Not quite a cash cow

This story first appeared on PARI on 1 June 2017.

Appasaheb Kothule, 45, wants to sell two of his bulls. He can’t do that. Qaleem Qureshi, 28, wishes he could buy bulls. But he, too, cannot.

Kothule has been travelling to various bazaars for over a month. He has attended all the weekly markets held around Devgaon, his village, roughly 40 kilometres from Aurangabad city, in the Marathwada region of Maharashtra. Today, he has arrived in Adul, where villagers fill the marketplace every Tuesday. “My son is getting married and I need some money,” he says, a white handkerchief wrapped around his forehead. “Nobody is willing to pay more than 10,000 rupees for the pair. I should get at least Rs.15,000 for them.”

Meanwhile, Qaleem Qureshi sits idle at his beef shop in Aurangabad’s Sillakhana area, wondering how to resurrect his dwindling trade. “I used to do business of 20,000 rupees a day [with earnings ranging from Rs.70-80,000 a month],” he says. “Over the past two years, it has declined to a fourth of that.”

‘I have spent a few thousand rupees in transporting the bulls to various bazaars,’ says Appasaheb Kothule of Devgaon; other farmers too are spending sums they cannot afford

The beef ban in the state is a little over two years old. By the time Devendra Fadnavis of the Bharatiya Janata Party became the chief minister of Maharashtra in 2014, the agrarian crisis had deepened under the previous Congress and Nationalist Congress Party regimes.  A lethal combination of rising input costs, fluctuating rates for crops, water mismanagement and other factors had set in motion widespread distress and tens of thousands of farm suicides in the state. Fadnavis managed to intensify the crisis by extending the prohibition of cow slaughter to bulls and bullocks in March 2015.

The bovine is central to the rural economy and the ban has had a direct impact on businesses that depend on cattle. It has equally impacted farmers who, for decades, used the animals as insurance – they traded their livestock to raise instant capital for marriages, medicines, or an upcoming cropping season.

Kothule, who has five acres of farmland where he cultivates cotton and wheat, says his financial calculations have been hit by the ban. “These two bulls are only four years old,” he says, pointing to his tethered animals. “Any farmer would have swiftly bought them for 25,000 rupees a few years ago. Bulls can be used on farmlands until they are 10.”

But now farmers are reluctant to buy cattle even though the prices have plummeted, knowing it will be difficult to get rid of them later. “I have spent a few thousand rupees in transporting the bulls from my home to various bazaars,” says Kothule. “Adul is four kilometres away, so I walked with my bovines today. Other weekly bazaars are in a 25-kilometres radius, so I have to hire a bullock cart. I already have a debt burden. I need to sell these bulls.”

As we talk, Kothule keeps a desperate eye out for buyers. He has reached the market at 9 a.m., it is now 1 p.m., and extremely hot. “I have not even had water since I reached,” he says. “I cannot leave the bulls alone even for five minutes for fear of missing out on a customer.”

Around him in the bustling maidan, with temperatures touching 45 degrees Celsius, various farmers are trying everything possible to crack a deal. Janardan Geete, 65, from Wakulni, 15 kilometres from Adul, is getting the horns of his robust bullocks sharpened to make them look more attractive. Bhandas Jadhav, with his sharpening instrument, will charge Rs. 200 per animal. “I had bought them for 65,000 rupees,” Geete says. “I will be happy to settle for 40,000.”

Kothule says the growing water shortage in Marathwada and rising fodder costs have made it more difficult to maintain livestock. Added to this is a lack of cow shelters. When Fadnavis imposed the beef ban, he promised to start shelters where farmers could donate their cattle instead of being forced to bear the costs of maintaining animals that could no longer work on their farms. But the shelter have not materialised, dealing the farmers a double blow – they cannot raise money by selling their livestock and are stuck with the animals even after they become unproductive.

