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.”

Read more

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.”

Read more

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.

Read more

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.

Udwa_1

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.”

Udwa_3

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.”

Udwa_6

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?”

Udwa_4

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)

Udwa_2

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.”

UP Election 2017: Ahead of 4th phase, cracks appear in forced Samajwadi Party-Congress alliance

This story first appeared on Firstpost on 23 February 2017.

“UP ko yeh saath pasand hai, lekin Unchahar ko haath pasand hai (UP likes the alliance but Unchahar likes the hand),” emanates from a car campaigning for the Congress in Raebareli’s Unchahar constituency, as 55-year-old Sharda Prasad Saini laughs while serving chhole-samosa on the Allahabad-Lucknow road.

“They cannot even manage their own internal problems and are promising to develop a huge state,” he says.

Unchahar is a constituency where the Congress and Samajwadi Party have both fielded candidates, bamboozling its voters. The sitting MLA is Manoj Pandey of the Samajwadi Party, and contesting from the Congress ticket, campaigning against Pandey is Ajai Pal Singh, who belongs to the noble Arkha family of Raebareli and is a former MLA (2007-12) of the same constituency as well.

“I voted for the Samajwadi Party in 2012,” says Saini. “Now, I wonder whom to vote for. The vote would clearly be divided and there is no point in wasting my vote on these two. I will vote for BJP instead. Modi has not been that bad after all.”

It had become clear during the initial phase of negotiation that Raebareli and Amethi would be a problem when it comes to seat sharing. The two districts are bastions of the Congress with the Gandhis ruling the two Lok Sabha constituencies for an overwhelmingly major part of independent India, but in 2012 Assembly elections, Samajwadi Party had done exceedingly well in the ten constituencies falling under the two districts. Congress, on the other hand, had managed to win only two of those ten. In Sonia Gandhi’s Raebareli, the party did not win a single seat out of the six (in 2017, Raebareli has five as the seat in Salon comes under Amethi district).

With both parties claiming moral right to contest more seats, it has resulted in the defiance of the alliance. Out of the 10 seats in Amethi-Raebareli, in four of them, the partners are locked in a fight, clearly handing out advantage to BJP and BSP on a platter.

When asked, Ajai Pal Singh said the high command has his backing, without which he would not be able to contest on a Congress symbol. “I cannot comment on the issue,” he said. “The party leadership should be able to explain.”

Samajwadi Party candidate Manoj Pandey could not be reached. He did not respond to phone calls and text messages.

Zeeshan Haidar, Congress spokesperson in Uttar Pradesh, said it is a negligible issue and he is sure one of the two would win in the seats in question. “It is true the election is closely fought but we have managed to arrive at a common ground on over 400 seats,” he said. “There were other seats too where both parties had fielded candidates and we have sent show cause notices to some. But in some cases, by the time we could arrive at a conclusion, the last date of withdrawal had already passed.”

The party leadership may make it sound like a minor glitch but the sentiment of ground level workers, at least in Raebareli and Amethi, reflects how the alliance is a forced marriage.

“Even though we are campaigning individually here, we still have Akhilesh and Mulayam on our posters,” says a Congress worker in Unchahar. “But Samajwadi Party does not have Rahulji. Abhi Ajai ji toh raja hai, woh kaise nahi ladenge?”

Congress workers complain that Samajwadi Party has not given enough respect or importance considering the stature of the party, while SP cadre feels the Congress needed the alliance more than they did. A worker of the Samajwadi Party said the way Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi patronised Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav in one of the earlier press conferences has not gone down well with the cadres. “He spoke of good niyat and room for better implementation,” he says. “Rahul is trying to be big brother in the alliance when clearly he needs Akhilesh more than Akhilesh needs him.”

Both the party workers, however, said they wonder what to say when dumbfounded electorate asks them about the dichotomy of being partners in the state but campaigning against each other in a constituency. Commentators believe it is indicative of how the alliance is a forced marriage and could raise concerns of its durability, if at all they form the government. “It is reflective of how messy and ill-planned the alliance is,” says Shivam Vij, journalist who is extensively travelling across the state for the elections. “These are not friendly but unfriendly fights. In most places, Samajwadi Party workers are not campaigning for Congress workers and vice-versa. This is only one of the many reasons why alliance was a bad idea.”

UP Election 2017: With caste identities blurring, social media influences are high among first-time voters

This story first appeared on Firstpost on 20 February 2017.

