Pradeep began driving taxis at the age of 16 on a farzi (fake) licence. Six years later, the young man, who grew up in a small village called Tegri in Uttar Pradesh’s Lalitpur district, cast his first vote in the 2012 Assembly elections. Pradeep doesn’t remember whom he voted for – only that he was a candidate of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP).
As Dalits living in a village dominated by Yadavs, his community of Razaks, he explained, are supporters of Behenji, BSP leader Kumari Mayawati. “We vote en masse,” he said.
But, in 2014, Pradeep became a free agent. Breaking free of the collective decision taken by community elders, he voted for the Bharatiya Janata Party’s candidate, Uma Bharati.
However, it wasn’t Bharati, a charismatic leader and a former chief minister, who swung his choice. It was Narendra Modi, the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, who spoke from giant LCD screens installed on a truck that was parked in the market square in Talbehat, the small block town near Tegri, for months on end.
“He said I used to sell tea on trains,” recalled Pradeep, who was transfixed by the giant screens. “All the boys said that if he can rise so much in life, we can also aspire to get far.”
At the time, Pradeep, his family’s sole breadwinner, was particularly concerned about the future of his younger brother, who was the first in the family to study up to Class 12. The family owned less than two acres of land. His father, who had worked all his life as a daily wage labourer, had retired, and Pradeep, who was unable to study beyond Class 8, wanted a better future for his brother. “We spent Rs 600 on his fees and Rs 400 on his tuitions every month, all in the hope that he would get a job,” Pradeep said.
Modi’s promise of more jobs for young people finally sealed Pradeep’s choice.
Two years later, Pradeep is disappointed. His brother failed to get a white collar job. “We filled all forms – railway, post, police,” he said. “Not one came back.”
Eventually, the younger brother settled on driving trucks for a living. It brings him Rs 10,000 a month – higher than Pradeep’s salary of Rs 4,000 – but takes him further away from home, and puts him at a higher risk of accidents.
As a taxi driver, Pradeep cares about the condition of roads. Soon after he voted for Modi, he travelled to Gujarat. The local daroga (policeman) hired the taxi to chase down the kidnappers of a young school student. Neither the student nor the criminals were found, but Pradeep came back impressed with Gujarat’s roads. “They have different lanes for motorcycles, buses, cars,” he said. “This brings down the chances of accidents.”
If Modi had done so well as chief minister, why didn’t he perform as prime minister, Pradeep wondered. The price of diesel had gone up, and inflation, although not as high as four years ago, had not fully abated. Even the drought relief cheques were yet to reach his village, he noted.
Since he rarely found the time to watch television news, and carried a regular phone, not a “WhatsApp waala phone”, or smartphone that can support WhatsApp, he said he did not know much about Modi’s schemes. “I don’t see any of them on the ground,” he said. “If they are circulating on the net, how am I to know?”
Return to regional parties
Pradeep’s disappointment with Modi, however, may only be a part of the reason for his decision to switch back to the BSP.
Voter choices in Assembly elections often vary from the ones made in Parliamentary polls. In the recent polls in West Bengal, for instance, BJP won just 10.2% of the vote share, 7% less than what it picked up in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. Similarly, in Uttar Pradesh, it is likely that some people who voted for the BJP in 2014 might switch back to regional parties in the 2017 Assembly elections.
In particular, the way the Dalit vote swings will be crucial.
If Pradeep’s example is anything to go by, there is a chance that Dalits, who have felt alienated under the ruling SP, which is seen as a party of Yadavs, might return to the BSP fold as the latter is seen as a better protector of their interests.
“Yadav ki sarkar hai, wo zyaada udhne lage [the Yadavs have felt emboldened under the government of Yadavs],” Pradeep said. In Tegri, the daily abuses and insults that his community faces has gone up, he claimed. The police is no recourse – they side with whoever is in power, he said.
“When I was in school, they [the Yadavs] used to give us gaalis [abuses], saying udho mat – stay in your place,” he recalled. The BSP’s win gave the Dalits a chance to speak up. “We told them hum upar uth rahe hai, we are rising, your time is up.”
“When Behenji is in power, no one messes with us,” Pradeep continued. “They [the Yadavs] know if the Harijan Act [a law punishing the atrocities against Dalits] is invoked against them, their life will be ruined.”