UP Election 2017: Will BJP suffer in Varanasi with millenials unhappy with MP Narendra Modi?

This story first appeared on Firstpost on 03rd March 2017.

Mehboob Ali says his business has been getting better. It is almost up to 40 percent of what it used to be prior to November last year. “We sat idle the next two months,” he says. “It is gradually picking up over the past few weeks.”

The famous weaver’s community of Varanasi, numbering almost two lakhs in the district, is still grappling with the effects of demonetisation. Ali, 20, who is steering the business his grandfather started, says the family has been struggling to make ends meet. “We are still standing in bank queues for bearer cheques, on which our business runs,” he says. “We have to pay salaries of Rs 2,000 every week to every laborer. Their bread and butter is in our hands. We know how guilty it feels to delay their payment.”

Ali did not study beyond high school, and joined his father’s business at the age of 10. He has four younger brothers in school, who he hopes would not join him. “I quit studies because I could help my father make more money and my younger brothers would be able to study,” he says. “I want them to find better jobs. Move out of Varanasi, if possible, Uttar Pradesh.”

Ali

Most of the millennial voters in the weaver community express their desire to break out of the family business, but mention lack of employment in the same breath. If they can afford better education and are lucky enough to get a job, they say, they would take it. Family business, which is not in the best of shapes, is a fallback option.

Unlike the rest of Uttar Pradesh, where Modi is hailed as a crusader against corruption, weavers in Varanasi question the motives and objectives behind demonetisation. Their vote is mostly going to Akhilesh Yadav. “Electricity rent for the machine is only Rs 85 a month,” says Ali. “Akhilesh did that. We have done better under his government.”

But Varanasi is a complex place, where Bismillah Khan played his eternal shehnai and, at the same time, thousands of devout Hindus take a dip in the Ganges.

Along with the weavers, Brahmins form a formidable votebank in the district. Brahmins — who constitute about 13 percent of the state’s population — are pivotal in about 20 parliamentary seats, especially in eastern UP. Varanasi is one of them, which is why cries of reservation are louder among the millennial voters.

Bhumika Shukla, studying conflict management and development at BHU, says her father is in the Uttar Pradesh police, and transfers and promotions are extremely biased. “The Yadavs are favored above others,” she says. “And it is true everywhere. It is much more difficult for me to get a government job as compared to a Yadav. There is a reason why they say ‘yeh Yadavoki sarkar hai’. The reservation system has to be revisited.”

Bhumika

Students say they don’t think of caste or religion, but only of development ahead of casting their vote. But they are vocal about reservation and know which party has fielded how many Brahmin or OBC candidates across the state.

There is 27 percent reservation for OBCs and it’s said the Yadav community benefits most from it, with the Samajwadi Party often accused of favoring them over others. There are murmurs of an anti-Yadav vote being consolidated behind BJP. However, even though it is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s parliamentary constituency, it does not seem like a cakewalk for the BJP.

Eight constituencies from Varanasi will go to polls on 8 March. Three seats lie in the city of Varanasi, and five in the rural district. In the north Varanasi seat, two BJP leaders are contesting independently because they did not get the party ticket. If they eat into the BJP’s voteshare, the SP-Congress alliance could sneak through. In the south, 55 percent are Muslims, who are likely to consolidate behind the alliance as well. In the cantonment seat, the contest is too close to call. Of the five rural constituencies, Ajay Rai and Surendra Patel of the gathbandhan are difficult to beat.

Apart from criticism of Modi and Akhilesh echoing through the rest of the state for communal and not being able to handle law and order, respectively, among the youth in Varanasi, there is a sense of disillusionment with the prime minister, for the city has hardly changed after he became an MP. It still suffers from the issues it suffered earlier. “There is no proper drainage facility, the city is full of dirt and filth,” says Ankit Yadav, an MSW student at Kashi Vidyapeeth. “Modi has made a lot of promises but he hardly keeps them. The Rupee is falling. GDP has taken a hit. Where is ‘achche din’?”

