Almost every evening, Fateh Bahadur Singh visits Shashi Kumar Aggarwal at his textile shop in Golghar area of Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh. It is a habit of many years. The friends, both in their 70s, talk about their daily lives, what is happening in their town, sports and, of course, politics. On May 11, they were discussing the Time magazine’s cover describing Narendra Modi as “India’s Divider in Chief”. They joked about how Time, which they have heard is “the world’s largest magazine”, has dented the prime minister’s image as a global leader.

“Modi’s supporters would often respond to any criticism with how he has changed India’s image globally,” said Singh. “Now, they cannot even say that. It is embarrassing. He could not deliver at home, neither could he deliver on the world stage despite spending so much money on foreign trips.”

Fateh Bahadur Singh and Shashi Kumar Aggarwal in Golghar, Gorakhpur. Photo credit: Akash Bisht

It’s partly due to Modi’s diminished aura, Singh argued, that the Bharatiya Janata Party is in trouble in Gorakhpur, which votes on May 19. Aggarwal explained that “not much has changed” since the BJP lost the parliamentary constituency to the Samajwadi Party early last year. Gorakhpur had been with the Hindutva party since 1991, with Adityanath –known to supporters as Yogi – representing it from 1998 until after he took over as the Uttar Pradesh chief minister in 2017.

“The bye-election last year was a turning point in Gorakhpur’s recent political history,” said Singh. “Before that Yogi and the BJP were considered invincible in Gorakhpur. All that has changed now. This election will further dent their invincibility factor.”

The BJP has entrusted the job of taking the seat back to Ravi Kishan Shukla, the Bhojpuri actor popular as Ravi Kishan. But Aggarwal said the Hindutva party’s chances do not look promising. “The alliance has an edge because Ram Bhuwal Nishad is a popular Nishad leader,” he added. “He has the numbers on his side.”

Ram Bhuwal Nishad is contesting on the Samajwadi Party’s ticket. In addition to his own community, he is banking on the support of the Yadavs and the Muslims, Samajwadi Party’s traditional voters, as well as the Dalits, who are expected to vote for his party’s ally, the Bahujan Samaj Party. “The Nishads will again prove to be BJP’s nemesis in Gorakhpur,” Aggarwal argued.

If the BJP does fail again, it would be a big blow to Adityanath, who has dominated the region for over decades. “It has already become 50-50 for Yogi in Gorakhpur,” said Aggarwal. “He is no longer in absolute control.”

Adityanath’s political dominance is rooted in his position as chief priest of the influential Gorakhnath temple.

A villager outside his home in Mohripur, Gorakhpur. Photo credit: Akash Bisht

Nishad vote is the deciding factor

In the 2008 bye-election, the Samajwadi Party had fielded Praveen Nishad, son of the Nishad Party chief Sanjay Nishad. His victory against the BJP’s Upendra Dutt Shukla was made possible with the support of the Bahujan Samaj Party, laying the foundation for the Opposition alliance. However, less than a year later, the Nishad Party switched sides and partnered with the BJP for the 2019 election.

Since the Opposition alliance has now fielded another popular Nishad leader, several voters spoke with said, the electoral arithmetic in Gorakhpur remains largely unchanged from last year. Additionally, the BJP’s decision to field an “outsider” – Ravi Kishan is from Jaunpur – has not gone down well, even with the party’s own workers and leaders.

Ashutosh Dwivedi, a local BJP leader, said the party’s workers are dissatisfied with the leadership’s decision to drop Upendra Dutt Shukla “even though he put up a close fight in 2018”. While Upendra Dutt Shukla was capable of overturning last year’s deficit of nearly 22,000 votes, Dwivedi contended, Ravi Kishan does not stand a chance.

“There is a lot of resentment among BJP’s workers in Gorakhpur, but they are not being vocal about it because of the fear of the chief minister,” said Dwivedi. “It is a matter of shame that where the BJP used to win by 2-3 lakh votes, it is staring at defeat and there is nothing anyone can do.”

Recalling Modi’s promise of only fielding “deserving candidates”, Dwivedi questioned how Ravi Kisan fit the bill. “If he could be given a ticket, what wrong have LK Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi done?” he asked. “Not just in Gorakhpur, the BJP’s ticket distribution has been shoddy across Uttar Pradesh and that has created a wave in favour of the Opposition. I will press NOTA and so will many workers disillusioned with Modi and Yogi’s politics.”

Aware that he is being seen as an outsider, Ravi Kishan has been telling the people during his campaign that he’s renting a house in Gorakhpur and has even told his wife to pack her bags.

Dayanand Yadav plans to vote for the BJP. Photo credit: Akash Bisht

Not everyone is convinced. “I drive dozens of people every day and I keep hearing the alliance will win this seat,” said Dayanand Yadav, who drives an autorickshaw in Gorakhpur. “I hear people complaining why the BJP could not field a local candidate instead of a celebrity like Ravi Kishan.”

Yadav will still vote for the BJP, though, because “the roads have improved significantly in the last five years”. “I drive an auto. I know if our roads are good, business will be good,” argued Yadav, who returned to his Mohripur village, Gorakhpur, in 2017, after years working as a carpenter in Badarpur, Delhi.

