Mohammad Mukhtar Ali fondly remembers the time when an official in Jaunpur got up from his desk and walked up to ask how he could help.
“Sir, mera pension break hua hai,” Ali recalls telling the official. My pension has not come.
Born with a short right leg, the 42-year-old, who lives in Baksha village in eastern Uttar Pradesh’s Jaunpur district, has been on a disability pension for the last 18 years. Some years ago, when the state was under the rule of the Bahujan Samaj Party, the pension, which amounts to a monthly payment of Rs 300, did not show up in his bank account.
Ali travelled to Jaunpur on his crutches. An official at the social welfare office surprised him by being solicitous. He asked for Ali’s bank account number and assured him the money would come in a day. “It actually came,” marvelled the short, bald man, who is a tailor, and works out of the house where he lives with his mother, wife and four children. “Under Mayawati, officials used to listen,” he said.
And yet, in the 2012 assembly elections, Ali voted for the cycle – the symbol of the Samajwadi Party – and not for the BSP’s elephant.
“Koi lehar nahi tha unka,” he said. There was no wave for the BSP. It didn’t make sense to waste a vote.
Ali explained his voting philosophy: “I follow the turn taken by the people of my area. As I head to the polling booth, I ask those coming back: Kya hulchul bane? What’s the buzz? Arre, kahan diye? Whom did you vote for? People say we voted for so and so, others confirm we also voted for so and so. When everyone is heading in one direction, where else will we go?”
Such voting behaviour is common across communities – people tend to confer with their neighbours. Since the villages of Uttar Pradesh are spatially organised along caste and religious lines, it contributes to the impression that voting decisions are entirely determined by identity. The perception is the strongest when it comes to Muslims, who are portrayed as a “votebank” working in tandem across the state. As Rahul Verma and Pranav Gupta, associated with Lokniti-Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, recently wrote in the Economic and Political Weekly:
“While scholars have continuously provided evidence and arguments to suggest that it would be naïve to put the Muslim electoral behaviour in one single box, popular perception seems to have a hard-to-die-belief that in most states Muslims vote en bloc as a political community to defeat the BJP. This, of course, is based on a very simplistic assumption that preventing the BJP from getting elected is the primary concern of Muslim voters.”
Let alone at the level of entire states, in one village itself, Muslims showed no signs of voting en bloc. The pradhan of Baksha estimated about 10% of its residents are Muslims. This roughly tallies with the Muslim presence in Jaunpur district – 10.7% of the total population, according to the 2011 Census. In rural areas, this is lower at 8.55%. This means more Muslims live in towns rather than villages.
Mirroring the trend in the district, the Muslim residents of Baksha are less rural and more urban in the sense that they do not own agricultural land and live in the bazaar on the highway that passes through the village. One of the exceptions is Ali.
His house stands in the middle of mustard and wheat fields. His closest neighbours are families from the Nai caste, who are traditionally barbers. Further ahead live Mauryas, Yadavs and Brahmins. The young women from these families come to Ali’s house to get their blouses and salwar kameezes stitched. “Dekhte hai kitne pyaar se chachha chachha karti hain,” he said. Do you see how lovingly they address me as uncle?
In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Ali saw the people of his area were voting for the Bharatiya Janata Party. Naturally, he voted for the lotus.
“Main bhai ya bandi kissi ki nahi dekhta,” he said. “I don’t care for clan or community. I only care for what turn the people of my area are taking…”
Without naming the BJP, he added: “I have never thought that I am a Mohammedan, I am opposed to them and they should not win.”
Tucked inside Baksha’s police station, which was established in 1818, is the dargah of Syed Baba, a Muslim saint who is also revered by Hindus. Outside the police station is a tiny masjid, where the devout read the annual Bakri-Eid ki namaaz. The daily prayers, though, have moved to a larger masjid, built five years ago in the bazaar, where most of the Muslims live.
One evening, in the lane next to the masjid, two middle-aged sari-clad women stood exchanging gossip. One of them had a stab of sindoor in the parting of her hair. The other had a mangalsutra around her neck. Both were Muslim – Parveena Bano and Zulekha Begum. They identified themselves not by their religious identity, but by their biradaari. “Yeh Dhunia hai, jisse Mansoori bhi kehte hai,” said Bano. “Hum Idrisi hai, Darzi, tailor mein aate hai.” Mansoori or Dhunia are traditionally cotton-carders, and Idris or Darzi are traditionally tailors. Both are counted among the Other Backward Classes.
Bano and Begum had much to say about the changing sartorial preferences in Baksha – younger women had taken to shalwar kameezes and “niqab is in fashion”, said Begum. But neither had an opinion on politics.
In the next lane, however, an older woman, had strong views. “Chai bechne waale chadaiyi diyan, aur wo upar se kudaiyi diyan.” We raised a chai seller to power and he poured hot tea all over us, she said. This was a reference to notebandi, or demonetisation. Her husband, Mohammad Raees, explained: “Despite being Muslims, we voted for Modi sahab, but see what he has done.”
The 63-year-old was back home tired, after a day of walking around with a canvas bag filled with bangles. “Hum log manihar hai, biradari samaj chudi wala hai,” he said. “We are Manihars, traditional bangle sellers.” Like Dhunia and Darzis, the Manihars are also part of the Other Backward Classes.
Raees and his wife lived alone – one of their sons was a tailor in Pune, Maharashtra, while the other ran a motorcycle repair shop in another part of Jaunpur district. The couple were neither getting the Centre’s National Old Age Pension, nor the state’s Samajwadi pension for below the poverty line families.
For all his exertions, walking three kilometres with a bag slung over his shoulder, Raees’ daily earnings after demonetisation had often been as little as Rs 70. A death in a Brahmin family had provided a temporary boost to his business – as part of the death rituals, the women of the household had discarded their bangles and bought new ones.