Ankit Yadav

Further, the changing discourse at educational institutes in India is also a talking point among students at BHU. After appearing on Rajdeep Sardesai’s show, Manesha Shukla and her three friends received rape threats for speaking out against gender injustice. “Girls cannot participate in protests or debates, there is injustice with the food we are served, and there are restrictions on clothes and timings as well,” says Manesha, a BSC second year student at BHU. “They keep an eye on who we hang out with.”

Students who have spent more than three years at BHU say the culture was liberal, and the discourse was free prior to the current vice-chancellor’s appointment. Now, celebrating Valentine’s Day can lead to cancellation of hostel. Even teachers say they hesitate expressing their socio-political views on social media, and the posts of students and teachers are monitored. Teachers with Right leanings have it easier, they say, and discussions on Gandhi have reduced, while those on Golwalkar have increased in seminars.

A 24-year-old girl, pleading anonymity, says she was happier with the earlier vice-chancellor, and lately feels claustrophobic because of increasing restrictions. “The ABVP is also getting belligerent at BHU,” she says. “They ride around with their bikes and indulge in moral policing. We have seen what they did at Ramjas and JNU. Personally, I would not have minded voting for the BJP. But with the rising influence of ABVP and decreasing free space at universities, I will now think twice before voting for them.”

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UP Election 2017: Azamgarh’s first-time voters prefer Owaisi to Adityanath; trend could hurt BJP’s chances

This story first appeared on Firstpost on 2nd March 2017.

Twenty-five-year-old Mohammad Faizal is intently watching a video on his smartphone. There are not many customers at his vegetable shop at around noon, which is why he has joined a group of other vendors, who are discussing politics over a cutting chai at a nukkad. As others engage, Faizal is engrossed in the video. It is a speech by Asaduddin Owaisi. “Inke jaisa neta nahi India mein (There’s no leader like him in India),” he says. “He is the only one who fights for the rights of Muslims.”

While Owaisi’s rising popularity is no news, the significance of Faizal’s statement lies in his location. He hails from the Sanjarpur village of Nizamabad constituency in Azamgarh, a district where Samajwadi Party won nine out of 10 seats in 2012 Assembly election. Faizal’s gravitation towards Owaisi is a direct consequence of his disillusionment with Akhilesh Yadav. “He did not fulfill a single promise he had made,” complains Faizal. “Reservation for Muslims, release of innocent youngsters picked up as terror accused. Further, look at the way Muslims suffered in Muzaffarnagar.”

Faizal, 25, regrets voting for Samajwadi Party in 2012.

For a man to sit in Azamgarh and refer to Owaisi as the only Muslim oriented leader in the country speaks volumes. Faizal regrets voting for Samajwadi Party in 2012. And however much he would have liked, he cannot vote for Owaisi. He will, then, shift to the next best option he has: Bahujan Samaj Party.

The SP-Congress alliance, which is banking on the Muslim consolidation to sail through the halfway mark, may be in for a rude shock in Azamgarh. With significant fragmentation of Muslim votes, and the fact that BSP had lost many of these seats by small margins, the alliance is unlikely to come up with satisfactory performance in the district, which could be called the strength of SP. It is a district with 27 percent Muslims, and sizeable Yadav and Dalit population. The simple arithmetic being, consolidation of any two of the three ensures success. In 2012, Muslims and Yadav rallied behind SP, but Mayawati could dent the alliance by adding to her Dalit vote base in attracting Muslims, who are disillusioned with the SP. The Ulema Council has also rendered its support to Mayawati.

Faizal says the law and order is in shambles and the police has been unable to rein in Yogi Adityanath’s Hindu Yuva Vahini, whose activists often trigger clashes with anti-Muslim remarks.

Almost every second millennial voter lists “communal harmony” along with employment as an election issue in Sanjarpur.

It is the village that gained notoriety after Batla House encounter, which some say was fake. Two more youngsters from that village have been picked up as terror accused. There have been murmurs of several youth from Azamgarh joining Indian Mujahideen, and one was convicted for 2013 Dilsukhnagar blasts as well. But many youngsters have been acquitted too. In February 2016, a lawyer was felicitated here for freeing 10 from terror charge. Villagers say the police has troubled innocent people too often. Opposition leaders including Amit Shah have labeled it ‘Atankgarh’ and it hurts the villagers here.

