Devraj stood at the village handpump in Lakhaicha, trousers rolled up, holding a bucket full of wet clothes – the uniform he wore to the Industrial Training Institute where he was learning how to be an electrician. All of 18, he said he had registered as a voter and was looking forward to casting his ballot for the first time.

Who did he plan to vote for, I asked. Devraj smiled. But before he could answer, a middle-aged man, Shakti Singh Chauhan, intervened. “If you ask for my opinion, I am satisfied with the government,” he declared. “Badlav ki koi avashyakta nahi.” There is no need for change.

Lakhaicha is about an hour’s drive from Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh. The village is in the Barabanki parliamentary constituency, reserved for Scheduled Caste candidates.

Nine of ten people in Lakhaicha are Dalit Pasi, the largest of the Scheduled Caste communities in this part of the state. Devraj is Pasi. Yet, Chauhan, from a community counted among the Other Backward Classes, was able to hijack the conversation.

It is only when the conversation turned to the topic of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s campaign slogan – “Ab ki baar, 400 paar”, this time, we will cross 400 – that Devraj found his voice.

“They want to change the Constitution,” he said, with a flash of anger.

In the run-up to the election, at least four BJP candidates and leaders asked voters to re-elect the party with an overwhelming majority so that it can make changes to the Constitution.

But Devraj cited another source for his assertion.

“Modi ji’s advisor Bibek Debroy has said the Constitution will be replaced with a new one in 2047,” he said, referencing an opinion column written by the chairperson of the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council. Devraj had not read the column, which had appeared in the English-language business newspaper Mint, but he had heard about it in videos he had seen on YouTube.

He attributed the desire to change the Constitution to chuaa chhut, or caste discrimination. “It is because the Constitution has been written by Babasaheb, who belonged to a lower caste,” he said, referring to BR Ambedkar, who served as the chairperson of the committee that drafted the Indian Constitution, “that these people don’t like it.”

“They don’t like that the Constitution provides for reservations [in government jobs and educational institutions],” he continued. “That’s why they want to change it.”

Devraj had watched YouTube videos discussing an opinion column written by the prime minister's advisor in which he advocated a change in the Constitution.

In an election which seems to lack overarching national issues, it is striking that journalists have heard the same concern articulated by Scheduled Caste voters across many states – Karnataka, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, among others.

In Uttar Pradesh, travelling through Barabanki and Faizabad, I heard this sentiment in every Dalit neighbourhood I visited. It was voiced most sharply by educated youth, who are active users of social media. But even older voters, both men and women, were aware of it.

“They want to implement Manu ka vidhan,” the laws of Manu that prescribe a caste-based order, said Pinky, who is studying for a diploma in education and lives in the Jatav quarter of Jawaripur village. Her sister-in-law Neelu added: “So that Pandits and Thakurs run the government and lower-caste people have no say.” How did they know this, I asked. “Through Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, WhatsApp,” she said.

With the Opposition INDIA alliance characterising the election as a fight to save the Constitution and reservations, the BJP has found itself on the defensive. The party initially responded with denials. It fell on its chief campaigner, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, to come up with a counter: he claimed that if the Congress comes to power, it would snatch reservations away from Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes and give them to Muslims. He also accused the Congress of plotting to take away half the property of Indians.

Both Barabanki and Faizabad have a large Muslim population. Faizabad is home to the newly-inaugurated Ram Mandir in Ayodhya, which the BJP has harnessed as a symbol of Hindu assertion across the country. Yet, Modi’s claims appeared to have little purchase in the region, even among the party’s upper-caste supporters.

“Both sides are levelling accusations against each other,” said Jai Prakash Jaiswal, in the market town of Milkipur in Faizabad, still awash with Ram Mandir flags. “Woh baatein hain, baaton ka kya.” It is just talk, empty talk.

Jaiswal, who identified as a BJP supporter, argued that with the Opposition repeatedly cornering the government over reservations, Modi was bound to respond. “Not to reply would have been foolish.”

Girija Shankar, from Lodhpurwa, who declared that as a Lodh, he was bound to be a BJP supporter, dismissed the claims both sides were making as “afwah” or rumours. “Who can change the Constitution? Who can take away my property?” he asked. “This cucumber I have grown, it is mine,” he said, turning to the freshly harvested produce from his farm, “I will choose whether to sell one for Rs 10, or ten for Rs 10.”

Girija Shankar is a vegetable farmer in Barabanki district. He declared he was a supporter of the BJP but he was not impressed with PM Modi's speeches.