But his fellow villagers do not share his preference, Yadav said. “No one else will vote for the BJP,” he added. “Since there is a Samajwadi Party candidate, the Yadavs will vote for him. I am the only exception. The Nishads will vote for him as well.”

There are no official figures but according to local estimates, the Nishads constitute nearly 17% of Gorakhpur’s population and, therefore, a deciding electoral factor. The community, listed among the Other Backward Classes, supported the Nishad Party last year but now appears upset with it for allying with the BJP. Nishad leaders are openly questioning Sanjay Nishad for aligning with a party they had mobilised the community against in 2018.

Harish Chandra Nishad has even accused Sanjay Nishad of “betraying the community”. A former Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh worker and the BJP candidate for the Maniram Assembly segment in 1980 and 1985, Harish Chandra Nishad claimed to have left the Hindutva party because its top leadership’s only promoted the upper castes.

“What were the reasons for Sanjay to join BJP?” he asked. Pointing out that Praveen Nishad is contesting on the BJP’s ticket, from the Sant Kabir Nagar constituency, rather than the Nishad Party’s, he questioned, “Didn’t Akhilesh Yadav offer him a similar deal? Public perception is that he sold the Nishads to the BJP.”

Harish Chandra Nishad is a former BJP leader. Photo credit: Akash Bisht

Harish Chandra Nishad recalled that only a few days before joining the BJP, Sanjay Nishad had planned to lay a siege to the Gorakhnath temple, where he and his supporters had been beaten up by the police. “Then suddenly Sanjay joins the BJP and his son is given the ticket from Sant Kabir Nagar,” Harish Chandra Nishad said. “If he thinks people won’t notice that he is not fit for politics.”

Shiv Sahni, who runs an organisation that works with Nishad students, shared Harish Chandra Nishad’s view. The community will back Ram Bhuwal Nishad, he contended, because the Samajwadi Party’s nominee is more popular “than even Sanjay Nishad”. Moreover, Sanjay Nishad will not campaign aggressively for the BJP in Gorakhpur, he added. “How can he ask the Nishads to vote for a Brahmin instead of one of their own?” Sahni explained. “If the quest is about establishing Nishad Raj, then doesn’t it make sense to let a Nishad win? His son could win from Sant Kabir Nagar and Ram Bhuwal from Gorakhpur. Isn’t that a step towards attaining Nishad Raj?”

But some voters cautioned against assuming that Sanjay Nishad will not receive a share of the Nishad vote. “Modi has done development in my village. How can I forget that?” asked Kamal Nath Nishad, a fisherman from Mahesra village, referring to the central housing and toilet schemes. “Modi’s work and Sanjay’s popularity will split our vote. But I agree that most of the Nishads will vote for the alliance’s candidate.”

‘For the greater good of society’

Samajwadi Party’s local leaders agreed the Nishad vote will likely be divided but claimed the Dalit vote will make up the deficit. Their optimism is shared by leaders of the Bahujan Samaj Party as well as the All India Backward And Minority Communities Employees’ Federation who are campaigning in areas dominated by the Dalits.

Alakh Niranjan, a Dalit activist with the federation, claimed the Bahujan Samaj Party’s decision to ally with the Samajwadi Party was driven by “ordinary Dalits who want the BJP to be voted out of power because it is anti-reservation outlook”. “What makes this election different is that ordinary people, except for the upper castes, all want the BJP to be voted out,” he said. “We had not witnessesed any hostile situation between the Dalits and the Yadavs in this region so it made sense to join forces for the greater good of society.”

In Tolavichar, a largely Dalit village, Bhola Gautam is willing to bet on the Opposition alliance winning Gorakhpur. It’s simple maths, he pointed out. “If Dalits, Muslims, Yadavs and Nishads come together, can the BJP win with just the support of the upper castes?” he asked. “It is simple logic.”

Bhola Gautam is sure the Samajwadi Party's nominee will win the Gorakhpur constituency. Photo credit: Akash Bisht

In fact, the BJP cannot take even the upper caste support for granted, he argued. For two reasons. One, the Brahmins are miffed with the BJP’s for picking an outsider over a local Brahmin candidate. Two, the Congress has fielded a popular Brahmin leader, Madhusudan Tripathi.

Several voters felt the Congress has fielded Tripathi with the express aim of splitting the BJP’s vote. Tripathi is said to be backed by former minister and local muscleman Hari Shankar Tiwari, an old rival of Adityanath’s who enjoys considerable support among Gorakhpur’s Brahmins.

“He comes across as a decent man. He even came to my shop to seek my support,” Aggarwal said of Tripathi. “He is the only candidate to come to meet a common man like me since Adityanath’s first election. He will certainly get some Brahmin votes.”

Then, there is Gorakhpur’s substantial Muslim vote which too is likely to go against the BJP. “Before this election, the Muslims never supported any one party en-block,” said Professor Shafique Ahmed, who teaches Sociology at Gorakhpur University. “What has changed is that the BJP has created a fear psychosis in the community which will see them vote for the candidate who they see as most capable of defeating the BJP. At this point, Ram Bhuwal is the only man who can do that.”

Also read: In UP’s Yadav heartland, Dalits are unsure about voting for Samajwadi Party candidates

Elections 2019: Whose side is the Congress on in Uttar Pradesh?