Sajid’s brother is in Saudi and he too would have liked to migrate but cannot, for his mother would be lonely.

“Picking up Muslims on mere suspicion and keeping them in jail without any concrete proof has become a habit,” says Faizal. “Look what happened in the case of Delhi blasts. Those who have been picked up from here would also be acquitted after 10-15 years. In 2012, Akhilesh said he would ensure speedy inquiry into those who are languishing in jail. But he has done nothing. Muzaffarnagar riots happened under his watch. A sugar mill just came up here and not a single Muslim got a job. How is he a leader of the Muslims?”

Almost every second or third house in Azamgarh has a member in Saudi, for the lack of jobs here has forced youngsters to migrate. Mohammad Sajid, 25, from the neighbouring village of Khudadadpur with its sprawling mango orchards lined up one after another, says his brother is in Saudi and he too would have liked to migrate but cannot, for his mother would be lonely. “My father passed away 13 years ago,” he says. “I teach in a nearby Madarsa and looking for a better job.”

As the rugged, potholed road takes one away from rural Azamgarh into the town, issues of the millennial voters do not change, only the priorities are shuffled. Education and employment supersede communal harmony.

Otherwise a bustling developed town with adequate public transport and better roads, Azamgarh suffers from not having a university. At the Shibli National College of Azamgarh, every student expressed this gripe. “Akhilesh had visited the college,” says Nasir Khan, 24-year old LLB student. “He said he would consider declaring this college a university. But nothing has happened on that front.”

Due to lack of higher educational avenues, almost every student expressed the desire to migrate, especially to Allahabad, which is where most students from across Uttar Pradesh go to prepare for further exams of various streams. For the students of Azamgarh, they have an added disadvantage. Abhinav Singh, 23, who is pursuing MA in English literature, says he was refused a room in Allahabad because he hailed from Azamgarh. “I have started telling people I am from Lucknow,” he says, as the vast ground in the campus looks on. “I will migrate for sure. It is impossible to get a job without jugaad in UP.”

Abhinav Singh, 23, who is pursuing MA in English literature, says he was refused a room in Allahabad because he hailed from Azamgarh.

There is no doubt the anti-incumbency exists in Azamgarh, and there is a significant shift from SP to BSP. However, Akhilesh’s personal popularity remains intact. How much of that translates into votes and whether he is able to retain a reasonable voteshare remains anybody’s guess. Nasir says in spite of his reservations, he would like to see Akhilesh given another chance. “He is the best of the lot right now,” he says. “Mayawati is too narrow-minded. And less said the better about BJP. It nurtures people like Adityanath. And their leaders have often defamed Azamgarh.”

Iqra Parveen, studying BSC Mathematics first year, said it is sad the land of Kaifi Azmi is defamed for no reason. “I like how Akhilesh has focused on girl’s education, laptops and development of the state,” said the burkha-clad granddaughter of the famous poet Sagar Azmi. “Azamgarh is a place with rich history. We live in harmony and peace. If the BJP could indulge in less communalization and more governance, it would genuinely bring the country together.”

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UP Election 2017: In Faizabad, BJP foot soldiers working towards Ram Mandir, but does the youth care?

This story first appread on Firstpost on 27th February 2017.

There are theories. And then there are theories. During the ongoing Uttar Pradesh Assembly election, even the most astute political pundits have at best offered theories. In Faizabad’s most intensely fought seat of Ayodhya, there are theories suggesting Ram Mandir is an issue, and there are theories suggesting it is not.

As far as the youth is concerned — which this series aims to catch the pulse of — they remain ambivalent about it. The slogan-chanting millennial voters riding their bikes through the narrow bustling streets of Ayodhya with a saffron bandana wrapped around their heads and tikas on foreheads crave for the Mandir, and there are no prizes for guessing that. At the same time, a noticeable chunk feels what 22-year-old Gaurav Sonkar thinks. “Mandir will not ensure a job for hundreds of youngsters like me,” said the MSW student at Ram Manohar Lohia University in Faizabad. “What good will it ever achieve?”

