Tea was passed around in kulhads at the Bharatiya Janata Party’s campaign office for Malhani constituency in eastern Uttar Pradesh. It was the evening of February 9 and the office-bearers of the party had just returned from Jaunpur where the party’s candidate, Satish Singh, had filed his nomination. A cloud of dust rose outside the office on the highway, adding to the air of fatigue.

“Road ki condition to aap dekh hi rahi hain,” said Bhupesh Singh, a party worker. You are seeing the condition of the road. “The network is equally bad. Facebook pe namankan ki photo nahi laga paa rahe hai.” I have not been able to upload pictures of the nomination to Facebook.”

Arun Upadhayay, the mandal adhyaksh for Baksha block, one of the four in Malhani constituency, clarified: “We aren’t just campaigning on social media. Logon ke beech jaa rahe hai.” We are going to the people.

“The people are with us,” he added emphatically, raising his fingers to form a victory sign for the camera.

Political workers of the BJP at the party’s campaign office for Malhani constituency.

But further down the highway was where people were gathering.

There were no political banners, posters or flags, but gun-wielding bodyguards signalled the presence of a politician. It was Dhananjay Singh, the three-time MLA and one-time MP, whose supporters still call him sansaad ji, even though he lost the 2014 Lok Sabha election. His opponents, meanwhile, call him bahubali and mafia. According to the election affidavit that he filed in 2014, Singh had four criminal cases against him, with the charges including murder, rape and criminal intimidation.

The controversial but popular strongman had dominated conversations in Baksha village in the run-up to nominations. Until the BJP officially announced Satish Singh’s name as its candidate, there was feverish speculation among the residents of Baksha, and even BJP workers, about whether Dhananjay Singh would get a ticket from the party.

“If he gets a ticket from any party, he will surely win,” declared Mohammad Aslam, who ran a tailoring shop in Baksha bazaar. “The only reason he lost in 2014 was because he was an independent.”

Eventually, Dhananjay Singh got a ticket from the NISHAD party, a newly formed party that is creating a stir in eastern Uttar Pradesh since the acronym NISHAD draws upon the name of the numerically significant boatmen caste.

“It stands for Nirmal Soshit Humara Apna Dal,” said Singh, before quickly correcting himself. “Sorry, not Apna Dal, Aam Dal.”

“This party represents the interest of the poor,” he continued, in a mildly imperious tone, “hence its election symbol is bhojan se bhari thali” – a plate filled with food.

Singh added that the party was founded as a social organisation four years ago. When did it become a political party? He called up someone and asked brusquely: “When was the party registered? Find out and call me back.”

How many people in Malhani even know the party? “Humein jaante hai na,” he said. They know me.

Dhananjay Singh, in white kurta pyjama on the extreme right.

A cavalcade of Scorpios hurtled down the narrow countryside lanes in late February, carrying the BJP’s candidate Satish Singh from village to village on his jansampark programme or meet-the-people campaign.

In Purateji village, the first-time candidate shook hands with men, touched the feet of the elderly, and respectfully folded his hands while addressing women.

“Gareeb ki sarkar hai, Modi sarkar,” he told a woman. Modi government is for the poor.

He moved swiftly from house to house in the Harijan and OBC Kahar quarters – his followers garlanding people with BJP campaign stoles, sticking handbills on homes, and reinforcing the message: “Kamal ke phool pe, Modi ji ke naam pe, kahin se koi behkawa nahi, Yuva neta Satish Singh.” Vote for the lotus, in the name of Modi ji. Don’t let anyone deceive you. Vote for youth leader Satish Singh.

Satish Singh's supporters intercept a passing motorcyclist and make him shake hands with the candidate.

In the Thakur quarter, where the homes were bigger, Singh slowed down. This was his natural constituency. He belonged to the upper caste group.

“I’ll be honest with you,” an old man told him. “Beech mein brahm tha.” There was confusion in the middle. “But it’s over now.”

Singh had a look of concern. “You sure?”

“Yes, yes. People have understood he is here just to cut votes.”

This was a reference to Dhananjay Singh – who is also a Thakur.

“Humari ladai kisse hai?” asked Satish Singh, looking anxious. So whom am I competing against?

“Parasnath,” said the old man, referring to Parasnath Yadav, the candidate of the Samajwadi Party. Of the four main candidates in Malhani, two are Thakurs, two are Yadavs.

Singh weakly smiled.

“Don’t worry,” continued the old man. “Just keep the momentum going. The Kshatriyas are with you.”

Satish Singh taking the advice of an older man.

Kshatriyas, also known as Rajputs and Thakurs, hold a disproportionate share of political representation in Uttar Pradesh, along with Brahmins, another upper caste group. The two often compete for dominance.

“Together these two castes do not constitute more than 15% of the population of the state, but in each election they have held more than 25% seats in the assembly,” wrote Prashant K Trivedi and his co-authors in an article in the Economic and Political Weekly.

In contrast, the share of Yadavs in the 2012 assembly was marginally less than their population, although they formed the core support base of the Samajwadi Party, which won the election. The Bahujan Samaj Party’s core support base of Jatavs or Chamars held just proportionate representation in the 2007 assembly, in which the party had a majority.

Regardless of which party has been in power, the Thakurs have held “the highest relative share of MLAs in UP since 2000”, points out an article in the Mint, which relied on data by the Trivedi Centre for Political Data at Ashoka University.