“How can we maintain our old livestock when we cannot even properly provide for our children?” asks Kothule. “We spend 1,000 rupees per week on each animal’s water and fodder.”

Many others across the rural economic spectrum have been hit by this one amendment in the law – the beef ban. Dalit leather workers, transporters, meat traders, those who make medicines from bones, have all been hit hard.

Around 300,000 bulls were slaughtered each year in Maharashtra prior to the ban. Now, the slaughterhouses are idle and entire communities in economic distress. At Sillakhana, which hosts close to 10,000 Qureshis – a community that traditionally works as butchers and cattle traders – the impact is palpable. Qaleem has had to sack a few of his staff. “I too have a family to feed,” he says. “What else could I do?”

Anees Qureshi, 41, a loader in Sillakhana, says, “I used to make at least 500 rupees a day. Now I do odd jobs. The income is not guaranteed. There are days when I have no work.”

Business before the beef ban was already hit by the growing agrarian crisis – people from the villages have been migrating in greater numbers looking for work. This has meant a substantial drop in the local consumption of beef, says Qaleem. But his shop, owned by the family since Qaleem’s great grandfather’s time, is all he has. “Our community is not very well-educated [and cannot easily shift to other work],” he says. “We sell buffalo meat now. But people do not like it as much and the competition with other meat products is stiff.”

Beef has formed a major part of the diet of the Qureshis, as well as various other communities, including the Dalits – it is a relatively cheap source of protein. “Replacing beef with chicken or mutton means spending thrice the amount,” says Qaleem.

Dyandeo Gore (right) hopes to sell the last of his seven bulls before returning home to Daygavan village

At the bazaar in Adul, Geete, who was sharpening the horns of his cattle, is one of few to go home smiling after a farmer agrees to buy his animals. Dyandeo Gore looks at him with envy.

Gore has walked seven kilometres to Adul with his bull: the last of seven, which he sold over the years. His debt of around Rs.6 lakhs has magnified in five years. By selling his last bull, he hopes to raise money ahead of the cropping season. “Nature does not support us. The government does not support us,” he says. “Wealthy businessmen do not commit suicide. Debt-ridden farmers like me do. It is a daily misery. I do not know of a single farmer who wants his son to be a farmer.”

At the age of 60, Gore is wandering in the heat from market to market on foot with his bovine, because he cannot afford any transportation. “If I fail to sell him today, I will go to another bazaar on Thursday,” he says. “How far is that?” I ask him. “Thirty kilometres,” he says.

Photos: People’s Archive of Rural India

UP Election 2017: What the millennial voter wants

This piece first appeared on Firstpost on 4 March 2017

Much like Bihar, a reporter’s job in Uttar Pradesh is made easier by the electorate, for one hardly comes across a person unwilling to talk about politics. Over the course of two weeks, I interacted with scores of youngsters from different districts. Not one seemed like he has not assessed his candidates and the parties they represent. It would be safe to say the millennial voters in UP are much more politically alive, and socially curious than their counterparts in my hometown of Mumbai.

Before landing in UP, I read up as much as I could on the state. There were a few articles suggesting the youth is breaking caste barriers and voting solely on the basis of development. Upon asked if caste is an influence, every millennial voter responded with an emphatic no. But it is quite a coincidence that the Tripathis, Mishras and Pandeys said they would vote for Modi on the basis of development while Muslims and Yadavs said they would vote for Akhilesh because of his developmental work. A teacher at Lucknow University shed more light on the coincidence. “Conceding they vote along caste lines in front of the media is unfashionable,” she said. “Everyone wants to be politically correct. You scratch the surface behind closed doors, and it all comes out.”

Indeed she was right.

Ask them about their views on reservation and it does not seem like caste is something they have never considered. Upper caste Hindus complained against “the discrimination and bias” towards Yadavs, while the Yadavs furiously disputed the “false narrative”. Everyone knew the caste wise divide of the candidates of different political parties.

