casting votes
As 57 constituencies across 10 districts of the Purvanchal go to vote in the sixth phase of polling for the UP Assembly elections, all eyes will expectedly be on Gorakhpur, the political citadel of Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, who is also Mahant of the Gorakhnath Mandir that gives the district its name.
Adityanath is making his debut as an Assembly poll candidate from the Gorakhpur Urban seat that has been a saffron bastion since 1989. The result of the fight in Gorakhpur Urban is largely being viewed as a foregone conclusion. In the fray against Adityanath are emerging Dalit leader and chief of the Azad Samaj Party Chandrasekhar Azad, Samajwadi Party’s Shubawati Shukla, widow of late BJP leader Upendra Dutt Shukla, Congress’s Chetna Pandey, who was once a member of the BJP’s student-wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidhyarthi Parishad and the Bahujan Samaj Party’s Khwaja Shamsuddin.
Despite the crowded contest, none in this temple town is willing to give even a fighting chance to any of the Yogi’s challengers.
“Gorakhpur Sadar is not electing an MLA, we are voting for the present and next CM of UP; no matter what anyone may say, his victory from here is guaranteed… what has to be seen on March 10 (date of the poll results) is the victory margin of Maharaj ji (as Adityanath is popularly called here),” said Vishnu Pandey, a hawker in the city’s Padri Bazaar locality.
Pandey’s assertion of Adityanath’s guaranteed victory finds near universal endorsement in Gorakhpur. And like Pandey, almost everyone wonders what Adityanath’s victory margin would be. The BJP has benched its four-term MLA from this constituency, Radha Mohan Das Agarwal, a local doctor who had made his political debut in the early 1990s as a key member of the election management team of Mahant Avaidyanath, Yogi’s predecessor as both Mahant of the Gorakhnath Mandir and Lok Sabha MP from Gorakhpur.
In 1998, when Adityanath contested his first Lok Sabha poll, Agarwal was his election convenor. In 2002, when the BJP denied Agarwal a ticket to contest the UP Assembly polls from Gorakhpur Urban, Yogi was instrumental in fielding Agarwal as a candidate of the Hindu Mahasabha. With Adityanath’s endorsement, Agarwal had made his debut as an MLA in 2002 – the only time since 1989 when the BJP’s official candidate on this seat had faced defeat. Agarwal later joined the BJP and won the seat for the party in 2007, 2012 and 2017. In the 2017 polls, Agarwal had defeated his nearest rival, Congress’s Rana Rahul Singh, by a margin of 60,730 votes.
“The only challenge for Maharaj ji in this election is to win the seat by a higher margin than the one Radha Mohan had in 2017. He has done a lot of work for Gorakhpur, particularly after becoming CM… he has got roads widened, there is a new fertiliser factory, two new universities (the state’s first Ayush University and the Mahayogi Gorakhnath University), an AIIMS… it is for the first time since the days of Veer Bahadur Singh (Congress leader and the only other UP CM – between 1985 and 1988 – from Gorakhpur) that so much development has taken place in Gorakhpur,” Vedprakash Pandey, city-based author and former Principal of the Kisan PG College in nearby Kushi Nagar district, told The Federal.
The doubts some Gorakhpur residents harbour on Adityanath’s ability to better Agarwal’s 2017 victory margin have little to do with the popularity or public support the two leaders enjoy.
“The challenge for Adityanath is because of caste-equations in the city and his own past political rivalries,” said Harsh Sinha, a professor at the Gorakhpur University.
Sinha said that the CM, accused by his critics of promoting Thakurwaad (the Yogi is a Thakur and native of Masalgaon, a tiny hamlet in the Uttarkashi district of Uttarakhand’s Garhwal region), may not get a chunk of the Brahmin votes that Agarwal used to get in the past.
