It was early afternoon on April 27 and the temperature was touching 43 degrees Celsius. To escape the scorching heat, a group of farmers sat in the shade of a tree on the edge of Samudan, a majority Dalit village in the Gwalior parliamentary constituency.

Gwalior votes on May 12 but the farmers had more pressing concerns. Two days earlier, their wheat crop had been completely destroyed in a fire in their fields.

“Nobody really knows how it happened,” said Harishanker Paliya, one of the farmers. “What we do know is that we are doomed.”

They had informed the district authorities about their loss, the farmers said, and were assured of “some action once the election is over”. “They cannot do much since the Model Code of Conduct is in place,” said Tara Singh.

They had no option but to wait and hope the authorities come good on their assurance.

In the meantime, even though they were not particularly enthusiastic about the election, they had to decide who to vote for. Many of them have already made their choices. “We voted for the Congress in the Assembly election last year,” said Paliya. “We will do the same this time.”

The Congress won seven of the eight Assembly seats that make up the Gwalior Lok Sabha constituency in last year’s polls. Though the party ousted the BJP from power in Madhya Pradesh after 15 years, its margin of victory was narrow – winning 114 of the 231 seats to the BJP’s 109 – leading to speculation the state might vote differently in the parliamentary election. had visited Gwalior ahead of the 2018 Assembly polls and returned to the same areas ahead of this election.

In Samudan, Paliya complained that Vivek Shejwalkar, the mayor of Gwalior who is contesting this election for the Bharatiya Janata Party, has never visited their village. “Ashok Singh has been visiting us for 15 years,” he said, referring to the Congress’s nominee. “There is also a sympathy wave for him.”

In Gwalior, the farmers argued, it is all about the candidates in the fray. There is no “Narendra Modi factor” unlike in 2014. “There is no Modi factor. And why should there be?” asked Kok Singh. “He has not delivered on any of his promises and has completely forgotten about farmers. Neither Modi nor Rahul Gandhi will have an impact on the outcome.”

Indeed, absence of the Modi factor is a theme that runs through most conversations about the election in Gwalior. Another major theme is a “sympathy wave” for Ashok Singh, centred around the notion that he was dealt a harsh electoral hand in the last three elections.

Farmers in Samudan village, Gwalior. Photo credit: Akash Bisht

A ‘sympathy wave’

Ashok Singh lost to the BJP’s Yashodhara Raje Scindia in a 2007 bye-poll and again in 2009 and to the saffron party’s Narendra Singh Tomar in 2014. “Dho baar mahal se haare, ek baar Modi leher se. Ab na leher hai, na mahal,” explained Mohan Jatav in Thatipur locality of Gwalior city. “He lost twice to the palace, once to the Modi wave. Now there is neither the wave nor the palace.” The Scindia family ruled the princely state of Gwalior until 1947.

Mohan Jatav’s son Deepak, 22, was killed on April 2, 2018, when upper caste men and the police fired on the Dalits protesting against the Supreme Court’s order diluting the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Atrocities Act. Two other men from Thatipur were among seven Dalits who were killed that day in Madhya Pradesh, then ruled by the BJP.

“I will never forget that day and neither will I forgive the BJP for killing my son,” said Mohan Jatav.

He supported the Hindutva party in the last three general elections, Mohan Jatav claimed, but never again. “BJP leaders just lie. It’s the party of those who have no honour,” he said. “Let’s give the Congress a chance. Ashok Singh is a good candidate with a clean image.”

Mohan Jatav’s son was killed in firing by upper caste men and the police on Dalit protestors in April 2018. Photo credit: Akash Bisht

Not far from Mohan Jatav’s, Om Prakash Sharma has stepped out of his two-room house to smoke a bidi. He too is angry with the BJP, but for diametrically opposite reasons to his neighbour’s. “Why did the BJP restore the Atrocities Act? Don’t they know how many innocent upper caste men are framed by lower castes under that law?” asked Sharma, a Brahmin.

In the wake of nationwide protests by Dalits against the Supreme Court’s judgement, the Modi government was compelled to legislatively restore the original provisions of the Atrocities Act.

Sharma is also unhappy that the BJP has fielded a “weak candidate” in Shejwalkar, whom he accused of not “carrying out any development work in Gwalior as mayor”.

So, Sharma has decided to vote for the Congress, partly out of “sympathy for Ashok Singh”. “He lost the 2014 election to Tomar by only about 29,000 votes. I bet his victory margin this time will be more than two lakh.”

He is also critical of Modi, blaming him for the “poor performance” of his ministers and MPs. “Just look at Narendra Tomar. He ran away to contest in Morena this time,” Sharma said. “Why did he move to Morena? Because he knew people will not vote for him in Gwalior.”

Asked what he made of the BJP seeking votes in Modi’s name, Sharma said, “Modi will not himself come and carry out development work in our constituency or address our problems, will he? We want someone who can do the work and I think Ashok Singh is totally capable.”

Om Prakash Sharma at his home in Thatipur, Gwalior city. Photo credit: Akash Bisht

‘Such people don’t win’

To add to the BJP’s worries, its decision to field Shejwalkar has upset many party leaders, including Morena MP Anoop Mishra and former state minister Narayan Singh Kushwaha, who are missing from his election campaign.