Singh, the BJP-leaning OBC voter in Devraj’s village, too, wrote off Modi’s speeches as an example of “aaroop, pratayaaroop” – allegations and counter allegations – hurled at election time.

In the battle of competing narratives, the Opposition seems to have the upper hand: its pitch about the Constitution being under threat may not have swayed the OBCs, but it has found resonance among the Dalits. The BJP appears to be losing support among Dalit communities, including the numerically large Pasi community that it has steadily cultivated by recasting a mediaeval-era battle between a Pasi king and a Muslim ruler as a religious war.

What is unclear, though, is whether the BJP’s loss will translate into a corresponding gain for the Samajwadi Party-Congress alliance since there is a third player in the mix: the Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party.

In Barabanki’s Ram Nagar block last week, Congress candidate Tanuj Punia was running late for an election meeting. His supporters filled the vacuum by listing out all the advantages that Punia enjoyed in this election compared to the last one that he had lost. “This time, we have an alliance with the Samajwadi Party,” said Saurabh Pandey, the block president of the Congress. “The seat has both Muslim and Yadav voters. Add Dalit voters to the mix and it is a clear victory.”

Punia arrived just before dusk, in a vehicle bearing a flag with Congress and Samajwadi insignia on either side. He launched into a speech blaming the government for rising inflation, unemployment, distress among farmers and small traders, before he segued into his campaign line about the threat that the BJP posed to the Constitution.

“Their parliamentarians have started saying ‘Give us 400 seats, we will change the Constitution,’” he said.

He continued: “Democracy is already under threat. If you speak up against the government, the revenue inspector will show up at your door to measure your property, or the police will show up and say come with us. If it is a bigger man, the bulldozers will arrive. For an even bigger man, the CBI, ED will arrive” – a reference to federal investigative agencies.

“If the Constitution goes, whatever democracy remains that too will be gone. This is a fight to save democracy, save the Constitution.”

The Congress candidate in Barabanki, Tanuj Punia, is the son of veteran leader and Rajya Sabha member PL Punia. He has lost four elections but appeared confident of winning this one.

Punia later told me that when he addresses meetings in Dalit neighbourhoods, he starts by talking about the threat to the Constitution “because SC voters worship Babasaheb and the Constitution”.

He claimed he had been talking about the issue since 2019 when Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat asked for a rethink on reservations. “But there was no traction among the public then,” he said. “People did not pick it up then. They are picking it up now because the videos of their leaders are going viral.”

One of the leaders is twice-elected BJP MP Lallu Singh from neighbouring Faizabad. Last month, a video surfaced in which he can be heard saying: “The government can be formed with 272 MPs. But to amend the Constitution, or to make a new Constitution, more than two-thirds majority is needed.”

At his home in Faizabad one morning last week, the front courtyard was filled with rural voters eager to exploit the opportunity created by an election to get the MP to make a phone call on their behalf to local officials to sort out various problems. As 69-year-old Singh fielded phone calls, I slipped in a question about his controversial statement. He responded rather curtly: “When the prime minister has spoken, what is left for me to say?”

Modi has said in his campaign speeches that till he is alive, no one can change the Constitution. Singh, softening a bit, went on to add: “Humara kehne ka udeshya dusra tha...” I was aiming to say something else.

When I asked what exactly he was aiming to say, he shot back: “Why do I need to tell you? Why should I get into trouble?”

Lallu Singh has been elected twice from Faizabad, but his winning margin in 2019 was considerably lower than 2014.

As Singh walked away, his aide came to my side and said: “It was an inopportune moment, he made a slip.” Claiming Singh harboured no caste prejudice, he said: “Wo un logon saath uthate baithate hain, khaate hain.” He interacts with and eats with those people.

The aide insisted that the controversy would not cause a substantial loss of Dalit votes. “Pasi jo judda hain, wo itni asaani se thode chod dega,” he said. The Pasi supporters will not abandon us easily.

To capitalise on the disquiet, the Samajwadi Party has fielded Awadhesh Prasad, a nine-time MLA, as its Faizabad candidate. At his residence, surrounded by a posse of party workers, 79-year-old Prasad underlined the importance of his candidature: “This Lok Sabha seat is a general one. I am a reserved candidate. I belong to Scheduled Castes. My sub-caste is Pasi.”

He continued: “This is the first time in 77 years, as far as I know that a Scheduled Caste candidate has been fielded in Ayodhya, the place in whose name the BJP does politics around the country.”

Awadhesh Prasad is a nine-time MLA who is being projected as the Dalit face of the Samajwadi Party.