However, it will not be long before the caste lines are palpably blurred. Even in the ongoing elections, a noticeable chunk of millennials who come from traditionally BSP or BJP families, seemed to be gravitating towards Akhilesh because of his appeal, which is merely a hint of what to expect in 2019.

One should not be surprised if millennial voters defy caste equations and vote for Narendra Modi, who seems to be the biggest catalyst in breaking caste barriers. Those who would be ready to vote in 2019, but are not eligible yet, blush while naming Modi as their favourite politician. It doesn’t matter if their parents are staunch Yadavs or quintessential BSP voters.

What makes Modi so popular even after three years into his relatively mediocre tenure?

Notebandi.

It is remarkable how an economic disaster has turned out to be a political masterstroke. Economists have dissected every angle of it to prove it has achieved little while rupturing the lives of many, but it hardly matters to the electorate. The most important thing is, those who should be most upset with it, are hailing the move because it supposedly took on the rich. “There is effort, and the intention is good,” they say. The mocked-at Mann Ki Baat on Twitter is quite popular as well, suggesting he is probably the best communicator one has seen in quite some time.

There is no doubt Modi seems to be the vehicle through which caste lines could be blurred in a sub-national state of UP. But the religious divide is increasing at the same time and Modi has played an instrumental role in it. In Faizabad, for example, it was striking how the youngsters did not mind VHP workers campaigning for Ram Mandir with communal overtones. “It should be built,” they said with a straight face. It did not matter if a masjid once stood at the location. On the other side of the divide, insecurity among Muslim youngsters is on the rise. Not everyone conceded that but a fair number of millennials, either candid or naive, said they would vote for the person who would “protect them”.

The issues concerning the youth vary from district to district but the crisis of unemployment is the one gnawing at each of them. The percentage of millennial voters who expressed their desire to migrate out of UP should make the establishment worried — to say the least. And they have pinned their hopes either on Akhilesh or on Modi, among whom the honours are split and Mayawati is clearly third.

Rahul Gandhi is not even fourth. I had to prod the millennials to get them to speak about him, suggesting he is not even considered important enough to be criticised. His own constituency of Amethi is not an exception.

As far as the outcome of the election is concerned, I remain as clueless as I was before I arrived here. The theories suggesting polar opposite outcomes sound legitimate. I am not going to pick one and put my neck on the line. For now, I’m glad to have seen a part of the fascinating state of Uttar Pradesh through the eyes of those my age or slightly younger to me. “UP nahi dekha toh kya dekha,” they used to say. They could not have been more accurate.

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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I wonder why I am being reminded of this bit of history!

A note I wrote a year ago, sadly, ceases to be irrelevant. Do read in context of the recent controversy of ABVP and Ramjas:

The Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad is arguably the most noted public university in Pakistan. Founded in 1965, the campus shone for its liberal outlook. Describing the pulse of the university, renowned author Steve Coll, in his book “Ghost Wars”, writes, “During much of the 1970s, the university’s culture had been western in many of its leanings. Women could be seen in jeans, men in latest sunglasses and leather jackets.”
In 1977, capsizing Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq assumed power of the country. He would later send Bhutto to the gallows in 1979.
Zia aborted national polls, citing there’s “no place for western-type elections” in Islam. Simultaneously, the student wing of Jamaat-e-Islami, a conservative political party, campaigned for a “moral transformation of Pakistani society”.
In the mid-70s, Jamaat student leaders made their presence felt at the Quaid-i-Azam University. By late 1979, the university’s student union was under their control. The Jamaat student leaders named and shamed women refusing to wear the veil, threatened liberal and secular students and teachers.
The Jamaat student leaders enjoyed great support from the military dictatorship of Zia. In order to “de-westernize” Pakistan through his “nationalistic” approach, Zia interfered with student politics and promulgated his agenda. During his 10-year rule, Zia diluted the autonomy of educational institutes by abandoning student bodies and making Arabic and Islamic studies mandatory.
A report from 2014, titled “Islamization fears at Quaid-i-Azam University”, notes, “There are far fewer students today who can sing and dance, recite poetry, or who read novels. There’s no intellectual excitement, no feeling of discovery, and girls are mostly silent note-takers, you have to prod them to ask questions.” Further, it mentions the fact that no girl wears jeans or dares to sit next to a man.

