BJP leader Subrat Pathak, who was accused of instigating violence in 2015, during an election meeting in Kannauj district of Uttar Pradesh.
It is a little past noon and scores of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) workers wearing saffron caps have gathered at Hariyali Bazaar, a defunct farmers’ complex, to attend the party’s Vidhan Sabha workers’ meeting. As they wait for the arrival of their leader, Subrat Pathak, a prominent businessman with interests in the ittar (perfume) industry and potato storage, the karyakartas’ (workers) list their grievances against the Samajwadi Party leaders in the constituency.
If the SP promoted the sale of illicit liquor, encouraged bribery and neglected the district’s cottage industries, it was also accused of land grabbing, hooliganism and promoting Yadavvad — a reference to the party’s alleged favouritism to the Yadav caste. The reserved seat, Kannauj Sadar, falls under the Lok Sabha constituency of Dimple Yadav, wife of Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav. The incumbent MLA, Anil Dohre, is from the SP, making it a prestige seat for the ruling clan.
“The MP [Dimple Yadav] comes here thrice in five years, and then too meets only a select few from her coterie, not the common people. The MLA is also missing,” BJP Kannauj vice-president Vikram Tripathi says.
Apart from these criticisms, there is one issue every BJP worker at the meeting refers to: the communal violence that erupted in the densely populated locality of Lakhan Tiraha during the Durga Puja procession in October 2015. Two people were killed in the violence, which led to a curfew. Some BJP leaders were arrested or named in the FIR. Pathak was himself accused of instigating the violence.
Memories of violence
The BJP claims the SP (Samajwadi Party) government falsely implicated its leaders to appease Muslims and that they would protest the “injustice” meted out to them for speaking up for Hindus. “Innocent people were implicated in the case while the main accused are patronised by the SP. We will raise a fight against this injustice,” Mr. Pathak told The Hindu, as he arrived to take the stage. In 2014, he lost the Lok Sabha polls by fewer than 20,000 votes against Dimple Yadav.
The BJP is relying on inciting the memory of that incident. Though locals make passing references to the communal incident, as one travels across the constituency, there is little resonance for it among the people. “Everything is peaceful today. It is not an issue,” says Rohit Joshi, a sweet shop owner who lives in the heart of the troubled area.
The issues more relevant to this seat appear to be development, caste polarisation — mostly targeted against the Yadavs — and the impact of demonetisation. If the SP is relying on holding on to its support based on the goodwill earned by the Yadav family, development work and privileged treatment received by the constituency under Akhilesh Yadav, the BJP is hoping for an anti-Yadav polarisation among the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and the upper castes, and for Mr. Modi’s appeal to pull it through.
The BSP is hopeful that the search for better law and order would push voters, including Brahmins, towards it, so that its core Dalit vote gets supplemented, and that it makes a dent among the Muslims.
No single issue
There is, however, no singular issue that might affect voting. Demonetisation has upset the district’s famous potato farming sector — 20 varieties of the tuber are grown here. But its bearing on voting is hard to ascertain.
Hansi Devi, member of the Kashyap OBC caste, is collecting red potatoes from her field. She complains that the produce on her 13 bighas of land post-demonetisation was halved — the harvest falling from 80 sacks to 40 a bigha. There was not enough cash to buy seeds and urea. So is she waiting to teach the BJP a lesson? Not really. She rejects both Ms. Mayawati (“She does not listen to anybody and works for her caste.”) and Mr. Akhilesh Yadav (“Under the SP, we face the dadagiri of Yadavs.”)
A few feet away, a fellow caste member, young Ram Kashyap, a farm labourer, has different views. “Notebandi has crippled us. Akhilesh Yadav is the best for farmers. The farmer wants electricity and water supply — he has given it all. If farmers have money, we get paid,” Mr. Kashyap says.
Traders bore the brunt of demonetisation. Many of the 110 cold storages here were forced to throw open their potatoes to rot as traders had no money to purchase them. “It felt like we were punished for a sin,” says Nurul Hasan Siddiqui, who suffered losses of ₹12 lakh.
“He did a lot for development but for only one caste; Muslims got lollipops,” said Mr. Siddiqui, who has supported the SP since the Babri Masjid demolition. So is he voting for the BSP? “Yes, if it is seen winning.”
Demonetisation has also upset the district’s famous ittar business — some traders say by 25%. Sales have dropped and raw material has become hard to find and costlier. “Traders were finding it hard to pay their labourers, who do not take cheques,” says Khalil Faruqui, a prominent perfume seller in Kazi Tola, a locality with a significant Muslim population.
He praises Akhilesh Yadav for the steps taken by his government to promote ittar and get a perfume park constructed — last year, the CM also visited France to learn the latest technology in producing perfumes. “The SP government decreased the VAT tax on ittar from 12 to five per cent, and fully did away with tax on rose water,” says Mr. Faruqui.
When I push Mr. Faruqui to comment on the 2015 communal tension, he says: “Muslims were angry that the SP did not support them… but Akhilesh later managed to do damage control. Now, seventy per cent of Muslims are with the SP.”
The SP’s main pitch is the development done by the ruling family. “We have built the medical college, the Expressway, the heart centre, the ITI… bridges were built, a national-level farmer mandi came up, we linked Kannauj-Tirwa by a four-lane and connected Hardoi with a bridge. What did the BJP give, except trouble,” asks Haseeb Ahmed, an SP office-bearer.
The SP has won Kannauj for the last three terms. The BJP won the previous three before that — 1991, 1993 and 1996.
In Kannauj, though the SP has the edge, the game is a triangular one.
The BSP is relying on consolidation of Dalit votes and support of Muslims.
Premwati Chamar, a Jatav, is firmly behind Mayawati, even though she has words of praise for both Mr. Akhilesh Yadav — for proving good supply of electricity, distributing cycles and scholarships to girls — and Mr. Modi—for distributing free cooking gas. “Under Mayawati, at least there will be no goondagardi,” says the Dalit woman. The Dalits in her village claim that during the SP rule, their community members have no hearing in police stations, and complaints are often not registered.
Sunil Valmiki, a Dalit, who voted for the SP last time, also says he will vote the BSP this time. “The SP only listens to the Muslims and Yadavs. And the Modi government is trying to dilute reservation,” he says.
Ram Saran Yadav, a vegetable seller, rubbishes the allegations of preferential treatment to his community. “What benefits did I get? I am voting for SP as it has built the Expressway. It will benefit the whole area.”