Down the road, there has been no such windfall for Lal Mohammad, another pheri waala from the Mansoori community, who cycles through the village, offering to repair bags and stitch sujani quilts from old sarees. His earnings too have dropped. “Gaon mein har aadmi pareshaan hai,” he said. Everyone is in trouble.
The downturn in earnings coincides with cutbacks in government food rations – the transition to the National Food Security Act has been messy in Baksha, with many impoverished families not making it to the new list of eligible beneficiaries. For now, the food stocks coming to the village shop are being divided and distributed among the old ration cardholders. From 35 kilos, Lal Mohammad’s family of seven is down to getting just 10 kilos. His wife, Mohseena Begum, bitterly complained. “We get nothing,” she said. “Neither Samajwadi pension, nor berozgaari bhatta for our son.” The state government claims to give a monthly unemployment allowance of Rs 1,000 to educated, unemployed youth from families with an annual income of less than Rs 36,000.
Despite not getting any social welfare benefits, Lal Mohammad was still voting for the Samajwadi Party. “Jo kaam achcha karega usko diya jayega,” he said. Whoever does good work will get our vote.
Asked to list the good work done by the Akhilesh government, he became defensive: “We are seeing in the papers they have done good work.” Then, clarifying matters, he said: “Some are only concerned with the welfare of their people, we think they [the Samajwadi Party] are concerned with everybody’s welfare.’
He added: “Yeh desh sabhi ka hai. Humara hai, inka hai.” The country belongs to everybody.
Raees Mohammad, the bangle seller, was more guarded about his political preferences. He praised both Mayawati and Akhilesh, and claimed that the same people who had voted for Bahujan Samaj Party in 2007 had shifted to Samajwadi Party in 2012. “Ab dekhiye janata kiss taraf bhagti hai,” he laughed. Let’s see where they go this time.
He gave away his thoughts when he took no time to answer the question: who is the frontrunner? “Mahaul abhi SaPa ka ban raha hai,” he said. The sentiment is in favour of the Samajwadi Party.
But Mohammad Dilshad, who runs a motorcycle repair shop, claimed just the opposite. “BaSaPa ki sambhavana hai,” he said. It looks likethe BSP is winning. Dilshad’s family had acquired some local influence after they built a new mosque for the village, tapping into the hard-earned wages of his uncle who had worked in Saudi Arabia. This seems to have brought them into conflict with the village pradhan who owes allegiance to Samajwadi Party’s MLA Parasnath Yadav.
Referring to Akhilesh Yadav, Dilshad said, “Wo kaam kiye hai, lekin unke kaam karne waale aadmi, wo log gadbad kiye hai.” He worked hard but his people made a mess. It isn’t just at the level of the state – anti-incumbency also works locally.
“Both the SP and BSP are the same for us,” he said. “But BSP has a better candidate.”
On this, Mohammad Aslam disagreed. He runs Azad Tailors, arguably the smartest-looking tailoring shop in the village. Last year, he took a loan of Rs 50,000 under the Pradhan Mantri Mudra Yojana, the central government’s scheme for small entrepreneurs, to add a “readymade” section to his shop: not pre-stitched clothes brought from retailers, but clothes that he stitched beforehand in standard sizes.
For all his modern entrepreneurship, Aslam had an old, traditional, feudal idea of politics. He swore by Dhananjay Singh, a bahubali leader, who has won three elections from the area – as an independent in 2002, on the ticket of the Janata Dal (United) in 2007, and as a candidate of the Bahujan Samaj Party in 2009.
In 2011, he was expelled from the party after he was arrested in a murder case. Within an year, he was reinstated. The very next year, he was arrested in Delhi along with his wife, Jagriti Singh, for the murder of their domestic worker. Out on bail, Singh contested the 2014 Lok Sabha election from Jaunpur as an independent candidate – he lost but picked up 6.37% of the votes.
“He lost only because he was an independent,” said Aslam. “If he gets a ticket today, whether from the BSP, or BJP, or Congress, he will win.”
For Aslam, it did not matter that Singh was a gunda vyakti – his pro-people politics mitigated his criminal record. Compared to other politicians who become inaccessible after elections, Aslam claimed Singh remains responsive. “Bachcha bhi rokega to ruk jayenge.” Even if a child waves a hand to him, he will stop. “In weddings of the poor, he donates Rs 10,000, sends foodgrains, and he does that regardless of whether there is an election,” Aslam said.
Until the BJP had formally announced the name of another Thakur leader, Satish Singh, as its candidate from Malhani, the constituency where Baksha falls, there was a strong rumour in the village that Dhananjay Singh was going to contest on the ticket of Lok Janshakti Party, an ally of BJP. With these hopes quashed, his supporters have floated another rumour: Mayawati will cancel the ticket she has allocated to Vivek Yadav and give it to Dhananjay Singh.
Aslam believes the election pivots around Dhananjay Singh. “If Dhananjay contests as an independent, he will cut Satish Singh’s votes, and BJP will lose,” he said. “If he does not come, then BJP will win.”
Meanwhile, away from the bazaar, Mohammad Mukhtar Ali, the disabled tailor, with an unerring nose for the winner, is still waiting for the electoral winds to pick up. Usually, a month before elections, he begins to discern a trend from his conversations with customers. But not this year. “Abhi to ek sut bhi nahi pata chal raha hai,” he said, sounding frustrated. Even a shred is not clear.
Over the next few weeks leading up to the Uttar Pradesh elections, Scroll.in’s ‘A Village Votes’ series will bring readers glimpses of how the residents of Baksha, a village of 2,500 people in the eastern part of the state, are making up their minds about who to support.
The previous parts of the series can be read here.