“The social media campaign is voluntarily conducted by our supporters. They are doing it on their own and they would not speak to the media,” said an office bearer of a regional political party. “Please take a look around our social media centre,” said one affiliated with another regional political party. “I will explain how our team works.”

For anyone who is following the high profile, tempestuous Uttar Pradesh elections, it is not difficult to figure out the two political parties in question here.

At the Samajwadi Party office in Lucknow’s Vikramaditya Marg, a section in the vicinity is dedicated to the social media team. Secluded from the bustling main campus of the party office, the social media team operates with their building being a good two minutes by foot. In four rooms on the first floor of the building, more than 50 people spend 18 hours of their day gazing at TVs or computer screens with earphones plugged in.

“The idea is to run a synchronised campaign, to drive home the message to the voters,” said Aashish Yadav, a former BBC employee, who is running the show. He is joined by Manoj Yadav, songwriter of films like Raees, Piku and Azhar, who has penned campaign songs. Gozoop CEO Ahmed Aftab Naqvi is the chief digital strategist and Anshuman Sharma, fellow from Harvard University, is handling research. “We reach around 25-30 lakh people in Uttar Pradesh on a daily basis through WhatsApp, Twitter, YouTube and Facebook. WhatsApp gets most traction. It is the easiest to operate. Twitter is least penetrating.”

There are close to 10 people monitoring the news and social media to keep an eye on the prominent handles. “We counter the critical commentary with facts, depending on the stature of the leader,” said Aashish. “If Modi or Amit Shah say something, we respond. In case of Ravi Shankar Prasad, or say Shahnawaz Hussain, we let it go.”

On the other hand, Mayawati’s OSD Pawan Sagar was unwilling to accept the importance of social media. “Ours is a cadre based party and we believe in direct communication,” he said. “We do not need social media to form the government.”

When BSP workers first ran a seemingly synchronised campaign in November, it attracted a lot of eyeballs. Tweeting party statements, doing Facebook live on the speeches made by party leaders, propping pages on Facebook of the prominent members of the party…it seemed to indicate Mayawati is moving with time.

Behen ji ko aane do,” a slogan was made viral on social media along with Mayawati’s photograph. The slogans highlighted the problems of law and order, education and so on. The party even recorded a campaign song, which Kailash Kher sang. After the first phase of polling on 11 February, the party workers upped their game further. “Chor-chor mausere bhai”, a jibe at the Samajwadi Party-Congress alliance, “phisal gaye to har har gange”, highlighting the BJP’s return to Hindutva, and a few such attractive slogans went viral. Newspaper reports quoted Afzal Siddiqui, son of a senior BSP leader Naseemuddin Siddiqui, as the mind behind the social media campaign. “We realised our mistake and after discussing it with behenji, we turned our focus to it,” he told The Times of India.

However, Sagar said the volunteers are doing their thing without Mayawati’s directives. It is no secret that Mayawati did not believe in social media, and if they are using it now, it suggests she has been forced to move on with times. But acknowledging that would mean conceding an error in judgment, perhaps the reason behind the BSP’s line of narrative.

Rajya Sabha member Ashok Siddharth, for example, reportedly said he does not operate his Facebook page with over 11,000 likes and it could be started and run by party supporters. Aashish Yadav, on the contrary, did not fail to mention that Akhilesh Yadav operates his Twitter and Facebook accounts himself, clearly indicating the difference in approach of the two regional parties towards social media.

There are close to 25 lakh first-time voters in Uttar Pradesh this time. With commentators saying the caste identities among the youth are being gradually blurred with education, the first-time voter could potentially swing the election. “Social media is a very effective tool to tap youngsters,” Aashish said. “We have managed to reach 90 percent of those with access to social media across the state.”

The BJP first used social media extremely effectively in 2014 general elections. It was a catalyst in the young voter gravitating towards Narendra Modi. The Samajwadi Party’s strategy seems to be inspired by the BJP’s success. However, Aashish denied it. “It is true the BJP used it efficiently in 2014,” he said. “But in 2012, Akhilesh Yadav had made “umeed ki cycle” viral on social media. Therefore, BJP could have been inspired by him.”

Then why did their campaign come alive only in late 2016? “When we thought we had done enough work to show for, we decided to go full-fledged. We do not indulge in negativity,” said Aashish, as he showed around their social media centre, or as they call it, war room. The team – most of which, Aashish said, is not charging a rupee including him – hardly looked up or moved their eyes away from the screen as the two of us engaged in a conversation. “Yeh ek tarah ka Yuddh hi hai. Sabki aahuti lag rahi hai yaha,” he said.

