UP’s final polling phase set amidst Purvanchal’s complex electoral maze

Purvanchal is distinct from other parts of UP. Its extreme economic backwardness and the diversity of its numerous sub-castes, each electorally dominant and increasingly assertive, keep political leaders and pollsters guessing which way it would vote in an election

Purvanchal is a puzzle as political equations of UP turn on their heads in this region. Pic: PTI

Nearly a month after it began from Uttar Pradesh’s western flank, the keenly contested electoral battle to wrest power in the state is now at an end. On March 3, votes were cast across 57 constituencies of east UP (more commonly referred to as Purvanchal). The remaining 54 of UP’s 403 seats are scheduled for polling on March 7; and the results for March 10.

Various factors set these 111 seats, spread across 19 Purvanchal districts, apart from the constituencies and regions where polling had completed in the earlier five phases. Many of the regions that polled in the earlier five phases were reduced by political pundits to caste or religious monoliths – Jatland, Muslim areas, Yadav-belt and so on. Some commentators mercifully favoured branding regions simply as BJP, SP or BSP strongholds or through the prism of agricultural activity – sugarcane-belt or potato-belt – instead of the evidently caste/religion based appellations.

It is, however, difficult to reduce the Purvanchal districts to any of these convenient tags. This is, perhaps, one reason why Purvanchal – distinct from other parts of the state in its extreme economic backwardness, the diversity of its numerous sub-castes, each electorally dominant and increasingly assertive, and rarely ever homogeneous in its electoral preference – keeps political leaders and pollsters guessing on which way it would vote in an election.

Countless political theorists have, no doubt, explained with great academic sophistication the complex electoral maze that is Purvanchal. However, what a retired school teacher in Bhadohi district’s Aurai town told this reporter makes more sense, admittedly for the sheer joy of colloquial wisdom and despite the risk of its essence being lost in translation.

The retired school teacher, Ramesh Mishra told The Federal, “Purvanchal mei Uttar Pradesh ki raajneeti ke saare sameekaran ulat jaate hain. Yahaan Kamandal ka shor hai toh Mandal ka zor bhi hai; agar baaki anchalon mei agda banaam pichchda chal raha ho, toh yahaan agdon mei Thakur banaam Brahmin ho jaata hai… samantwaad aur bahubaliyon ka prabhav hai toh pichchdon, Daliton ke achetan mei apne haq ki badhti chetna bhi hai. Jo bhi dal in sabhi uljhanon ko behtar suljha leta hai, Purvanchal jeet leta hai.”

(Political equations of UP turn on their heads in Purvanchal. Here the cacophony for Kamandal – Hindutva politics – clashes with the might of Mandal – caste-identity politics; if the rest of UP is polarised in a forward vs. backward caste fight, here forward caste Thakurs and Brahmins clash among themselves. If feudal lords and musclemen have their impact, there is also, among the backward castes and Dalits, a growing consciousness about their rights, even if subconsciously. Any party that solves these riddles better wins Purvanchal.)

BJP insiders concede that the party is facing an uphill battle in retaining seats it had won in Purvanchal five years ago. This despite the fact that Varanasi, the Lok Sabha constituency of Narendra Modi, and Gorakhpur, the so-called citadel of Adityanath, both fall in Purvanchal. PTI file pic of PM Narendra Modi in Varanasi

Manoj Singh, Gorakhpur-based journalist and founder of the Gorakhpur Newsline portal, endorsed Mishra’s pithy exposition of Purvanchal’s Gordian socio-political landscape. In a conversation with The Federal, Singh said that barring the 2017 UP polls, no Assembly election had seen Purvanchal vote en bloc for a political party but he also goes on to point out that this was so, primarily, due to some factors that had aligned in favour of the BJP at the time.

Also read: BJP’s two most powerful leaders caught in a tense power triangle

“The BJP’s Hindutva narrative, which subsumed caste divisions to create a monolithic voting bloc, was still on the ascendant at the time. Since the previous state government was led by the Samajwadi Party (SP), which is perceived as soft towards Muslims, this Hindutva consolidation gave the BJP a perfect plank to use its communally polarising rhetoric and simultaneously appeal to voters on the pitch of jingoistic nationalism,” explained Singh.