The Samajwadi Party has projected Prasad as its Dalit face ever since party president Akhilesh Yadav coined the acronym PDA last year to signal a shift in its electoral strategy. PDA stands for Pichda, Dalit, Alpsankhyak – backward castes, Dalits and religious minorities. While the Samajwadi Party has been traditionally associated with backward castes, particularly Yadavs, and Muslims, this is the first time it is also wooing Dalits.

The attempt is to capitalise on the decline of the Bahujan Samaj Party. It used to attract the largest chunk of votes of Dalits, particularly the Jatavs, the community that Mayawati belongs to, until the Modi wave of 2014 saw BJP double its share of the Dalit vote, according to post-poll surveys. Since then, the BJP has continued to gain more Dalit votes at the cost of the Bahujan Samaj Party. Even as recently as the 2022 Assembly polls, Dalit voters, among the poorest in the state, voted for the BJP in sizable numbers, largely attributed to its welfare push.

But this time, the Samajwadi Party-Congress alliance believes that Dalits, disenchanted with the BJP, will pick its candidates over the Bahujan Samaj Party.

“I respect sister Mayawati ji, but today it is clear that she is not in a position to defend the Constitution by defeating the BJP,” Prasad said. “Only the INDIA alliance can dislodge the BJP.”

In Dalit villages, the first complaint you hear is not about the Constitution, it is about cows.

“They are eating up all the wheat we used to grow,” said Pinky’s grandmother, Ram Lali, sitting amidst a group of women in the Jatav quarter of Jowaripura village in Barabanki. “Even putting up an electric fence is of no use.”

Other women nodded in agreement. “We would get five-six quintals of wheat from 10 bighas of land. Now, all that we get is five kilos from the government,” Seema said, referring to the monthly per person foodgrain ration given under the Food Security Act.

In Faizabad’s Bhogipur village, Nandlal, from the Dalit Kori community, echoed the same concern. “Last year I sowed wheat on four bighas. I could not harvest it. The animals ate it all up,” he said. “How can government ration compensate for this?”

Nandlal belongs the Dalit Kori community. He says free rations are not enough to compensate for farm losses.

Pinky explained: “All this is happening after the BJP came to power and declared that cows should be worshipped.”

Earlier, farmers would sell bulls and male calves to butchers. After the BJP imposed a ban on cattle slaughter, the same animals were let loose by their owners. As they rampaged through fields, the government set up cattle shelters. But as Srikeshan, an elderly Pasi man in Barabanki’s Sandi Dih village, noted, the shelters are no good.

“The animals are dying of thirst, they get neither water, nor fodder,” he said.

A government-run cattle shelter in Barabanki district.

None of these problems were new, I pointed out. What explains the fact that booth-level data shows most people in the village still voted for the BJP in 2022, I asked. Rajendra Prasad, a man in his thirties, sheepishly explained: “At that time, the government was giving five kilos of foodgrains twice a month along with one kilo of chana dal and one litre of oil. Ussi mein sab bik gaye.” Everyone got sold on that.

With the pandemic-era double-ration scheme coming to an end last year, rations had shrunk to just five kilos of free foodgrains, he said, hardly enough to battle inflation and unemployment. “We have understood that the BJP took us for a ride.”

The same conditions of economic distress, however, were explained away by most OBC voters nearby. “The government has not released the animals in the fields, we have,” a Kurmi farmer said. “And there was inflation even under the Congress.”

In the Dalit settlements, though, the fear of the Constitution being changed and the experience of economic hardship had combined to produce a near unanimous view that the BJP must be voted out. But people disagreed on which party deserved their votes.

“We have always voted for Mayawati,” said Pinky, from the Jatav quarter of Jawaripur. “She is from our caste.”

Nandlal, from the Kori community, said he used to vote for Bahujan Samaj Party before he switched to the BJP in 2014. But this time, he said, “Haathi zero ke barabar hai.” The elephant – the BSP’s election symbol – is zero. “Joka jeete ka asar ho ooka dehi, nahi to phir bhajapa nikal jaahi.” We should vote for the party that has a chance of winning, else the BJP will come back.

In the Pasi hamlet of Sandi Dih, Rajendra Modi was emphatic: “This time, the BJP will be wiped out, the Congress will win.”

Srikeshan (front, left) and Rajendra Prasad (in the blue t-shirt) said the entire village was voting to defeat the BJP.

Devraj, the first-time voter from the Pasi community, said he was still to make up his mind. His family had traditionally voted for BSP, he said. “But I want to evaluate who is stronger and better placed to defeat the BJP. I will vote accordingly.”

All photographs by Supriya Sharma