I wonder why I am being reminded of this bit of history!

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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UP Election 2017: In VIP constituency of Raebareli, millenial voters vexed with Congress, inclined to vote for Akhilesh

This story first appeared on Firstpost on 26 February 2017.

Ajay Singh Rathod’s mother is undergoing a treatment. A few months ago, she had difficulties with her teeth. When 22-year-old Ajay took her to the dentist, he said the teeth have become brittle because of drinking water with high levels of fluoride. “Quite a few people in my colony have had similar issues,” said the political science student at Firoze Gandhi College in Raebareli.

Several millennial voters in Uttar Pradesh’s high-profile Raebareli district cited safe drinking water, along with employment and better standard of living, as major election issues as the district goes to polls on 23 February. Even in a few pockets of Raebareli city, the water provided to the citizens is not healthy. Move into the interiors, and the water situation worsens. More importantly, not more than 15 percent of Raebareli’s population is urban.

A bastion of the Gandhi family, Raebareli remains one of the least developed VIP constituencies. Of course, the subsequent state governments that rule Uttar Pradesh are not less culpable either, but the youngsters here aspiring for better standard of living have limited options with majority of the electorate being farmers or labourers. “I would prefer to migrate for further studies,” said Ajay, son of a teacher at a private school, living with a family of seven. “There are no industries either. The infrastructural development has not been great. If we migrate, we would lead a better life.”

Ajay said he sees the kind of lifestyle students from other towns of the country lead (via social media and television) and it makes him notice how under-developed and backward Raebareli is. In the interiors of the district, however, the problems are a little more fundamental. In Unchahar, 22-year-old Sachin Sharma said that the villages in his constituency do not even have a toilet and open defecation is the only option for everyone. He has done Bachelors of Science in agriculture, and is now teaching at a private college, earning rupees 6,000 a month. “I am saving up for my further studies,” he said. “I want to go to Chandigarh.”

The disaffection with the Congress and Congress chief Sonia Gandhi, who is an MP from Raebareli, is palpable. The electorate had made it clear in 2012 Assembly elections, when the Congress did not manage to win even a single seat out of the six constituencies in Raebareli.

Akhilesh Yadav’s popularity, on the other hand, remains more or less intact among the youth. Twenty-two-year-old Kaushal Kumar Yadav drives an auto in Raebareli and told Firstpost that his family of five is rooting for Akhilesh. Son of a farmer, Kaushal said Akhilesh is young and he understands the aspirations of the young. “He has done enough development to deserve another chance,” he said. Upon highlighting a certain a drawbacks of the state, he said Uttar Pradeshg is so vast it is beyond anyone to transform it in five years. “How is it possible to iron out every flaw in over 70 districts in merely five years?” asked Kaushal. “Moreover, his (Akhilesh) father and uncle hardly let him work for the first two years. If he has been able to do as much in merely two and a half years, then now that he is the clear leader in the party, I am sure he would do much more in the next five years.”

Narendra Modi also remains popular enough to indicate he would more or less sweep the 2019 elections. However, quite a few youngsters in Raebareli feared if Yogi Adityanath would become the chief minister if BJP came to power. Twenty-year-old Rajat Singh, a commerce student said, “Modi is good. But many of his men in Uttar Pradesh are dangerous. People say the governments at the state and Centre should be one to ensure coordination. But I believe it should be the opposite to keep the checks and balances intact. I would vote for Modi in 2019 but in the state, I would prefer Akhilesh.”

