In Agra, the centre of India’s Bahujan politics and a reserved seat for SC, the prevailing sentiment among Jatavs and Muslims ahead of the Lok Sabha election is essentially anti-BJP.
“Our leather industry was badly hit by demonetisation. Everyday income has come down to Rs 200 a day, from a much higher pre-Demonetisation level. Look at how deserted the market is for a Sunday,” Siraj, a leather products shopowner in Agra’s Sadar Bazar, complains.
“Everyone here still vividly remembers that evening of November 8. Though there is cash again in the market, we haven’t reached pre-Demonetisation levels in terms of business,” he states.
Agra’s thriving leather industry took a big hit from Demonetisation, with Muslims and Jatavs being affected the most, since both the communities are involved in the industry as business owners and workers.
Riding on a Modi wave, the BJP in 2014 was able to attract even a chunk of the Jatav and Muslim votes, both the communities seen as traditional vote banks of the BSP.
Two-term MP from the seat and MoS Human Resources Development, BJP’s Ram Shanker Katheria, saw a swing of 23 per cent in 2014 elections, riding a Modi wave.
With Katheria moved to Etawah seat by the party high command, much to his chagrin, and resentment against Modi due to failure to fulfil the election promises, there is no love lost between the Bahujan voters on the seat and the BJP.
The seat is now expected to see a three-cornered contest between the gathbandhan candidate, BSP’s Manoj Soni, BJP’s SP Singh Baghel and the Congress’ Preeta Harit, a former revenue officer who has been working on the ground for the welfare of Dalits through an NGO for the last four and a half years.
The Jatav community in Agra view Harit as a credible alternative to the BSP, who they have traditionally supported. “She has been working on the ground for the community. She has good chances of winning the election this time,” says Pravendra Vyas, a leader from Dalit outfit Bhim Sena. The outfit claims to represent the interests of over 50,000 members of Dalit community and is mainly active in Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.
Vyas says that Mayawati’s decision to not contest the election is playing on the minds of the Dalit voters, who are also “not really comfortable” with the idea of an alliance with the SP. “The Dalits have not forgotten how Mayawati had been insulted by the SP. The only purpose of the alliance is to defeat the BJP. Differences among supporters of the parties are still very much there,” he says.
Baghel, UP’s animal husbandry minister, is facing an outsider tag as well as resentment among Dalits for allegedly forging his SC certificate. “In the previous elections, he had declared himself as backward caste. Then, how can he contest from a reserved seat like Agra,” asks Vyas.
Kamal Kishore, the Pradhan of a predominantly Jatav village of Nainana in Fatehpur Sikri constituency, says that the community is weighing its options for the April 18 vote between Congress’ Raj Babbar and the BSP, which has fielded a Brahmin candidate in Bhagwan Sharma aka Guddu Pandit.
“Not many people know Guddu Pandit here. Raj Babbar, on the other hand, is a known face,” says the village Pradhan.
Kamal Kishore says that the Jatav community there could support Congress in place of gathbandhan, which neither has a Jatav face nor has as tall a candidate as Babbar.
Jaats, Jatavs, Muslims, Yadavs and non-Jatav non-Yadav OBCs (Kushwahas) form an important vote bank in the two constituences. While Jatavs and Muslims have traditionally voted for the BSP, the Jaat vote last time around went to the BJP.
In Mathura, the Jatavs, which form the second biggest community after Jaats, are uneasy with the idea of an alliance with a Jaat-dominated RLD. However, even here, its the resentment against the BJP and local MP Hema Malini that has brought the parties together under a single banner.
But four-term Congress MLA Pradeep Mathur believes that Jatavs here will prefer the Congress candidate over that of the gathbandhan, RLD’s Kunwar Narendra Singh.
Singh, however, does enjoy the support of sizable number of Jaats in the constituency, a factor which could ultimately tip the scales in his favour.
(The story was first published in National Herald on Sunday).