On May 8, a group of men was gathered outside a grocery shop in Birbhanpur village of Uttar Pradesh’s Phulpur parliamentary constituency. Most of them belonged to the Maurya caste and they planned to vote for the Bharatiya Janata Party.

“Name one leader from the Opposition who can lead the country?” Ramji Maurya, a farmer in his 40s, asked by way of explanation. “It’s not that we are blind supporters of the BJP but we see no alternative to Narendra Modi. If, god forbid, a Third Front comes to power, most of the regional parties would work for their own interests rather than those of the nation. This is the only reason why I am voting for Modi.”

The Mauryas, also known as the Kushwahas, are listed among the Other Backward Classes. Ramji Maurya claimed the community backed the BJP not only in Phulpur but across Uttar Pradesh. A key reason was the Mauryas’ rivalry with the Yadavas, another OBC community that makes up the core vote bank of the Samajwadi Party.

Ramji Maurya praised “Modi’s welfare schemes” and lamented the prime minister was talking about Pakistan, Jawaharlal Nehru, Rajiv Gandhi on the campaign trail rather than his achievements of the last five years. “Only if Modi ji spoke about his schemes as passionately as he does about the past,” he argued, “he would have got votes even from the Yadavs and the Dalits.”

The Dalits are core supporters of the Bahujan Samaj Party, which is contesting this election in alliance with the Samajwadi Party. Combined, the Yadavs and the Dalits are a formidable vote bank that is widely believed to have given the alliance an edge over the BJP in the first five phases of polling. But in eastern Uttar Pradesh, a part of which went to the polls in the sixth phase on May 12 and the rest is set to vote in the last phase on May 19, the alliance appears to have hit a hurdle: the consolidation of non-Yadav OBCs in favour of the Hindutva party.

This has made it trickier for the alliance in at least 17 of the region’s 27 parliamentary constituencies, including Phulpur.

There are no official numbers but local estimates put the non-Yadav OBC population of eastern Uttar Pradesh at around 25%. They are not particularly fond of the BJP. In fact, several of those at the Birbhanpur shop criticised Modi for installing Adityanath as the chief minister in 2017.

His was “one of the worst governments” they had seen, the villagers insisted, citing as evidence “Thakurvaad” – promotion of the chief minister’s Thakur caste in the organs of the state – and his cow protection policy.

A consequence of the crackdown on the cattle trade is the stray cattle menace which has made farming difficult in the region. “Where will we get the money to fence our fields from when we can’t even make ends meet through farming?” asked Dinesh Maurya, a farmer from Birbhanpur. “They should have thought about this before banning illegal slaughter houses.”

They also complained about the steep rise in electricity bills in the past year. “When Yogi spoke of 24-hour power supply, he never spoke about the bills,” Dinesh Maurya said, referring to Adityanath. “Farmers are suffering the most under this regime.”

‘No other option’

In Phulpur, all OBCs are upset with the Modi government for grating 10% reservation to the economically weaker sections among the upper castes. Their grouse is that the OBCs have been denied reservation in accordance with their share of the population as compared to other groups.

“Give us reservation as per our population and we won’t care about what you do with the rest,” said Sarjit Prasad Maurya, another farmer from Birbhanpur. “Not many are talking about this openly but it is a major issue among educated OBCs.”

Still, he argued, the OBCs except the Yadavs “have no option but to support the BJP”. That’s because when the Samajwadi Party is in power, he added, the Yadavs tend to dominate the government machinery.

Interestingly, a substantial section of non-Yadav OBCs backed the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party before moving to the BJP in 2014. They stuck with the Hindutva party in the 2017 Assembly election, helping it to a landslide victory. This was despite the Samajwadi Party trying to include 17 Most Backward Classes in the Scheduled Caste category – a longstanding demand of these OBC sub-castes.

In 2005, Mulayam Singh Yadav designated the 17 sub-castes as Scheduled Castes but the order was withdrawn after Mayawati replaced him as the chief minister in 2007. Ten years later, Akhilesh Yadav issued a similar order to his father’s, but it was stayed by the Allahabad High Court.

Then why did non-Yadav OBCs shift to the BJP? Professor Chandra Bhushan, who teaches modern history at Gorakhpur University, argued that the Modi wave of 2014 delivered these castes to the BJP, which then used its “Hindutva card” to keep hold of them.