However, in spite of the Akhilesh factor, the alliance could be in for a bitter pill in Raebareli, because it has failed to strike a deal in two of the five seats (Salon also falls in Raebareli district but is considered under Amethi constituency).

In Unchahar and Sareni, Congress and Samajwadi Party both have fielded candidates and are campaigning against each other. “Uttar Pradesh ko yeh sath pasand hai, lekin Unchahar ko hath pasand hai,” is one of the slogans of Congress in Unchahar, confusing the electorate and handing out advantage to BJP and BSP in a platter.

Observers said that the BJP is increasingly pandering to the OBCs, not just in Raebareli, but in the whole state to eat into Samajwadi Party’s Yadav vote bank. BJP’s state president is Keshav Prasad Maurya and the district president is Dilip Yadav in Raebareli, where two of the four candidates of the BJP are OBC with one being a reserved seat.

In Harchandpur, it is a three-way contest. The sitting MLA is of the Samajwadi Party, but Rakesh Singh of the Congress has got the ticket. Bachhrawan should go with the alliance, where the sitting MLA is Ram Lal Akela, who defected to RLD, but had won on an Samajwadi Party ticket in 2012.

The Raebareli Sadar seat seems clearly tilted towards the alliance, where 29-year-old Aditi Singh daughter of Akhilesh Singh is fighting on a Congress ticket. Akhilesh Singh, a patron to his supporters and a strongman to his critics, has for decades wielded his influence on the constituency. He won thrice on the Congress symbol, once as an Independent and most recently, on the Peace Party ticket. His daughter Aditi is set to carry forward the baton, with the youth backing her as well.

Ajay’s classmate Shubham Shukla, praised Narendra Modi for demonetisation and development for about 20 minutes, but said he votes for the MLA not the leader of the party, and Aditi is the best candidate of the lot. “Most of the candidates are tainted,” he said, echoing the sentiment of many against bad distribution of tickets. “The MLA should be the one who is approachable. Even though I am not satisfied with Akhilesh, I will vote for Aditi because I feel she would work towards making Raebareli a better place.”

There is not a single university in Raebareli. The industries and factories that started during the time of Indira Gandhi have been more or less dormant, leading to further unemployment. Even though the electorate taught Congress a lesson in 2012, Sonia Gandhi was re-elected as an MP from here in 2014 general elections. She has been an MP of Raebareli since 2004, during which period she has instituted a branch of Aiims, opened a Railway Coach Factory and inaugurated RO plants, while declaring a few government schemes. The implementation on the ground remains questionable. Aiims has been constructed but it is not functional yet in spite of the project being mooted in 2009. Congress says the centre is delaying funds, while the centre claims technical problems. RO water plants provide water to a certain places in the city, but a few pockets and substantial parts of rural Rae Bareli remains deprived of safe drinking water.

While expressing concerns over the future of his students, a professor at the Firoze Gandhi College, requesting anonymity, summed up why Raebareli remains underdeveloped, yet is a pocket borough of one party. “Raebareli ek paudhe ki tarah hai,” he said. “Jisko harabhara bhi nahi kiya hai, lekin sookhne bhi nahi diya hai. (Raebareli is like a small plant. They are not letting it grow, neither are they letting it die).”

UP Election 2017: In Sonia Gandhi’s adopted Udwa village, millennials are impressed with Modi’s ‘audaciousness’

This story first appeared on Firstpost on 26 February 2017.

Rajiv Kumar, 21, has come home to vote. He has met his parents after June last year. But after going to the ballot on February 23, he will immediately head back within a few days. “I have spent my childhood here,” he says. “But after the amount of time I have spent away from home, it makes it a bit difficult to adjust.”