Thinking of the majority of youngsters, however, lies somewhere in between Gaurav’s and the mob chanting “Jai Shree Ram”. Mandir does not get a mention in the top three election issues with millennial voters. Those spots are reserved for employment, women security and better standard of living. But when asked if it needs to be built, most, especially the upper caste Hindus, answer in the affirmative.

 

Gaurav Sonkar, 22, thinks employment is more important than some temple.

Rashmi Sharma, 20, a microbiology student in Faizabad, said she would be happy if it is built. “It is a holy place for Hindus,” said the daughter of an army man. “Hindus across the country come to Ayodhya. It is our identity. It would only be just if the Mandir is built.”

When Ayodhya goes to polls on 27 February, close to 40,000 Brahmins would be voting, and the BJP is eyeing to get a lion’s share of it. In 2012 assembly elections, Tej Narain Pandey of the Samajwadi Party won the Ayodhya seat, which hurt the ego of BJP. In a bid to displace “the party of the Muslims” from “Ram Ki Nagari”, the BJP has thrown all its weight behind its candidate Ved Prakash Gupta, who used to be with BJP until 2007, then defected to SP and Bahujan Samaj Party before coming back to BJP again. Even though it is said the workers do not like him for his attitude, they have put it aside to focus on the larger picture.

The RSS and BJP combined, are campaigning vigorously in Ayodhya. A senior journalist said that if the Brahmins vote against Pandey, who is a Brahmin and a sitting MLA, in favour of Gupta, a baniya, it is clear the vote is for Hindutva and Ram Mandir. “Pandey has been one of the better candidates of SP,” he said. “But I am sensing the public wants to reverse the 2012 verdict.”

Suresh Sharma, 21, MSc first year student in Faizabad, said the Mandir should be built soon. “It is part of the Hindu culture and it would be nice if it is preserved,” he said.

BJP workers in Ayodhya said they campaign on the plank of mandir during door to door campaign.

However, as one moves away from Ayodhya, the issue of Ram Mandir fades in the other four constituencies of Faizabad. The district has a large Dalit population, which makes Mayawati a serious contender. Kori, Dhobi and others could come back to BSP after voting for BJP in 2014, although BJP would retain a segment of the share. The second largest community among Dalits, Pasis, are split between SP, BSP and BJP. But Chamars, who are the largest among Dalits and form 12 percent of Uttar Pradesh’s population, have always been with BSP and would not desert behenji.

Sunil Kumar, 23, an MSW student in Faizabad, said he has always backed Mayawati because “SP indulges in its own form of communalism to counter BJP’s poison”. “We need a leader who will ensure law and order and who thinks of the poor,” he said. “Akhilesh promises smartphones and gives away laptops. Instead, why not empower the electorate with jobs so they can buy their own laptops.”

In Gosainganj constituency, the BSP is giving BJP a run in its bid to displace the sitting SP MLA Abhay Singh, against whom there is a fair amount of anti-incumbency. BSP’s Nishad Dharmaraj, who is contesting from here, has been a minister before, could end up upsetting BJP.

While Mayawati’s base vote is significant, experts doubt if she would be able to get the add on vote, in order to overwhelm the other two heavyweights she is fighting against. Especially among the non-Dalit youth, her popularity wanes, where Akhilesh and Modi split the honors.

Everyday scores of people arrive at the VHP workshop where a model of Ram Mandir is kept.

In Rudauli, for example, there are around 70,000 Muslim votes, which had split between the three parties in 2012 and BJP candidate ended up winning. Reports suggest the Muslim vote this time around is consolidating behind SP, which has the edge in Milkipur and Bikapur as well.