“For Adityanath, the problem is his image as an anti-Brahmin leader and Gorakhpur has over 50,000 Brahmin voters. The SP and Congress have both fielded Brahmins. Azad, a Dalit, is getting a lot of publicity for fighting against Yogi, but he is an outsider from western UP with no base here. Chetna is not a serious challenger and had polled fewer than 2,500 votes when she contested as an independent candidate in 2017. Adityanath will, however, lose Brahmin votes to the SP’s Shubhawati Shukla because her late husband was a popular Brahmin face. Upendra had famously lost the 2018 Lok Sabha bypoll from Gorakhpur to the SP-backed Praveen Nishad (now the BJP’s MP from Sant Kabir Nagar). It was well-known that Adityanath had sabotaged Upendra’s election even at the cost of losing face because the BJP was defeated in Gorakhpur for the first time in three decades under his watch as the CM. There is sympathy among Brahmins for Shubhawati just as there is anger against Adityanath. While this anger won’t cost Adityanath the election, it could lower his victory margin,” Sinha said.
Gorakhpur Urban also has a substantial Muslim vote but, as ironic as it may seem to many, locals believe a majority of the community that is rallying behind the SP elsewhere in the state will vote for Yogi in Gorakhpur, despite his image of a rabid, venom-spewing Hindutva hardliner. Gorakhpur’s Muslims share a deep historical as well as continuing socio-economic bond with the Gorakhnath Mandir. The acerbic attacks the community regularly faces from the Mandir’s presiding Mahant evoke disappointment in Gorakhpur, but don’t trigger an electoral backlash against him.
The chief of the other prominent religious institution in the city, the Gorakhpur Imambara, ‘Mian Saheb’ Adnan Shah told The Federal that he was “praying for Adityanath’s victory” and “hoping people of all communities will vote for him so that he can continue to work for Gorakhpur’s development”.
Adityanath’s challenge, thus, isn’t winning Gorakhpur Urban but securing a higher victory margin than Agarwal’s 60,000 lead of 2017. For the CM, the real test is to ensuring that his party either equals its 2017 performance or improves it across the Gorakhpur district.
In 2017, the BJP had bagged eight seats in Gorakhpur. The district’s ninth constituency – Chillupar – had been won by the BSP’s Vinay Tiwari, son of gangster-turned-politician Hari Shankar Tiwari.
Repeating its 2017 tally, however, appears impossible for the BJP to achieve say many, given claims of anti-incumbency against the party, better social engineering by Samajwadi Party’s Akhilesh Yadav, and even a rarely spoken resurgence of Mayawati’s BSP in the district.
“Before 2017, the BJP had never won more than four seats in Gorakhpur, even though Adityanath or his predecessor Mahants of the Gorakhnath Mandir had huge sway across the district. This time, the BJP is contesting eight seats in the district, while it has given one seat – Chauri Chaura – to its ally, the NISHAD party.
“Barring Gorakhpur Urban, the BJP is facing a tough fight on all seats… in the Khajani Assembly seat, in fact, it is not even in the race and is likely to finish third behind the SP and BSP,” said Manoj Singh, founding editor of city-based news portal Gorakhpur Newsline.
The BJP has denied tickets to its incumbent MLAs in Gorakhpur Urban, Khajani, Chauri Chaura and Sahjanwa constituencies.
In Khajani, the party’s decision to field Shriram Chauhan, minister in the Yogi government and sitting MLA from the Dhanghata constituency in neighbouring Sant Kabir Nagar district, has been met with protests by incumbent two-term MLA Sant Prasad, who had won the seat in 2017 by defeating his nearest rival, BSP’s Rajkumar, by over 20000 votes.
“I have worked hard for the party and won this seat twice. I don’t know why, but the party chose to deny me a ticket and bring an outsider instead. We have pushed ourselves out of the race. Everyone in Khajani is saying that they don’t want an outsider. The fight is now between the SP and BSP candidates (Rupawati and Vidyasagar, respectively) here,” Prasad told The Federal.
The SP and BSP both have a strong presence in the Gorakhpur district, owing to a high concentration of backward caste and Dalit voters.
In the 2012 UP polls when the SP had romped to power in the state, the BSP had bagged four seats in Gorakhpur, while the BJP got three and the SP got one.
The Caimpiyarganj seat was won by Fateh Bahadur Singh, son of former CM Veer Bahadur Singh, on an NCP ticket. Fateh Bahadur later joined the BJP and won the seat again in 2017 to become a sixth-term MLA and is seeking re-election from the seat this time too as a BJP candidate.
In the 2017 polls, though the BJP won eight of Gorakhpur’s nine seats, the party’s victory margins had been comparatively lower than those it had registered in most seats across the state.