State BJP leaders said after Tomar decided to contest from Morena, Mishra, who is the late Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s nephew, was told he would be fielded from Gwalior. That didn’t happen.

Kushwaha, a former legislator from Gwalior South, was also angling for the ticket, arguing that the nearly 2.5 lakh Kushwaha voters in the constituency would make him a strong contender for the BJP. His claim was ignored as well.

Not just Shejwalkar’s rivals for the ticket, even the BJP’s hardcore supporters are questioning his candidature. “He’s a gentleman but he is not suited to this kind of politics,” said a BJP leader who asked not to be identified. “We call him Mauni Baba – silent saint – since he cannot assert himself or even get some work done for his own party’s workers.”

To buttress his argument, the BJP leader narrated an anecdote. Shejwalkar was once going for a morning ride on his bike when he was stopped by a policeman. “He asked for Vivek’s papers and since he was carrying none, the policeman issued him a fine. Only after his family came to know about it, they sent someone to rescue the mayor. The policeman clarified Vivek had never said anything about him being the mayor.”

The BJP leader added, “Such people do not win a Lok Sabha election.”

A BJP campaign hoarding in Darba town, Gwalior. The party is seeking votes in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's name. Photo credit: Akash Bisht

Banking on Dalit vote

Political observers said the Congress’s showing in the Assembly election will benefit Ashok Singh. Across the eight Assembly segments in Gwalior, the party took around 1,30,000 more votes than the BJP. “Ashok Singh definitely has an edge over his rival because of his popularity in rural areas,” said APS Chouhan, who heads the political science department at Gwalior’s Jiwaji University. “Moreover, Shejwalkar, as mayor, is facing anti-incumbency in urban areas and many leaders in the BJP have raised a banner of revolt against him.”

In contrast, Chouhan pointed out, “all factions within the Congress are backing Ashok Singh”.

The Congress received a shot in the arm when Dalit leader Phool Singh Baraiya joined the party on April 29. Baraiya is credited with establishing the Bahujan Samaj Party as a political force in the region and he is expected to attract a substantial section of Dalits to the party. There are no official numbers but local estimates suggest around 3.5 lakh of Gwalior’s 18 lakh voters are Dalit.

“Baraiya is a popular leader among Dalits in this region and his entry will definitely help the Congress,” agreed Puroshotam Tamotiya, a local Dalit leader of the BJP. “But it does not mean Dalits will vote en masse for the Congress. We have been working with Dalits, particularly Chamars, Kolis and Valmikis, in the area and they are very satisfied with Modi’s work.”

Naresh Jaunwar, a Dalit flower seller outside the Shri Dwarikadheesh Temple on Gandhi Road, is convinced that Ashok Singh will win this time. “Everyone in my village says so,” he said.

Jaunwar, who lives in Phuleri village on the outskirts of Gwalior, said he has no time to discuss politics since most of his day is spent working. “But when I go home in the evening, I do hear people discussing politics and saying the Congress will win just like last year.”

Naresh Jaunwar outside the Shri Dwarikadheesh Temple on Gandhi Road. Photo credit: Akash Bisht

‘I will vote for change’

Nearly 40 km from Gwalior city, Aarti Maurya is preparing to take her 10-year-old son to watch the latest Avengers film. They are going to a multiplex in Gwalior rather than the local theatre. “I can’t watch the movie in Dabra,” said Aarti. “Tomorrow, my photo will be in local newspapers and people will make an issue of me watching an English movie.”

Maurya is president of Dabra’s municipal corporation, which is controlled by the BJP. The town falls in the reserved Assembly constituency of Darba, which has been a Congress stronghold since 2008. In last year’s election, the Congress’s Imarti Devi defeated the BJP by over 57,000 votes.

Maurya agreed that the BJP is on the backfoot in Gwalior. Asked if the Modi factor could help the party out, she paused, laughed and said, “This is not 2014. But even though the BJP is on the backfoot, that doesn’t mean we can’t bounce back. We are asking people to vote for Modi but it is all up to them.”

Aarti Maurya is president of Dabra’s municipal corporation. Photo credit: Akash Bisht

Not far from Maurya’s home, Surjit Aggarwal runs a jewellery store. He comes from a prominent Darba business family and heads the traders body Akhil Bhartiya Vaishya Samaj. Aggarwal is unhappy with the BJP, Modi in particular.

“Business has taken a major hit since demonetisation,” he said. “Whatever growth we achieved under Manmohan Singh has been undone by Modi. He is anti-business, and we have suffered huge losses since he took over.”

He noted that rural incomes have dropped steeply in the last two years and that has damaged the wider economy. “It is a cycle: if farmers earn, they spend and we earn,” he explained. “But the cycle has stopped now which speaks volumes about how the BJP has mismanaged the economy.”

Because the BJP “botched up the economy”, Aggarwal claimed, the party shifted the focus of its campaign to the air strike on Pakistan. “For a man sleeping on an empty stomach, however, these things don’t matter,” he said. “Our family has always voted for the BJP but this time I will vote for Congress. I will vote for change.”

Surjit Aggarwal in his jewellery store in Darba. Photo credit: Akash Bisht

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