Uttar Pradesh has around 3,000 non-Yadav OBC castes, Bhushan pointed out, but only the Kurmis and the Mauryas have enough political heft to take on the Yadavs. “This political consciousness is still new to Nishads and Rajbhars,” he added. “The rest of these castes are still mostly illiterate and very much within the Hindutva’s fold. For them voting for the BJP is like voting for Hinduism.

Its position on reservation could have cost the BJP support among the OBCs, Bhushan contended, but only a small educated section among them is “raising these questions” and they too are now “blinded by this national security agenda”.

The stray cattle menace has made farming difficult in eastern Uttar Pradesh, voters say. Photo credit: Akash Bisht

The BJP was also using fear to prevent these groups from deserting it, Bhushan said. “I visited a colony and was told their applications for free housing are in the last stage and if the BJP does not come to power, they would not be able to avail it,” he added by way of an example. “This has further damaged the SP-BSP alliance’s chances in parts of eastern Uttar Pradesh.”

Several villagers Scroll.in spoke with in eastern Uttar Pradesh spoke glowingly about “Modi’s schemes” and how not voting for the BJP would amount to betraying a party that has sought to help the poorest sections of the society.

“In spite of being a Yadav I will vote for Modi because he provides two square meals for my family,” said Krishna Murari Yadav, a contractor from Gorakhpur’s Durgapur village who builds housing and toilets under the central government’s schemes. “Everywhere I go the poor give me their blessings and I tell them to thank Modi. These people will vote for him because no one else has done so much for them.”

He claimed that if the BJP retained power, it would “only be because of these welfare schemes”. So, he could not understand why Modi had not made his achievements the central theme of the campaign. “Dalits too would have voted for Modi if the BJP had focused only on these initiatives,” he argued.

Stitching caste alliances

The BJP might not have talked much about its schemes, but it has aggressively wooed non-Yadav OBCs. For one, Modi has made a habit of reminding them of his backward caste background. Two, the party has 27 non-Yadav OBC candidates in Uttar Pradesh, three more than in 2014. Nine of them are in the fray in eastern Uttar Pradesh.

Given the OBC vote is expected to be split, the major political parties have made alliances with smaller parties representing various OBC castes to maximise their gains.

While the BJP has roped in Anupriya Patel’s faction of the Apna Dal and the Nishad Party, the Congress has allied with the Krishna Patel faction of the Apna Dal and the Jan Adhikar Party of Babu Singh Kushwaha. The Apna Dal factions claim to represent the Kurmis while the Jan Adhikar Party claims to speak for the Kushwahas.

Krishna Patel is fighting for the Congress in Gonda. Her daughter, Anupriya Patel, is contesting from Mirzapur, with the BJP’s support. The younger Patel’s faction is also contesting Robertsgunj in alliance with the saffron party.

The Nishad Party’s Praveen Nishad, who won last year’s Gorakhpur parliamentary bye-election with the Samajwadi Party’s backing, is contesting on the BJP’s ticket in Sant Kabir Nagar.

The Samajwadi Party has fielded Sanjay Chauhan of the Janwadi Socialist Party, which claims to represent the Nonia Chauhans, in Chandauli.

OP Rajbhar’s Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party, representing the Rajbhar community, is contesting 25 seats on its own and is expected to damage the BJP by eating into the saffron party’s Rajbhar vote. Interestingly, Rajbhar remains a minister in Adityanath’s government despite campaigning vigorously against his ally.

OP Rajbhar addresses a campaign rally in Ghosi constituency. Photo courtesy Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party

The fact that the BJP enjoys considerable support among non-Yadav OBCs is not lost on Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav. That’s why they have been disputing Modi’s claim of being an OBC.

“Modi isn’t an OBC by birth since he has never faced caste discrimination ever,” Mayawati said earlier this month. “Would the RSS have let Modi become prime minister if he were born an OBC? The country has seen how the RSS treated Kalyan Singh, an OBC leader in the BJP.”

At his campaign rallies, Akhilesh Yadav often reminds his audience how hurt he was when Aditynath washed the chief minister’s residence with Gangajal. He also recalls Adityanath’s casteist jibe that if there was no Constitution, the former chief minister would still have been grazing cows, the caste occupation of the Yadavs.

The alliance, though, can take heart from the fact that their combined vote share in eastern Uttar Pradesh was higher than the BJP’s in 2014. Together, the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party polled the majority of the votes on all 27 seats except Varanasi, Allahabad, Mirzapur, Kushinagar. They only need to repeat that performance to get the better of the BJP.

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

Can BJP retake Adityanath’s Gorakhpur stronghold? The Nishad community holds the key