But the politics over caste and religion disgusts Gaurav. He believes the educated, at least, should move beyond it. “If caste or religion influenced my behavior, majority of my friends would not be Muslims or Dalits,” said the son of a fruit seller, who has four more siblings. He added he would have to migrate out of UP if he has to make a mark in life. “It is a task to find a 10,000 rupee job in UP and our PM and his party focus on polarisation. Our burning subject is Mandir. It is sad that quite a few in my university also feel it is an issue,” he said.

The BJP knows that. There are scores of people queuing up for hours to get inside the disputed territory and seek blessings of the idol kept in a tent where Babri Masjid once stood.

BJP leaders may not have hammered the point in massive rallies, but ground cadres say Mandir is what they speak about during door-to-door campaigns and mohalla sabhas. Also, the communal speeches by BJP leaders and Modi’s Shamshan-Kabristan remark does cater to the audience desperate for the Mandir.

Before arriving here, one came across articles suggesting the youth could not care less for the Mandir. But the undercurrent on the ground is a bit different. So here goes another theory. Millennial voters in the upper caste families may not feel as strongly about Ram Mandir as their parents do, and are not wasting their time agitating for it. But they would not have a problem with the ones doing so with communal overtones.

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UP Election 2017: In Amethi, millennial voters are looking beyond Rahul Gandhi

This story first appeared on Firstpost on 26th Feb 2017.

The youngsters in Amethi, just like the rest of Uttar Pradesh, are expressive, opinionated and politically alive. One does not have to ask obviously intrusive questions to gauge their mood. Once the interaction begins, they decide the flow and most of the questions in your scribbling pad are covered without your asking them. However, during a good 20-minute conversation with dozens of millennial voters, in which they spoke of pertinent election issues and influential leaders, there was one point they had to be reminded to touch upon: Rahul Gandhi.

Almost all of them then responded with a wry smile and said, “The less said about him, the better.”

Indicative of the mood in the rest of the country, in his own Lok Sabha Constituency of Amethi, Rahul Gandhi is not even considered important enough to be criticised or mentioned. It is by and large applicable to the Congress too, where the electorate hardly mentions the grand old party as a factor in Uttar Pradesh.

And rightly so. A pocket borough of the Gandhis, Amethi is a dustbowl (to put it leniently), where millennial voters are still facing the problems they have grown up with.

Poonam Vishwakarma, a BA first year student in Shri Sai Shivram Girls Education College in Gauriganj constituency of Amethi, has never had an access to a toilet. “We have to go into the farm fields,” she rued. “It is even more dangerous for girls, because the security situation for women is not great here either. The toilets have been built for the well-off, influential people. But our demands fall on deaf ears.”

Poonam Vishwakarma, a BA first year student in Amethi, has never had an access to a toilet.

The complaints regarding lack of sanitation facilities are not limited to the remote villages, but are heard even up to the town. Ranjit Rao, 21, said even in his village of Banvaripur, which is right on the outskirts of the town Amethi, they do not have a toilet.

While there are no two opinions about the fact that Amethi is one the least developed VIP constituencies, and is even worse than Rae Bareli, a report published by Livemint in 2014 showed that it did not fare well even when compared to the rest of Uttar Pradesh, which lags behind in the juxtaposition with the rest of India. The report highlighted 12 socio-economic indicators on which Amethi fared worse than the state, which included important aspects like access to tap water, electricity, toilet, LPG, literacy and so on.

Add to that the crisis of unemployment faced by the youth, and Amethi becomes a perfect recipe for students to think of migration. Hardly anyone expressed the desire to stay put, saying they do not think the place would improve anytime soon. “If it had to happen, it would have happened by now,” said Ranjit, who is currently teaching primary school students to make a living, while preparing to apply for the job of Uttar Pradesh police. “If I do not get it, I will migrate to Delhi, where my father works in a private company.”

Ranjit will migrate to Delhi is his application to the UP Police does not work out.

Ranjit further complained the vacancies in the police force of UP go mostly to the constituencies where SP is strong. “They consider Class 12 marks for the job,” he said. “In Mainpuri, Etawah, Pratapgarh etc, students end up fudging their marksheets and get through, which is why Amethi lags behind.”

Whether the allegations are true or not, it conveys the hapless youngster’s plight in attempting to make a decent living. The incompetence of Rahul Gandhi as an MP, and the inability of the previous state governments to develop Amethi, has been cashed in by Narendra Modi, who continues to wield his popularity over the electorate. The critics and experts have dissected all the angles of demonetisation to prove it was an ill-thought, poorly executed scheme that only disturbed the lives of millions while achieving little, but it hardly matters to the electorate going to polls. The fact is, an economic disaster has proved to be a political masterstroke.

In Poonam’s remote village of Ultagadha, where lush green farmlands and fragile huts occupy the periphery of potholed roads, she said every Sunday her family of five gathers to listen to Modi’s Mann Ki Baat. She belongs to a farming family and the way Modi speaks about farmers in his speeches, she said, appeals to her. “He reaches out to the poor,” said Poonam. “Notebandi attacked the rich who used to misuse honest tax payers’ money. He has delivered in Gujarat as well and he should be given a chance to govern UP. Not that I have a problem with Akhilesh, just that Modi is better.”

Poonam has never stepped out of UP, yet is familiar with the “development” in Gujarat. “My brother showed the videos and images of Gujarat he received on WhatsApp,” she divulged.           

In spite of not declaring the CM candidate, the BJP seems to be riding, and riding well, on Modi’s back to displace Akhilesh Yadav, who also remains popular among the youth. In UP, there are close to 25 lakh first-time voters, which has added another dimension to the polls. The parties have gone out of their way to woo the youth, and Modi and Akhilesh are the men to do it for their respective parties. While how the battle culminates in the rest of UP would be known only on March 11, in Amethi at least, the man from Gujarat has the edge, mainly because he has no baggage of anti-incumbency, and, just like Rae Bareli, the alliance has not been able to negotiate successfully.  

Out of the five constituencies in Amethi that go to polls on 27 February, Congress had won only two in 2012 assembly elections. But the Lok Sabha constituency is a bastion of Congress party. With both parties claiming the upper hand, they have ended up competing against each other at two of the five constituencies – Gauriganj and Amethi Sadar. With votes being split between them, BJP would automatically gain more, as BSP had not made a mark in 2012 in Amethi.

In Amethi Sadar, the battle between “maharaja” Sanjay Singh’s first wife and second wife is most keenly watched. Garima, the first wife, contesting on a BJP ticket, is striking an emotional chord with the electorate while campaigning for “justice” against the “man who wronged her”. Sanjay, influential in Amethi, is busy backing Amita, the second wife, who is contesting from Congress, the party that sent him to Rajya Sabha.

With Rahul Gandhi hardly bringing much to the table in his own constituency, another factor drowning out Akhilesh’s popularity is his candidates. The electorate speaks highly of Akhilesh but say his MLAs indulge in hooliganism. For example, in the Amethi Sadar seat, the candidate Gayatri Prajapati, is a rape accused. After the directives of Supreme Court, UP police charged him with separate cases of gangrape and attempt to rape another woman and her minor daughter. When Akhilesh held a rally in Amethion Monday, Prajapati was conspicuously absent.

Ashish Kumar Agrahi has been running a chow mein stall for the past eight years due to lack of employment opportunities.

Selling chow mein in the heart of Amethi on bustling narrow lane running parallel to the Ramleela Maidan, Ashish Kumar Agrahi, 24, said people fear walking out of the ATM after withdrawing cash. “While he has done some commendable work, law and order has worsened under Akhilesh,” said Ashish, who lives with his parents, and has stayed back to help them because his elder brother migrated to Lucknow to work as a property dealer. His father runs a pani puri stall on the same street and the two of them make 500 rupees of profit per day.

Ashish has passed his intermediate exams, but due to lack of employment opportunities, he has been running the chow mein stall for the last eight years. He said some of the people vote for the Congress because of the earlier generation, but the current lot lacks empathy. “You must have come here with high expectations from Mumbai,” he said, pointing at the Tehesildar House. “It was built during Rajiv Gandhi’s time. My parents tell me it has not even been painted since then.”

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