Tribal schools of Maharashtra Part 5: Students subjected to rampant political interference

This story first appeared on Firstpost on 20 January 2017.

Primary and secondary schools run in tribal areas are by-and-large a neglected topic in our everyday discourse. The following is the concluding part of a five-part series that seeks to explore some of the issues that affect these schools.

It is 5 pm. The final bell goes off. The last lecture has concluded. Students gather their notebooks, pen and bags. Teachers head out of the classroom. Students change their uniforms and put on regular clothes. But just when an outsider would think the students are done for the day, another bell goes off. Boys and girls head out of the rooms in different directions within the school premise. Out on the ground, under the open sky, boys form queues and stand beside each other keeping exact distance from one another, as if getting ready for a PT class. Except it is not a PT class, but an Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) shakha. Soon, a stick is placed in front of the stationary group and a saffron flag is meticulously unfolded and placed on the mounted stick.

The scene is from a state-aided tribal residential school with over 1,300 students in the Dadade village of Palghar’s Vikramgad taluka. Tribal welfare minister Vishnu Savara’s Arvind Smriti Sanstha runs the school, where the shakha is an integral part of the school curriculum.

Every evening, students at this school – boys and girls at separate venues of the school premises – pray in front of the saffron flag. Hands on their chest, two 16- year-old boys lead the prayers. A staff member of the school joins in. The two boys fluently recite the prayers in Sanskrit. Others follow their lead. It goes on for good five minutes or so, and concludes with the chant of “Bharat Mata Ki Jai”.

“From where did you learn this prayer?” I ask the two boys. “Our RSS holds a shakha, which is attended by kids from Vikramgad taluka once in a while,” says Dhiraj Bhadange, 16, hair neatly combed, shirt tucked in. “We try to pass on whatever we learn at the shakha to our juniors at this school.”

Dhiraj is proud that he is passing on “wisdom” to his younger schoolmates. Upon asked the meaning of the prayer, Dhiraj says he does not know the entire translation as it is in Sanskrit but understands the crux of it. “What is the crux?” I ask him. “It is a prayer for the Hindu Rashtra,” he promptly says. “We pay our respects to the saffron flag. We pledge to take the Hindu Rashtra to utmost heights.”

The shakha concludes immediately after the prayers. “Exams are going on,” explains a staff member. “Otherwise, we follow up the prayer with games and physical exercises. Kids need to get back to their studies. But it would not be prudent to skip the shakha altogether.”

Another staff member at the school, requesting anonymity, says the government subsidy is merely Rs 900 per month behind every student, in which it is impossible to cover the cost of their meals, breakfast, medicines, blankets and stationery. “We get a fair amount of donation through the RSS,” he says. “Those donations have played a huge role in the development of the school. And attending shakha cannot hurt the students. They are learning the importance of discipline.”

There are 1,109 tribal residential schools across 16 tribal concentrated districts of Maharashtra – half of the schools are aided by the state, which are run by various NGOs. Most of the NGOs either belong to a politician or someone close to a politician, thereby tribal schools are often subjected to political interference which cuts across political parties.

Senior educationist Herambh Kulkarni points out that the interference of Congress and NCP has been more prolonged and acute over the years. “The ashram schools run by Congress and NCP members are used to conceal their corruption,” he said. “If an officer notices any wrongdoing, he is reluctant to act against the school because of the political might. Many of their schools show more number of students than what actually exists, enabling them to get more donations.”

In September last year, a Rs 67-crore scam had inadvertently come to light, when over 8,000 tribal students in the region of Jalgaon appeared to be non-existent during a drive to promote Aadhaar. Activists believe the phenomena is statewide and around 30 percent of the entries out of the 2.4 lakh students enrolled in the state-aided ashram schools could be fake. Since the state’s money is allotted on the basis of the number of students, more enrollment ensures more subsidy to the school.

The politicians and headmasters understandably deny political interference, and teachers refuse to speak about it, but anecdotal evidence suggests otherwise. Former MLA Vivek Pandit says the term political interference does not convey the gravity of the practice. “It is political control,” he says.

