Deepak Nishad and his fellow boatmen from Uttar Pradesh are gearing up to steer their party to victory in the Varanasi Cantonment Assembly constituency. Though none of them – not even Deepak Nishad, the candidate from the seat – can remember party’s full name, they seem confident that rooting for it alone will lead them to power in this constituency in Uttar Pradesh, which votes on March 8.

Nirbal Indian Shoshit Hamara Aam Dal is not an easy name to remember, but its acronym – NISHAD – seems to have struck a chord with the Other Backward Classes population in the state. The reason is simple: Nishad is the name of a prominent OBC caste whose livelihood has traditionally been linked to the river – many of them are boatmen. Its members who commonly have the surnames Kewat, Bind, Mallah, Manjhi, seem to have adopted the party as their own.

“When Narendra Modi became prime minister, we had great expectations from him, but he has tried to snatch our livelihoods by planning jetties near ghats,” said Deepak Nishad. “NISHAD party has given us a platform to fight this injustice politically.”

Deepak Nishad is also the president of Maa Ganga Nishadraj Seva Samiti, which is leading the boatmen’s agitation against the proposed move to build jetties near Varanasi’s iconic ghats, from where tourists flocking to the holy city can watch its famed Ganga Aarti. This evening aarti usually means big business for Nishads as tourists view it from their boats.

To mark their resentment to the proposal, the boatmen of all Varanasi’s 84 ghats went on a day-long strike on February 1.

Deepak Nishad. Photo: Dhirendra K Jha

Big blow

The shift of Nishad votes towards the eponymous party could create choppy waters for the saffron outfit, particularly in Varanasi.

That is because Nishad voters, who make up for nearly 14% of the state’s population, constitute an important part of the BJP’s Uttar Pradesh strategy, which rests on wooing non-Yadav OBCs groups, key among which are Nishads, Kurmis and Kushwahas. (The Yadavs are a votebank of the ruling Samajwadi Party).

In the Lok Sabha elections of 2014, the Nishad community of Varanasi, as in other parts of the state, is said to have voted as a bloc for the Bharatiya Janata Party. Of the five Assembly seats that come under this Lok Sabha constituency represented by Modi, the community is numerically strong in two – Varanasi Cantonment and Varanasi South. In the 2012 Assembly elections, the BJP had won both seats.

The NISHAD party has put up candidates in 100 out of 403 constituencies in the state. Despite this being its debut election, the fledgling party has created a wave among Nishads and seems to enjoys nearly the same support among them as the Samajwadi Party does among Yadavs and Bahujan Samaj Party among the Jatav sub-caste of Dalits. This was evident in 12 Nishad-dominated Assembly seats this reporter travelled to in Faizabad, Gorakhpur, Basti and Varanasi divisions.

Power of four

No less significant is NISHAD’s pre-poll alliance in the state. Though the fate of this non-descript four-party front remains uncertain in face of a high-decibel electoral battle in the state, at least two of its constituents – besides the NISHAD party – directly aim to dent the BJP’s non-Yadav OBC strategy.

Krishna Patel’s Apna Dal (whose daughter is Union Minister Anupriya Patel, who now heads a breakaway faction after a row with her mother) and Jan Adhikar Party of Babu Singh Kushwaha are threatening to split Kurmi and Kushwaha voters – both crucial for the BJP – in at least some of the seats in eastern Uttar Pradesh. The Peace Party, NISHAD’s third ally, may not lure too many Muslims – the party’s core voters – who seem to be sticking by the Samajwadi Party-Congress alliance and the Bahujan Samaj Party.

Apart from the resentment towards the BJP in Varanasi, there is also a strong urge among Nishads across the state to establish themselves as a political bloc – which explains the astonishing speed with which the NISHAD party has captured the community’s imagination in different parts of Uttar Pradesh.

“In 2013 we formed an apolitical platform called Rashtriya Nishad Ekta Parishad, which organised regular public meetings in different pockets of Nishad concentration and trained cadres to take up the political task,” NISHAD party president Sanjay Nishad, who is contesting from Gorakhpur Rural seat, told “This groundwork helped us gain a large foothold in the community as soon as the party was registered in August 2016,” he added.