Further, Singh pointed out that the BJP also weaned away non-Yadav OBCs from the SP and non-Jatav Dalits from the BSP into its Hindutva formation by giving leaders from these communities a greater share in tickets and by allying with outfits that represented these numerically small but electorally important caste groups.

“In Purvanchal, this unprecedented experiment of merging the BJP’s Kamandal with the SP and BSP’s Mandal politics brought a windfall for the BJP,” said Singh.

And yet, despite what Singh terms as an “unprecedented experiment” – one that was more intricate than the overarching Dalit-Muslim-Brahmin caste coalition, which gave Mayawati’s BSP its first majority mandate in 2007 – the BJP had, in 2017, won many of Purvanchal’s seats only narrowly, as opposed to the comprehensive victories it got elsewhere in the state.

BJP’s narrow victory margins in Purvanchal in 2017

Harsh Sinha, political analyst and professor at the Gorakhpur University explained the reason. “When you win 300+ seats in a 403-member House, it’s obvious that your gains in terms of seat-count are uniform across the whole state but when you look at the victory margins and how other parties polled in different areas, irrespective of the seats they actually won, there’s a different image… In west or central UP, the BJP’s victory margin on a large number of seats was above 40,000 to 50,000,” he said, adding that in the east however, the margins were narrower.

Of the 57 seats that went to polls on March 3, the BJP had, in 2017, won 46 while its allies, Apna Dal (Sonelal) and OP Rajbhar’s Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party (SBSP – now an ally of Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party), had bagged one each. The BSP had won five of these seats, while the SP got two and its ally in that election, the Congress, bagged one. Another seat – Nautanwa in Maharajganj district – voted for an independent candidate.

The BJP registered victory margins in the range of 30,000 to even over a lakh against their nearest rivals in other parts of UP, despite modest polling.

However, in Purvanchal, winning candidates across party lines managed to lead by over 30,000 votes in just 20 of these 57 seats. On 27 other seats, margins shrunk to between 10,000 and 30,000 votes. In the remaining 10 seats, margins plunged below 10,000, with winning candidates in seven of these barely scraping through with leads of fewer than 5,000 votes.

In the 54 seats of Purvanchal that will go to polls on March 7, the BJP’s performance in 2017 was even more modest – it had won 29 seats while its then allies, the SBSP and AD (S), had bagged three and four seats respectively. The SP had got 11 of these 54 seats, while the BSP won six and a lone seat went to the NISHAD party (now a BJP ally contesting on 16 seats).

Winning candidates in just 16 of these 54 seats led over their nearest rivals by over 30,000 votes. In 18 seats, the margins were between 10,000 and 30,000. In as many as 20 seats, the winning candidates led by less than 10,000 votes – in several of them the leads were below 2,000 votes.

Also read: All eyes on final phase of polling in UP as campaigning comes to an end

The big Kamandal-Mandal union split

The present election is witnessing an acrimonious divorce in the Kamandal-Mandal union that the BJP had solemnised in 2017. Meanwhile, the SP has restructured its own version of Mandal politics by chipping away at the allies that the saffron party had brought under its umbrella in 2017.

The BJP’s caste-alliance had worked on two fronts in 2017. The party had allied with Apna Dal (Sonelal) of Anupriya Patel and OP Rajbhar’s SBSP to get votes of the Kurmi and Rajbhar castes that these parties represented, respectively. The BJP had also brought into its fold leaders of smaller non-Yadav OBCs and non-Jatav Dalits such as Dara Singh Chauhan and Swami Prasad Maurya, who had earlier been in the BSP and had cultivated a mass base.

Maurya, Chauhan and a host of other leaders of such electorally crucial non-Yadav OBC and non-Jatav Dalits are now in the SP. In the coalition of castes that Akhilesh Yadav has stitched, Mahan Dal, SBSP, Apna Dal (K) and Janwadi Party (S) are all parties representing numerically smaller backward castes that have their concentration in Purvanchal while the Jat-based RLD of Jayant Chaudhary has its roots in western UP.

The BJP, on the other hand, has found a new ally in the NISHAD party and continued its alliance with AD (S). It also has a pact with the Hissedari Morcha, a conglomerate of seven little-known or newly-formed parties such as Bharatiya Suheldev Janata Party, Shoshit Samaj Party, Manavhit Party, Bharat Manav Samaj Party, Musahar Andolan Manch, Manavhit Party, Prithviraj Janshakti Party and Bhartiya Samta Samaj Party, that claim to represent interests of smaller caste groups such as the Binds, Musahars, Rajbhars, Kumhars, etc.

