Like elsewhere in Varanasi’s vicinity, road building activities are going on everywhere in Ghazipur.
Ghazipur: On the eastern fringes of Uttar Pradesh, where the state shares its border with Bihar, is located the Ghazipur Lok Sabha constituency, in the heart of the region known as Purvanchal. Electoral battle lines are clearly drawn here: the fight is between vikas (development) and jaati (caste). As a bright young man, Ajit, asserts to this newspaper on a searing hot afternoon this week, “Jiska vikas mudda hai woh Bharatiya Janata Party ko vote karega, aur jiska jaati mudda hai woh Mahagathbandhan (MGB) ko vote dega (For whom development is the issue will vote for BJP, for whom caste is the issue will vote for MGB)”. Ajit is a student. He is doing his BA second year from a Ghazipur college. A first-time voter, he plans to cast his vote for the BJP “for the work done” by the sitting MP, Union Minister of State for Railways—also Minister of State (independent charge) Ministry of Communications—Manoj Sinha, and for Prime Minister Narendra Modi “for securing the nation and for avenging the Pulwama martyrs”. Ajit’s full name is Ajit Yadav. He is a “Yaduvanshi” and he should have been a “natural” voter for the MGB, but he takes great pride in his ability to rise above his caste and he may not be alone in this.
On the road to Ghazipur from Varanasi, while stuck in an inordinately long traffic jam at Saidpur, a reserved Assembly segment under the control of Samajwadi Party, a conversation starts with the driver of a neighbouring vehicle. Vinod Yadav, in his 20s, drives cars for a living and plans to vote for Manoj Sinha “for the RO plant the minister has started” in the constituency.
The MGB candidate from Ghazipur is Afzal Ansari of Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party. He is the brother of dreaded don Mukhtar Ansari, currently in prison, and is equally dreaded himself. That Ansari, originally with SP, is fighting on a “Harijan party” BSP’s ticket, has made it easier for the two Yadavs to rise above their caste allegiances. This adds some grist to the speculation that the Yadav vote in Uttar Pradesh may not be going to the BSP en masse.
Ghazipur has a Yadav and Muslim population of over 5 lakh, while Dalits number around 3 lakh. The voting population of Ghazipur is a little over 18 lakh. So in terms of arithmetic, the BJP faces a tough challenge here, with the MGB “vote-bank” of Yadavs, Muslims and Dalits making up around 8-9 lakh voters.
But elections are about chemistry and not about arithmetic, Manoj Sinha tells this writer at his home-cum election office in Ghazipur. He lost this seat in 2004 to Afzal Ansari, who was with the Samajwadi Party at the time: “A lot of water has flown down the Ganges since then.” “At the time there was a government that was fully supporting him, all the criminals of UP and eastern UP were here, they murdered some of our workers, police and ministers were openly supporting them, that was the main reason,” he adds. He believes that he will win the election this time by the dint of his work (see interview).
The talk at the Agarwal’s AC restaurant nearby is dominated by fulsome praise for Manoj Sinha. “It used to take three-four hours to go to my village Reotipur from Ghazipur town. Now it’s a matter of minutes,” says Mohan, the waiter there who travels a distance of 10 km to come to work.
A Zonal Railway Training Institute has been started in Ghazipur.For a region perceived to be backward and remote, the roads of Ghazipur have to be seen to be believed. Except for some stretches leading to the villages in remote areas, pothole free, metalled roads stretch like an endless dream. The power situation too has improved immensely. Earlier, power cuts lasted forever. Nowadays, even if power cuts take place, they don’t last beyond 5-10 minutes, the cashier at Agarwal’s tells this writer.
With electricity and roads being the most visible symbols of good governance, BJP governments both at the Centre and the state have been giving a lot of importance to infrastructure in Uttar Pradesh. Like elsewhere in Varanasi’s vicinity, road building activities are going on everywhere in Ghazipur, especially the construction of bypasses to avoid congested towns. A Purvanchal Expressway connecting Lucknow with Ghazipur is in the offing. Moreover, Sinha has used his office as Minister of State for Railways to beautify stations, start trains that connect Ghazipur directly with Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata, among other cities, build a cold storage at Ghazipur Ghat station to ensure it serves as a hub of economic activity for surrounding areas. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has got work started on a Mau-Ghazipur-Tarighat rail line—a line Ghazipur has been demanding since 1962—of which the Ghazipur Ghat-Tarighat rail-cum-road bridge is a part. The bridge, which is scheduled to start functioning by the end of this year, will open up a route from Nepal to Bihar and Bengal via Gorakhpur and Ghazipur. Ghazipur is now also part of the Varanasi-Kolkata waterway, while the Prime Minister’s Udaan programme is bringing a small airport to the area. Sinha has also started a Zonal Railway Training Institute. Add to that toilet building activities under Swachh Bharat, houses constructed under Pradhan Mamtri Awas Yojana, and Tarakeshwar Rai of Ranbeer Rai Dharni village in Zamania block cannot stop gushing about Manoj Sinha: “After 1947 no one has worked so much for this area the way Manoj Sinha has.”
Tarakeshwar Rai, a Bhumihar Brahmin, was attending Sinha’s meeting at the Kushwaha-dominated village of Gagaran, around 20 km from Ghazipur town. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the candidate the SP had fielded from Ghazipur was a Kushwaha by caste, who lost by a “narrow margin” of around 32,000 votes. Sinha got 306,929 votes. The SP candidate got 274,477 votes, while the BSP candidate, a Yadav, got 241,645 votes. In terms of arithmetic, Ghazipur should have been an easy win for the MGB. But then the chemistry seems to be missing when it comes to Afzal Ansari. Almost everyone this writer met in Ghazipur scoffed at Afzal Ansari as a “goonda”. There is no denying that the BJP’s development narrative has a strong caste factor underlying it and this may end up helping it. A consolidation of upper castes and non-Yadav OBCs seems to be taking place on the ground in favour of BJP. Invariably, the most vocal supporters of the BJP in Ghazipur turned out to be either belonging to the upper castes or non Yadav OBCs such as Kushwahas, Rajbhars, etc. Whether this and the work done by the BJP governments at the Centre and the state can overrun caste loyalties in Ghazipur will be known on 23 May.