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Lok Sabha polls: UP's Ghazipur is nothing like it was in 1970s, but Manoj Sinha has emerged as 2019's Sarjoo Pandey

Editor's note: In this series on contemporary history, consulting editor Ajay Singh takes us to places and talks about people who left yesterday's indelible mark on today’s politics.

Union communication minister Manoj Sinha fondly remembers communist leader Sarjoo Pandey (1919-89), arguably the tallest mass leader eastern Uttar Pradesh ever produced. He participated in the Freedom Struggle, and when the British slapped sedition charges, not only did he accepted them, but sought punishment. He represented Ghazipur in the Lok Sabha twice, in 1967 and 1971.

"When he died, a sea of humanity, largely drawn from the underprivileged class, turned up to pay obeisance to the leader… an incredible spectacle of people's emotional attachment to the leader," Sinha says. Although ideologically completely at variance, Sinha's unreserved praise for the communist stalwart has a context.

Sinha points out that even though Pandey was a stout believer in the Marxist theory of the dictatorship of the proletariat, he never let his ideology create social acrimony between the rich and the poor. "He would often stop by the house of a landlord and ask him to pay for his expenses if he was unable to contribute to his political cause," he recalls, while emphasising that Pandey ensured that the social amity remained undisturbed in Ghazipur even though the district was known to be a veritable Leningrad of Uttar Pradesh.

Pandey frequently figures as a character in the novel Aadha Gaon (half-village) by master storyteller in Urdu and son of the soil, Rahi Masoom Raza, known for writing the script of the popular TV serial Mahabharat. Raza's novel — carefully crafted around a predominantly Muslim village and his birthplace, Gangauli, which also stands as a microcosm of India — is a repudiation of the two-nation theory that led to Partition.

 Lok Sabha polls: UPs Ghazipur is nothing like it was in 1970s, but Manoj Sinha has emerged as 2019s Sarjoo Pandey

Manoj Sinha addresses a gathering of villagers in Ghazipur. Firstpost/Ajay Sinha

But in the 1980s and 1990s, Ghazipur became a den of gangsters and smugglers, and earned notoriety as a major centre for heroin supply. The district was considered a link in India's underworld channels to the 'golden triangle' comprising drug cartels of Southeast Asia — Myanmar, Thailand and Laos. Illicit poppy cultivation around Ghazipur and pilferage from the British-era opium factory gave rise to the manufacturing of 'brown sugar' and the refined white substance known as heroin. A small packet weight one kilogram would often fetch around Rs 20 lakh in Mumbai and Rs one crore in the US and Europe.

Pandey was distraught in the last years of his life, as he helplessly watched the culture of drugs cartels and guns coming to dominate the district's politics. While he was a respected figure, he found himself totally irrelevant as Ghazipur was pushed into a vortex of criminalised politics. Ironically, he was often seen defending the indefensible: The rise of Mukhtar Ansari as the king of this underworld. A superintendent of police posted in Ghazipur in the late 1980s once revealed, "It was pathetic to see Pandeyji explaining the rise of gangsters through the prism of Marxist ideology." Of course, Pandey was too old then to resist the overt criminalisation of the constituency on caste and communal lines.

Although the sustained government action against drug warlords effectively restrained Ghazipur from slipping into a heroin hell-hole, gangs of criminals armed with Kalashnikov rifles and Uzis started dictating the course of politics. Gangs fighting their battles in public spaces and spilling blood on the street defined the social life of Ghazipur which appeared cursed beyond redemption. On 29 November, 2005, Krishnanand Rai, a BJP legislator from the Mohammadabad Assembly seat, was shot dead.

Mukhtar Ansari and his brother, Afzal, figured as the accused in the case. Mukhtar's arch-rival Brijesh Singh is also accused of carrying out many hit jobs to establish his supremacy. A political division of the underworld is quite evident in Ghazipur as Brijesh owes his allegiance to the BJP while the Ansaris switch from one 'secular' option to another depending on convenience. In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, Afzal, out on bail, is contesting as a Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) candidate, backed by the Samajwadi Party. As the Samajwadi Party-BSP alliance is backed by a coalition of conventional social blocks like Yadav, Muslim and Dalits, he seems to be in a fairly advantageous position against Sinha.

However, since the 2014 Lok Sabha election, Ghazipur seems to have undergone a silent transformation. After winning a tough contest, Sinha carried out unprecedented development work in the constituency, once among the most backward areas of eastern Uttar Pradesh. A four-lane highway connecting Varanasi and Gorakhpur via Ghazipur is being constructed at a furious pace. The city boasts of having the most modern railway station which is now well-connected with major cities of the country. A long-pending project of building a bridge on the Ganga was completed ahead of schedule to ease both road and rail traffic between Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Even an airport is under construction. There are many Central projects that have come up in Ghazipur which stands only second to Prime Minister Narendra Modi's constituency, the neighbouring Varanasi, in terms of development in eastern Uttar Pradesh.

But this is only one side of the story. At the social level, Sinha has ensured that benefits of all welfare schemes reach the needy. In Ruhi village, he interacts with people in the local Bhojpuri language and drives his point home saying, "Don’t vote for me if my five years of work do not outweigh their work of six decades (excluding Atal Bihari Vajpayee's six years)." He lists his achievements: Ghazipur has a modern railway station, a passport office, a medical college, a sports complex, 100 primary schools with modern facilities, a government high school and a girls' school equipped with sanitary vending machines and incinerators. Those attending the meeting nod in agreement.

A graduate from the prestigious Institute of Technology of Banaras Hindu University (BHU-IT), Sinha is known for keeping political discourse decent even in face of the gravest provocation. In a series of meetings, he combines Modi's popular appeal with his personal charm to seek votes. He successfully paints the picture of a bright future should people vote for the BJP in large numbers and defeat those who came together with the sole purpose of defeating Modi. At a village in Chaurabagh, a large group of women dominated by Rajbhar caste hear him in rapt attention. An old woman, asked if she would vote for Sinha, responds, "Who else will I vote for if not for the man who changed our life?"

There are many variables that influence the polls. But there is no denying the fact that Sinha is a worthy inheritor of Pandey's legacy despite their ideological differences.

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Updated Date: Apr 24, 2019 17:41:44 IST