Rajiv lives in Delhi, where he is preparing for the IAS exams. Prior to that, he spent four years in Assam pursuing B Tech. He hails from the remote village of Udwa in Uttar Pradesh’s Raebareli district, which would be going to polls on 23 February. More importantly, Udwa is the village adopted by Sonia Gandhi in 2014 under the Saansad Adarsh Gram Yojana launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

More than two years down the line, millennial voters in Udwa remain without the basic amenities one takes for granted. The struggle begins with sunrise. Only 19 households have a toilet out of the 608 families living here. Others have to toddle through farm fields to relieve themselves. Women have to go even before the sun makes his journey up the sky.

Firstpost/Parth MN

Most houses in Udwa are brick-walled. Firstpost/Parth MN

More than 40 kilometers from the city of Raebareli, Udwa welcomes the visitors with lush green farmlands on both sides of a bumpy road. One hardly comes across a concrete house while meandering through the village. Most of them are brick-walled constructions, which look dilapidated with widening gaps between the bricks. Others are even fragile where a tin-roof is supported by bamboos with brittle constructions covering the sides. One has to bend to be able to enter the house, which is dark even at noon, for the lack of ventilation. Clothes are hung out to dry on a rope tied to a tree in front of the house with livestock walking through the cow dung in the vicinity.

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Clothes are dried outside the houses near trees. Firstpost/Parth MN

The dire state of the village cannot only be blamed upon Sonia Gandhi. The state governments that ruled UP over the years are also culpable of negligence. But having adopted the village, the electorate here believes Sonia Gandhi should have taken more interest in it. Villagers say she has hardly visited, neither has any Congress leader inquired about their requirements.

Rajiv says the village has not changed since he moved to Assam. “When I heard Sonia Gandhi has adopted our village, I was filled with hope,” he says, as he walks through Udwa, with a sense of relief that he would be out of here in a few days. “But apart from the electricity situation, the place is sadly the same.”

Rajiv, who is now well versed with the technology, says he would have loved to remain in his native village. “Who would not want their parents to be around?” he asked. “But it is not possible to prepare for the IAS exam without any facilities.”

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Rajiv, has come back to the village to vote, but he finds it difficult to adjust. Firstpost/Parth MN

Rajiv is a son of the Pradhan of the village, who could afford to send his son away. Others, however, are less fortunate. Lavlesh Kumar, 20, travels 24 kilometers to get to his college, where he is pursuing his final year in BA. He cannot wait to migrate. “I spend four hours in traveling every day,” he says. “I want to do MA after this. I have no option but to migrate. Those who have remained here are languishing without jobs or working as daily laborers. There are hardly any avenues of employment.”

Sick of waiting for the transformation of Udwa, the youngsters here in the village adopted by Sonia Gandhi are set to vote for Narendra Modi. Almost every youngster said Modi is the one who can now be trusted. Udwa has around 25 percent of SC and ST population and a sizeable “Mauryas”, who fall under the OBC category. The BJP candidate here is also a Maurya and the large chunk of SC, ST votes is likely to be split between BJP and BSP. The Congress-SP alliance is struggling here simply because there is no alliance. Udwa is one of the villages in Unchahar constituency, where Congress and SP have both fielded candidates. But as far as Udwa is concerned, the youth here is smitten by Modi.

Rajiv says it is important to have BJP in the state, which would ensure coordination between state and centre, making it easy for the lawmakers to develop UP. “I feel they should have declared CM candidate, but it will be Modi’s man at the end of the day,” he says. “Look at the way he has transformed Gujarat. Even since he assumed prime ministership, he has focused on job creation and investments.”

Rajiv has never been to Gujarat, but he says, he has followed the development through social media, which is his major source of news. He is a frequent internet user, who reads articles popping up on Facebook. “I am also a fan of Sushma Swaraj and Suresh Prabhu,” he adds. “The way they solve problems on Twitter is amazing.”

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Lavlesh has taken a liking for Narendra Modi. Firstpost/Parth MN

Lavlesh, on the other hand, became a fan of Modi after demonetisation and surgical strikes. However, he praised Akhilesh for the developmental work and said even the sitting MLA is a decent man. “But SP cadres indulge in gundagardi (hooliganism),” he says. “I will vote for BJP because Modi is an audacious prime minister. We need someone who is decisive and takes quick steps. How long do we wait for our village to see some sort of development?”