Despite these broad caste-based alliances, neither the SP nor the BJP look poised to sweep Purvanchal, though the SP-led coalition is largely touted to perform better than its saffron rival. Political commentators also claim that despite the BSP’s low key campaign and the Congress’s non-existent presence at the grassroots, it is this belt where the two parties are also likely to register their best performance in the state, though for different reasons.

BSP’s traditional strongholds in Purvanchal

The BSP has traditional strongholds in Purvanchal and in the 2017 polls, 11 of the 19 seats it had won had come from Purvanchal. On nearly two dozen other seats it had narrowly lost. This was, perhaps, because of high concentration of Dalits, particularly Jatavs (Mayawati’s caste) in different Assembly segments across Purvanchal.

“In this election too, despite the SP’s attempt at wooing the Jatavs by fielding some candidates from the community and not attacking Mayawati despite her provocations, the Jatav vote is largely sticking with the BSP in districts like Ambedkar Nagar, Kushi Nagar, Mau, Maharajganj, Siddharthnagar, Bhadohi and Sant Kabir Nagar,” said Ravikant Chandan, Dalit activist and professor at Lucknow University.

“How much of this vote will convert into seats, we will only know on March 10 but I can say with certainty that the BSP’s best performance will be in Purvanchal. On several seats here, the fight is actually between the BSP and SP while the BJP or its allies may finish third,” predicted Chandan.

It isn’t just the abundance of smaller caste groups that explains why it is difficult for any party, particularly one in power, to comprehensively win Purvanchal purely on the strength of a caste-based alliance. The region’s economic backwardness too plays a key part.

Also read: Even in Ukraine issue, Oppn playing politics, says Modi in Varanasi

Anti-incumbency sentiment most visible in Purvanchal

“Purvanchal has always been difficult for the ruling party to retain because anti-incumbency is most visible here. This region is at the very bottom of all socio-economic indices… voters here get disillusioned with any government very quickly,” said Sinha.

He added that the current election has thrown up a massive challenge to the incumbent BJP regime despite its claims of creating a new vote bank of laabharthis (beneficiaries) who got free ration during the pandemic or doles in cash and kind through numerous other central and state government schemes.

Sinha explained that free ration or other populist schemes along with a push for infrastructure development in Purvanchal will give the BJP some benefit but it may not sufficiently offset the public’s anger over rising prices, unemployment or the major issue of stray cattle destroying their crops.

“If you look at incidents of protests by the youth over delays in recruitment for government jobs, the unrest over pension scheme or the huge loss to life and livelihood during COVID, a majority of these were concentrated in Purvanchal. The very laabharthi voters that the BJP is banking on are also the ones protesting against the government on these issues,” Sinha said.

BJP insiders concede that the party is facing an uphill battle in retaining seats it had won in Purvanchal five years ago.

This despite the fact that Varanasi, the Lok Sabha constituency of Narendra Modi, and Gorakhpur, the so-called citadel of Adityanath, both fall in Purvanchal, as do constituencies of over half-a-dozen ministers in the state government such as deputy chief minister Keshav Prasad Maurya, Surya Pratap Shahi, Nand Kumar Nandi, Sidharth Nath Singh, Neelkanth Tiwari, Sriram Chauhan and others.

Over the past six months, Modi has made multiple visits to Purvanchal, announcing a plethora of new schemes in the region and inaugurating big-ticket projects such as the Purvanchal Expressway.

A BJP candidate from one of the Purvanchal constituencies told The Federal that Modi had to camp in Varanasi for three days, Adityanath has been in Gorakhpur since February 27 but not to be surprised if they fail to retain several seats in Varanasi and Gorakhpur.

He anticipated that the losses will be even higher in other districts of the region and many of the BJP ministers are unlikely to retain their seats.

“There is tremendous anger on livelihood issues. Smaller castes that we had consolidated in the past elections are no longer voting en bloc for us because the SP has made better alliances. The only thing that is giving us some hope is that Purvanchal constituencies witness close fights and in a dozen seats we may pull through only because the anti-BJP vote will split,” said the BJP candidate.

CATCH US ON: