Editor's Note: As UP heads into Lok Sabha Election 2019, Firstpost surveys one of its most influential vote blocs: the farming community; the focus of this multi-article series of reported pieces is the agrarian crisis that has struck India's most populous state.
Unnao: The afternoon sun is past its peak, but the gusts of hot wind have forced a few farmers to wait out another couple of hours at a nearby shop before they resume cutting the ripened wheat crop in their fields. And since its poll season, conversations turn easily towards politics over bidi and chivda (puffed rice flakes).
"Trishanku mukabla hai bhaiya yaha toh," a wise elderly farmer weighs in after a few pro-BJP voices finish elaborating on a 'decisive Narendra Modi wave' across the nation.
"Tum ladko ka kaun bharosa jidhar ki hava dekhbo udhare beh jabo magar pakke log pratyashi bhaanp ke button dabaat hain (The opinion of the youth favours the loudest but the older generation gives the candidate a thought before they cast their vote)," Sampat Thakur opines authoritatively before the focus can shift away from him in the cacophony of voices.
Sampat sums up the three major candidates in fray most succinctly for us. "Annu Tandon is a good candidate, but unfortunately, she is from the Congress. We no longer trust the Congress," Sampat says before explaining how the villagers feel indebted to her for her charitable work in the district and for helping the poor "bas urrin hone ke liye gaon vale vote dedenge magar vo jeetengi nahi (she will get some votes in villages but she won’t win)."
"Rahi baat baba ki (Sitting MP from the region, BJP's Sakshi Maharaj) toh baba hain bekar jhagda lagane ki baat karte hain magar kya kare bhoole nahi hain ki Atal [Bihari Vajpayee] ji ki sarkar ek seat se gir gayi thi, isi maare log de denge unko vote (Sakshi Maharaj is a useless candidate, he only divides the society but people here remember that Atal Bihari Vajpayee's government lost out because of one seat. That's why they will give him votes)."
"Aur dusre Maharaj (Samajwadi Party's Arun Kumar Shukla also known as Anna Maharaj) ko to koi janbe nahi karta hain yaha, vo khali chunavi mausam mein hi dikhte hain. (And the other Maharaj only turns up during election season; no one knows him)."
It looks like a tough choice for Unnao residents this year as they haplessly recite that voting this election is a majburi (compulsion).
Congress candidate Tandon belongs to an old influential family from Unnao and is generally liked by people in the region owing to the welfare work done by the charitable trust named after her late father, the Sri Hriday Narain Charitable Trust. Some villagers also recount how she makes it a point to send gifts for the wedding of any poor man's daughter, for which she receives an invite. Her close corporate links with Reliance Industries Limited are an encouraging sign for people in rural areas.
That their candidate is a trustee at the Reliance-owned Observer Research Foundation, generates hope among locals of projects being funded by Reliance's CSR wing. However, people moodily recite the 'breach of trust' committed by the Congress during its 60-year-long rule.
"Congress raj mein Unnao Lucknow ka sautela bhai tha... aur Kanpur se to matra 18 kilometre ki duri hai fir bhi vikas yaha aate aate rasta bhul jata tha… sadke kharab thi shayad isliye (During Congress rule, Unnao was treated like (capital) Lucknow's step brother; the (industrial town) Kanpur too is just 18 kilometres from here, yet development never reached us… Maybe because the roads were poor)," rues farmer Bhagwati Sharma.
Sharma says that most of the work done here, including building roads, a trauma centre, highways etc was done under BJP, Samajwadi Party or BSP governments, even though they didn't bother to push the development work along at the right pace. He says he would have voted for Tandon if she belonged to any other party but the Congress.
"Gram Sadak Yojna benefited greatly under Atal ji, that's when roads reached our village. But the local contractors bungled the funds; that's why the roads broke very quickly and even repair work was shoddy if you compare our roads to those even 10 kilometre away in Kanpur or Lucknow. Former chief minister Akhilesh Yadav also repaired some, but the quality of work in the last two years of his government was not good. Mayawati did a lot of work too. Our village Nihalpur was recognised as Ambedkar Gaon under her due to the substantial SC population and development was done. But she was not re-elected," says Sunder Lal.
Lal is all praise for Modi's flagship Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi Yojna, under which he has received cash support worth Rs 4,000 so far. He is also impressed by the 100 telephone hotline for police patrol vehicles and mobile ambulances, and credits both Akhilesh and incumbent chief minister Yogi Adityanath for formulating and subsequently improving the schemes.
However, Lal says he cannot recall any such substantial change under the 10-year Congress rule, or even before that when the party was dominant in the state.
"They did bring in MGNREGA which was a good scheme. But there was much corruption in that scheme and the true benefits didn't reach us," says Lal.
Likewise, traditional supporters of the Samajwadi Party and BSP aren't too excited about voting for the alliance's candidate now that the two parties are contesting polls together.
Raghuveer Kumar, a Kurmi — which comes under Other Backward Castes — has traditionally voted for the Samajwadi Party, but this year he accepts he is slightly averse to Shukla's candidature. "They chose Puja Pal, a good candidate, and an OBC leader, and I was happy. But now they have sidelined her and fielded a Brahmin. The BJP, meanwhile, has respected the fact that the district needs an OBC candidate because we are present in huge numbers," Raghuveer says. He also thinks that Modi has done a good job in "teaching Pakistan a lesson".
"The OBCs constitute the largest group in the district, yet no party thought of fielding an OBC candidate except the BJP. Pal would have been a strong candidate but the Samajwadi Party sidelined her for reasons best known to it," says Succha Singh.
Media reports claim that Pal was withdrawn as a candidate because of some "technical difficulties". Locals too tell a story that all of Pal's documents were in the name of her late husband Raju Pal, who was murdered in Prayagraj due to political rivalry. However, recently she had married another Kurmi leader and changed her surname. This could have led to the cancellation of her candidature on technical grounds.
Another farmer, Pappu Gond, a Dalit, says that Mayawati has made it difficult for him by supporting the Samajwadi Party candidate, a Brahmin, who has betrayed her not once but twice.
"Behen ji humare liye devta hain, hum bhule nahi hain guest house kaand. Behen ji ne sab bhul ke is Shukla ko ticket bhi diya tha par isne dobara unse dhokha kiya," says Pappu.
Shukla holds the reputation of being one of the most powerful land mafias in Lucknow, and he is also allegedly the leader who led the assault against Mayawati in the infamous guest house scandal of the 1990s. He was fielded on a BSP ticket in 2009 from Unnao but was later expelled for anti-party activities.
Sakshi Maharaj's candidature, meanwhile, is another curious case in itself.
In his election affidavit, Maharaj details 34 cases against him, ranging from promoting enmity, criminal intimidation, robbery, dacoity, murder, forgery, cheating and criminal breach of trust. He has twice been accused of rape. Although he has never been convicted, cognisance has been taken in at least eight cases against him.
A garage owner to whom Firstpost spoke, who is also a local BJP worker, admitted that it was difficult to ask for votes in his name because even Lodhis (the OBC caste to which the BJP candidate belongs) do not like him. "We focus on the work done by Modi ji and ask people to vote for the Lotus."
Sripal Shukla, a vocal BJP supporter also states that he was surprised when the BJP bowed to his demands after his threatening letter that the party won't win the seat if it doesn't field him again.
"To be honest, if we go by local issues, Sakshi Maharaj shouldn't get a single vote at least from the upper caste. He has been saying vile things against us and has tried to create enmity between different strata of society. But we want Modi to get another chance. And this is the election that will decide our prime minister," Shukla says.
"Had Modi ji fielded a scarecrow we would have voted for him, we will vote for the sanyasi too because Modi should be the prime minister," says Tarun Pal, another BJP supporter.
More topical issues like joblessness, demonetisation and GST, which are hyped by the Opposition do touch a raw nerve with people in Unnao, but most BJP supporters are more forgiving in retrospect. Uttam Singh, the son of a farmer in Bicchiya village says he lost his job at a tannery in Lucknow, which was forced to cut staff after the Yogi government strengthened pollution norms under the Nirmal Ganga project and ahead of the Kumbh Mela in Prayagraj. He now helps out at his father's farm for eight out of twelve months and picks up odd jobs or works at mango farms of more prosperous farmers between the two crop seasons.
However, he vouches for Modi's policies, asserting that short term pains will eventually result in something far greater when the prime minister is done implementing his vision.
Almost all the farmers to whom Firstpost spoke in four villages of Unnao also complain about the destruction caused by stray cattle ever since the BJP came to power in the state in 2017. But most are not ready to blame the party for the menace.
"This anna pratha (the practice of abandoning cattle when past milking age) existed in Akhilesh's time too. But people from Kanpur and Uttar Pradesh would come at night and take them away to slaughterhouses. After the BJP came, that has stopped," says Brahmdutt Sharma.
"We cannot blame everything on the government. When the farmer earns through the animal for a large part of its life, why does it expect the government to feed it when it gets old? We know these strays are from within the village, but what do we say to each other and create tension with our own brethren? This is our own doing," Sharma says.
But Pappu, a traditional Mayawati supporter who dislikes the alliance's candidate gives less credit to the BJP government.
"Rozgar dene aaye the, ulta chheen liye, upar se ye bhi Dalit virodhi hi hain. Aur Congress to aur badi manuvadi party hai. Dekhenge button dabate samay hi mann banayenge kisko vote dena hai jab netao ne koi upay hi nahi chhoda hai (BJP promised to generate jobs but even took away the ones we already held. Plus they are anti-Dalits. Congress is even worse in its upper-caste mentality. I’ll make up my mind in the polling booth because no party has given us a good choice)," he sighs.
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Updated Date: Apr 29, 2019 16:00:21 IST