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Neelam is one among the girls who have had to quit studies because of lack of facilities. Firstpost/Parth MN

Listening intently to their forceful arguments is 19-year old Neelam Agrahari, who is helping her brother prepare samosas at their stall. She has studied till 12th standard. But she had to shelve her education in spite of the keenness to continue. “The college is 24 kilometers from here,” she says. “We do not have a bike or a vehicle. It is difficult for a girl to travel that much every day. Most of the girls of my batch have quit studies.” Just a few meters from there, sits a primary school of the village where a slogan on one of the walls reads, “Padhi likhi jab hogi nari, ghar ayengi khushiya sari. (When a woman is educated, there will be happiness in the household)

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A slogan on one of the walls in the village that reads: ‘When women are educated, only then households will be happy’

UP Election 2017: How Lucknow’s first-time voters are gearing up for the polls

This story first appeared on Firstpost on 26 February 2017.

After she passed her Class 12 exams with respectable marks, Nazia Khan, 24, wanted to pursue her graduation. However, hailing from a conservative Muslim family in Lucknow, she could not find any takers for her desire to study further. But in 2014, after applying for the Kanya Vidya Dhan scholarship scheme, she received Rs 30,000 and enrolled herself in a BA programme.

The scholarship scheme was first launched during the regime of Mulayam Singh Yadav in 2004 to help girl students from economically backward families, but there were questions raised about its implementation. When Mayawati came to power, she shelved it. In 2012, Akhilesh Yadav revived it after assuming chief ministership, and it has been a catalyst in sustaining his popularity among the youth here in Lucknow. With the scheme aiding economically backward families, it automatically ends up consolidating his Muslim vote share and cajoling Dalit colonies. Even though teachers at the Lucknow University say that the enforcement of the scheme has room for improvement considering its irregularities, it has been significantly better than what it was like during Mulayam’s tenure.

“I would not have been able to graduate without the state government scheme,” says Nazia, adding, “Akhilesh deserves another chance to consolidate the good work he started a couple of years ago.”

Lucknow’s nine constituencies went to the polls on Sunday, and the popularity of the incumbent chief minister among the first-time voters here is undisputed. Even the ones inclined towards the BJP are not overly critical of Akhilesh. They cite the examples of the Metro and express highway while speaking of his developmental work. He is young, they say, and he speaks “our language”. “We can easily identify with him,” Nazia’s words were echoed by almost every first-time voter.

Sudhir Kumar Yadav, 22, a philosophy student at Lucknow University put it more colorfully. “Jis taraf jawani chalti hai, usi taraf zamana chalta hai (Whichever way the youth go, that’s the way the generation goes),” he says.

Sudhir adds that the Samajwadi Party MLA in his constituency has been “useless”, but “We do not vote for the MLA,” he said. “We vote for the chief minister. His move to provide laptops has helped youngsters a great deal.”

Another scheme that is being hailed by the electorate is the nutrition mission program in alliance with Unicef, with which the state ensures the deprived are fed an all-round meal. It is monitored under the stewardship of Dimple Yadav, who has propelled the party’s face as a party of the young. With close to 25 lakh first-time voters across the state, parties have understandably made their moves accordingly to clinch the pivotal vote share, and the Samajwadi Party seems to have an edge courtesy Akhilesh.

Nonetheless, Lucknow is a place with its fair share of problems. One of the biggest challenges gnawing at the youth is unemployment. Nazia, who is currently in the middle of a vocational training program at Sanaktada NGO in the city, has been looking for a job for over a year. Living in a joint family of 11 in a cramped, dim-lit 500 square-foot apartment of Dali Ganj, Nazia’s conservative family would not allow her to move out of Lucknow for a better opportunity. However, most of the others plan to migrate to Delhi or Mumbai. Teachers at the Lucknow University complain they are not able to retain sharp students either.