Bandu Sane, an activist who has been working with tribals in Vidarbha for the longest time, says the placements at ashram schools often go to the relatives or friends of the politician whose NGO is running the school. “Tribal schools get a lot of donation, and it is hardly monitored. Precisely why most of the tribal politicians own one,” he says. “I have seen teachers and non-teaching staff campaign for political leaders who employ them. They cannot say no even when they are used like donkeys.”

A teacher, requesting anonymity, says as the elections approach, workload increases, as he has to double up as a teacher as well as a cadre. “We are asked to campaign, distribute money, maintain accounts, prepare posters and everything that is done ahead of the elections,” he says. “It is a given that we have to work during the elections. It is an unsaid rule that we cannot question.”

While no political ideology or stream is immune to it, the indoctrination of tribal students at the Arvind Smriti Ashram School is quite
blatant. Tribals have traditionally not had a religion, and this appears to be a drive to bring them into the Hindu fold.

Dhiraj teaches his younger colleagues to maneuver lathi and martial arts, or Niyuddhi, as he likes to call it. “We need to be equipped enough to protect the Hindu Rashtra from any danger,” he says. Danger from whom? He smiles unsurely and says, “Outsiders.” Upon probed further, he seems clueless.

On special occasions, the RSS ideologues from the nearby shakha visit the school, says Dhiraj, and address the students. “We are taught the importance of our festivals,” he says. “We pay our respects to Shivaji on Shivjayanti, we salute the saffron flag on Gurupurnima, we also celebrate Dr. Hegdewar’s birth anniversary.”

On Raksha Bandhan, students of the school travel to various villages in their locality and tie a rakhi to an elder member of every house they visit, Dhiraj says. “It is a token gesture and a reminder of our pledge to protect the Hindu Rashtra,” he says, at which point the headmaster comes and stands beside him, encumbering his flow. He is suddenly reluctant to speak. I thank him for his time. The headmaster shakes my hand and leaves, and I go after Dhiraj again. “Are you not taught about Christmas or Eid?” I ask him.

“No,” he gives me a sarcastic smile. “They are not our festivals. Not in Hindu Rashtra.”

Nearly a century after his death, Marathi playwright become the focus of Sambhaji Brigade’s ire

This story first appeared on Catch News on 5 January 2017.

In the wee hours of 3 January, radical Maratha outfit Sambhaji Brigade barged into Sambhaji Park in Pune and vandalised the bust of noted poet and playwright Ram Ganesh Gadkari.

This action was taken supposedly in retaliation for a ‘defamatory’ play, which Gadkari had written about Sambhaji, a 17th century Maratha king, and Shivaji’s son – after which the brigade as well as the park is named.

 

 

Shantaram Kunjir of Sambhaji Brigade, who claims to have read the play, said Gadkari calls “Sambhaji Raje an alcoholic, a womaniser and more defamatory things” in the play.

“How does it make sense to have his statue in the park named after Sambhaji?” he asked. “We cannot tolerate the glorification of Gadkari.”

In another two years, a century will have passed since Gadkari died, bringing this sudden awakening of the Sambhaji Brigade into question.

What is the play about?

Ram Ganesh Gadkari is one of the most noteworthy writers in the history of Marathi literature. Celebrated playwright Vijay Tendulkar considered him the greatest poet-dramatist after Kalidas.

Though he only lived for 35 years (1885-1919), Gadkari wrote 150 poems, four finished plays and three unfinished ones. Out of the three unfinished plays, Rajasanyas is the one on Sambhaji, which has now come under the spotlight almost 10 decades later.

Rajasanyas was supposed to be a five-act play, of which Gadkari had written the first, third and fifth acts. It is a paragraph in the last scene of the last act is something the Sambhaji Brigade is undemocratically protesting against.

The last act of the play reflects the twilight of Sambhaji’s life where his own men had manacled him. Hapless and frustrated, Sambhaji’s character in the play implores his close associate, Sabaji, to abandon him, for his loyalty to him would only get him into more trouble. When Sabaji refuses, depressed Sambhaji goes into self-deprecating mode and mouths all the wrong accusations – of being a womaniser, a drunkard and so on – against him and asks if he would like to remain loyal to a man like that.

Sambhaji further criticises himself for not living up to the standards set by his renowned father. But Sabaji asks him to ignore the accusations, and hammers in the reality, which is otherwise.

However, the Facebook posts and WhatsApp messages circulated by Sambhaji Brigade conveniently ignore the context and merely highlight Sambhaji’s monologue. Comments reacting to the messages are equally inflammatory and provocative, apart from being vicious towards Gadkari.