The BJP’s Mahendra Pal Singh had won the Pipraich seat for the first time since 1991 with a margin of 12,809 votes against the BSP’s Aftab Alam, while its candidate Bipin Singh had bagged the Gorakhpur Rural seat by a lead of just 4,410 votes over the SP’s Vijay Bahadur Yadav. In Sahjanwa, BJP candidate Sheetal Pandey had defeated the SP’s Yashpal Rawat by 15,377 votes.
Manoj Singh said that the party’s choice of candidates for Gorakhpur’s seats was amusing this time and quotes the example of the Khajani and Chauri Chaura constituencies.
The BJP’s decision to deny a ticket to Chauri Chaura MLA Sangeeta Yadav, who had won the seat in 2017 with a margin of over 45,000 votes – the second highest lead BJP got in Gorakhpur district after Agarwal’s 60,000-margin in Gorakhpur Urban – and give the seat to its ally, NISHAD Party, is a “self-goal”, said Singh.
“In Chauri Chaura, Shravan Nishad, son of NISHAD party chief Sanjay Nishad, is the candidate of the BJP alliance. The BJP was, perhaps, hoping that it will get votes of the Nishads (backward caste community of boatmen who have a huge presence across Purvanchal) in Chauri Chaura, Caimpiyarganj, Pipraich and Gorakhpur Rural segments where the community has a strong concentration. However, the alliance with NISHAD party is not yielding any benefits to the BJP,” said the Gorakhpur-based journalist.
“BJP gave the NISHAD party 16 seats in the alliance to woo the Nishad community but fact is that most of these 16 candidates are actually BJP members – six of them are even contesting on BJP symbol. The Nishad community is also angry with the BJP alliance because of the 16 seats given to Sanjay Nishad, only three have candidates of his community while five each are from the Brahmin and Thakur community and one each belong to the Dalit, Bhumihar and Noniya castes. In contrast, the SP has fielded 10 Nishad candidates,” Singh added.
BJP insiders concede that the party is having a tough time on most seats in Gorakhpur district and that both the SP and the BSP are expected to perform “very well”. A senior BJP leader said that while the party’s central leadership has now left it to Adityanath to deliver a comprehensive saffron win in the district, the CM himself was working against the alliance candidate in Chauri Chaura and backing a rebel BJP leader – Ajay Singh Tappu – who is contesting as an independent.
But Adityanath’s main challenge – both personal and political – say sources will be to wrest the Chillupar seat for the BJP this time. The Brahmin-dominated constituency is a stronghold of Hari Shankar Tiwari, whose rivalry with Adityanath is legendary in Gorakhpur. This was the only seat that the BJP had failed to win in Gorakhpur district in 2017, albeit narrowly, as Tiwari’s son, Vinay Tiwari had defeated the BJP’s Rajesh Tripathi by a margin of 3359 votes. Hari Shankar had won the Chillupar seat for six consecutive terms between 1985 and 2002, variously as an independent or a candidate of the Congress party and its breakaway factions.
Tripathi had managed to win this seat twice as a BSP nominee but in 2017, when he contested as a BJP candidate endorsed by Adityanath, he lost to Vinay. The entire Tiwari clan had shifted to the SP last year, when Adityanath was being blamed for selectively targeting Brahmins across the state and unleashing the state police to crackdown specifically on strongmen from the community.
“The Chillupar seat is, arguably, a bigger prestige battle for Yogi than even his own Gorakhpur Urban seat. His rivalry with the Tiwari family goes back decades. If Vinay (contesting as a SP candidate) wins, it will be seen as a personal defeat for Yogi. The SP is on an ascendant, the Brahmins are angry with Yogi and the Tiwari clan has its own clout in Chillupar… all these factors favour Vinay. If he wins here and the BJP also ends up losing other seats in the district, as is likely to happen, particularly in Gorakhpur Urban, Pipraich, Khajani and Chauri Chaura, Yogi’s stature will take a huge hit because his critics, including those in the BJP, will claim that he couldn’t even secure a strong BJP performance in his own backyard. If this happens, it will be a defeat for Yogi even if he wins by a record margin from Gorakhpur Urban,” said Chittaranjan Mishra, political commentator and professor at the Gorakhpur University.