What explains the over-representation of Thakurs? Based on a survey of 7,195 households in 14 districts, the EPW article points out that Thakurs are the second-most affluent social group in the state – the first being Jats who remain geographically and hence politically confined to western Uttar Pradesh. Thakurs formed 5.1% of the households surveyed, but held 11.1% of the land. Barring Brahmins and other upper castes, they also had a higher share of graduates and government jobs.

A view of a Thakur home in Purateji village in Jaunpur.

The economic affluence helps Thakurs in two ways.

Explaining why his party picks Thakur candidates, Gulab Yadav, a Samajwadi Party worker said: “Party ko jitao pratiyashi chahiye.” The party needs winnable candidates. The implication is that rich candidates are better placed to contest elections.

But it isn’t just the capacity to spend at the time of elections. The state’s failure to provide minimum social security to its poor populace has created a vaccuum that is filled by leaders who offer personal largesse. A common refrain in conversations about Dhananjay Singh was: “Shaadi biyah hui, marni terhwi hui, aate hain, samaan bhejte hain.” Whether it is a wedding or a funeral, he makes an appearance, even sends material. This was repeated by people of all castes and religions.

Asked about it, Singh’s retort was: “Just as horses and elephants were paraded in weddings in the olden days, now politicians are.” Once the laughter that had erupted among his supporters died down, he added: “It is natural that when you show up at their door, the poor and needy will expect a few thousand rupees.”

He launched into a diatribe on governments that had done nothing to ameliorate poverty and decried what he called the “Tamil Nadu pattern” of politics that had travelled to Uttar Pradesh. “Everybody is promising to distribute free TVs, mobiles, laptops. Direct benefit deke vote le lo.” Take votes by distributing direct benefits.

But isn’t that what he does at a local level? Doesn’t this style of feudal politics ensure political power remains the purview of the rich?

“Everyone in the world, capitalists control democracies,” he said. “Paisa samaj ki avshayak buraiyi hai.” Money is the necessary evil of society.

Dhananjay Singh on his campaign trail. Photo credit: NISHAD party

Beyond economic affluence is the entrenched nature of the caste system, which gives a sense of entitlement to Thakurs. “They think they are born to lead,” said Gulab Yadav, the Samajwadi Party worker. “They aren’t loyal to any party. They go wherever they get power.”

While people describe Dhananjay Singh as someone who came from a sadharan parivaar or ordinary family, Satish Singh is identified as khandaani, or belonging to the landed elite. The BJP candidate introduced himself as a scion of the Basaratpur State – which meant he belonged to the main zamindar family of Basaratpur village.

“Rajneeti mere shauk hai, naaki pesha,” he said. Politics is my hobby, not profession.

Defending the dominance of Thakurs, Singh said: “Kshatriya ka matlab hota hai samaj ki logon ki madad karna.” The role of a Kshatriya is to serve society.

Asked about Dhananjay Singh’s reputation of being a generous donor, he boasted: “We also help people but we tell them not to talk about it.”

“Only when a Kshatriya shows a genuine spirit for service does he win,” he went on, “not when he enters politics because he is a bahubali and wants to save himself from the police. That era is over.”

At a political rally in Naupedwa village, his supporters underlined the fact that Satish was a clean candidate. “Unpe ek bhi daag nahi hai”. He does not have a single blemish.

On his part, Singh reassured the crowds that he too possessed a gun, which he knew how to wield, if need be. “Mitron, you don’t have to fear any mafia.”

This was a reference to Dhananjay Singh, but it equally applied to many other Thakur strongmen facing criminal charges, such as Raja Bhaiya, or Raghuraj Pratap Singh, the MLA from Kunda in Pratapgarh, the neighbouring district of Jaunpur. Although an independent MLA, Raja Bhaiya is loyal to the Samajwadi Party and served as a minister in the Akhilesh Yadav government.

Before Dhananjay Singh joined the BSP, he was close to Raja Bhaiya. In 2002, the two served time in prison together in a case of criminal intimidation filed by a BJP MLA.

Even Satish Singh is close to Raja Bhaiya – the residents of Baksha claim Satish Singh sheltered Raja Bhaiya’s family when he was in prison. Evidently, caste kinship transcends party loyalties.

Asked about Raja Bhaiya, Satish Singh squirmed: “I know him well. He is a khandaani raja, he has a helping nature.”

“He gets people jobs, spends Rs 15 lakh-Rs 20 lakh a month on medical care in his constituency,” Singh added.

But wasn’t he a bahubali too?

“He is a strongman only for sake of his self-respect. If anyone threatens him, he is ready to fight.”

Then, he changed tack: “Unko bahubali nahi bola jaa sakta, bahubali nahi wo swabhimani purush hai.” He is not a strongman but a self-respecting man.

A campaign sticker of the NISHAD party.

The bigger question remains: why are the people of Uttar Pradesh in thrall of such leaders?

In the vast majority of voices commending Dhananjay Singh’s generosity, only one ordinary voter took a critical view of his politics. A barber in the village of Shambhooganj, he did not want to be identified. “10 lakh lautaate hai, 10 hazaar baantate hai,” he said. He robs Rs 10 lakh, and distributes Rs 10,000. “What’s the big deal?”

As Uttar Pradesh is gripped by election fever, Scroll.in’s “A Village Votes” series brings 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 whom to support. The other parts of the series can be read here.