However, the drawbacks of Lucknow, and of Uttar Pradesh, are largely blamed on the old guard by the electorate. Lucknow-based historian Saleem Kidwai said it reflects how astute Akhilesh is.

“He smartly turned the anti-incumbency, at least perceptibly, on his uncles and father during the family feud,” he says.

Along with unemployment, healthcare and security of women are the issues raised by the youth. This, and not religion or caste, is what influences their vote, insist everyone.

Senior journalist Sharat Pradhan says caste identities are being blurred in urban Lucknow and Akhilesh stands to gain from it. “If youngsters move beyond caste and religion, it means some of the upper caste Hindus may move towards Akhilesh,” he says, “But the Muslims won’t vote against Samajwadi Party.”

However, a teacher at the Lucknow University, requesting anonymity, says the students are merely being politically correct. “They won’t divulge that caste or religion plays a role if not the role. But behind closed doors, if you scratch the surface, it all comes out,” she says.

Indeed, the hints are there for those with a keen ear.

Aksa Hasan, 20, living in the same colony as Nazia, praised Akhilesh for the reasons mentioned earlier. But unwittingly says, “We would obviously vote for the party that would protect us.” Upon being probed further, she adds that the Hindutva narrative does make her nervous, and apart from the Samajwadi Party-Congress alliance, she does not have an option.

Interestingly, a significant chunk of the Shia vote in Lucknow traditionally went with the BJP. Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his protégé Lalji Tondon, enjoyed respect among the Shias. However, with the increasing paranoia under the Narendra Modi government, Shia Muslims are drifting away from the BJP. But with the Shia and Sunni Ulemas being at loggerheads with each other, Kidwai says the Shias are not likely to shift en masse towards the Samajwadi Party-Congress alliance. “The Shia Ulema has declared its support to Mayawati,” he says, “The devout Shias will listen to him. But the moderate ones and especially young, who are in larger numbers, will move towards Akhilesh.”

Amidst the interactions, the name of Rahul Gandhi hardly comes up. When specifically mentioned, youngsters say they hope he does not interfere with Akhilesh’s work. The sentiment within Akhilesh supporters regarding the alliance is similar to what avid Nitish Kumar followers said in Bihar. They did not like the idea of collaborating with Lalu Prasad Yadav, but were not angry enough to desert him.

Mayawati, on the other hand, is lagging behind in spite of a sizable 20 percent Dalit population in Lucknow because the urban Dalit, especially the youth, is not exactly homogeneous. While even the quintessential voters of Samajwadi Party saying the law and order had been better under Mayawati, they believe voting for her in the urban region would benefit the BJP considering the manner in which the elections appear to be panning out. In rural Lucknow, however, the Dalits, including youngsters, say their preferred choice is “hathi in the state and kamal at the Centre”.

With Shia votes and around 30 perct of the upper caste population, BJP has always done well in Lucknow. The party has held the Lok Sabha seat since 1991, and in 2014, the BJP won it hands down.

The Shias might be moving away, but the majority of upper castes side with the BJP. Their loyalty has been fortified after the arrival of Modi, who remains a charismatic personality among a section of the youth. Prerna Shrivastava, a 20-year-old commerce student, says it does not matter if the BJP has not revealed its chief ministerial candidate. “Whoever Modiji appoints, it will be for the best of Uttar Pradesh,” she says, “He is a gutsy leader. The way he took on the black money is commendable.”

Prerna says she is most impressed with BJP’s social media campaign that has played a role in influencing her. She adds that her family has been supporting BJP for generations. Mohit Trivedi, a cabbie in his mid-20s, is less cagey. After praising Akhilesh for around 15 minutes, he says he favours the BJP.

Upon being asked why, he simply says, “Hum Pandithain.”