By Kunjir’s own admission, the workers of Sambhaji Brigade – some of whom took down Gadkari’s bust – have not read the play, but the leaders have and they educate the workers. Commentators say if the top brass of Sambhaji Brigade has read the play as it claims and still feels the urge to assault Gadkari’s statue, then it is not intellectually capable enough to understand the nuance or having understood it, they are being willfully malicious.

One of the valid arguments of Sambhaji Brigade is that the history of Maharashtra is largely written from Brahminical perspective, but their manner of protest drowns out the legitimacy of the argument.

Why now?

As mentioned earlier, Gadkari died in 1919. The statue, which was attacked in Pune, was installed in 1962. Kunjir said they have been demanding the statue of Gadkari be replaced with Sambhaji’s, but it has fallen on deaf ears at the Pune corporation.

“We have been reading up a lot in the last 8-10 years,” he said. “Whenever we conduct any gathering, we mention Gadkari’s play and how he has defamed Sambhaji. Infuriated workers could not tolerate it and broke down the bust.”

However, the Pune corporation elections are impending and the significance of the event is too glaring to dismiss as mere coincidence. More so, Sambhaji Brigade recently announced it would be contesting elections.

Senior commentator Vishwambhar Choudhari said the attack on Gadkari’s bust is an attempt to polarise voters ahead of the polls. “Pune has primarily Brahmin and Maratha voters,” he said. “This is clearly a plot to polarise votes on caste lines, and announce its arrival on the political scene, for Sambhaji Brigade’s decision to contest polls had gone relatively unnoticed.”

Political connotations

Sambhaji Brigade has never been a peace-loving organisation. It first gained notoriety in 2004 after attacking Bhandarkar institute in Pune for assisting James Laine’s controversial book on Shivaji.

Even though it was an important part of the recently erupted Maratha agitation, which was known for its silent, democratic nature, the pressure of other Maratha organizations ensured the Sambhaji Brigade toed the line of protests, said Choudhari.

An overwhelmingly Maratha dominated outfit, Sambhaji Brigade’s politics has always been anti-Brahmin in nature, staying true to the caste-conflicts in Maharashtra. One of the WhatsApp forwards say the ones who were silent after the falling of Babri are agonising over the falling of Gadkari. In 2010, they had demanded removal of the statue of Dadoji Konddev – Brahmin tutor and mentor of Shivaji – from the Lal Mahal and his name as Shivaji’s teacher from history textbooks.

It is an open secret that the Sambhaji Brigade has had the tacit backing of Sharad Pawar’s NCP for the longest time. Marathas have been NCP’s votebank, while the BJP is identified as the party of Brahmins – the two communities forming an overwhelming majority of voters in Pune.

Over the years, NCP have successfully used Sambhaji Brigade to galvanise support by playing caste politics, akin to how BJP uses the likes of VHP and Bajrang Dal to invoke religion.

Out of the 28% Maratha population – excluding Kunbis – in Maharashtra, NCP has historically captured around 16-18% of its vote share. In the 2014 assembly elections, the number dwindled to a half of that. Moreover, the NCP may be incumbent at the Pune Corporation, but ground reports suggests it is struggling to retain its pole position.

The BJP, on the other hand, is keen to shed its tag of being a party of Brahmins. CM Devendra Fadnavis, himself a Brahmin, knows Sambhaji Brigade’s politics is aimed directly at him – precisely why he rushed to inaugurate the humongous statue of Shivaji that is planned to be built in the Arabian Sea.

The recent Maratha rallies, too, were anti-establishment in its outlook. Fadnavis, desperately wanting to pacify the Marathas, is well aware that Shivaji is still the easiest way of reaching their hearts.

It is also rumoured that the NCP may have historically played a role in the growth of Sambhaji Brigade, but in the recent past, the BJP, too, has its players rooted in various Maratha organisations, including Sambhaji Brigade.

Maratha leaders in the BJP, who may have an implicit grudge against Fadnavis, seem to be pulling the strings of these fractions. Nonetheless, how the politics plays out in the upcoming corporation elections in Pune remains anybody’s guess, said Choudhari. “Either the Sambhaji Brigade would have a tacit alliance with NCP or the BJP could use Sambhaji Brigade to split Maratha votes,” he said. “The alignment is difficult to gauge.”