On the road from Banaras, said to be the oldest living city on the face of the earth, to Ghazipur, about 80 km to the east, I run into Mohammed Anwar and his many friends at Saidpur, not more than a ‘kasba’ on both sides of the road.
Over the next 20 minutes and several cups of tea in a small, mud container called a ‘kulhar’, that further sweetens the tea with its warm, earthy taste, I get the full lowdown on the ‘rajnaitik hava’ or ‘electoral wind’ sweeping this flank of eastern Uttar Pradesh, and whether or not it is converting into a ‘lehar’, literally a wave, that will knock every other party out of sight.
According to Anwar, Subhash Pasi, the candidate from the Samajwadi Party, that is led by the backward caste leader Mulayam Singh Yadav, is streets ahead of his rival, Amerika Pradhan, of the pro-Dalit Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), because although he’s a businessman from Mumbai, he has donated several ambulances in the area and is always available to anyone who “wants work done.”
Anwar’s grey-blue eyes are piercing and his passion for his candidate — and indeed, for the elections on hand in Uttar Pradesh — is heartwarming in an era of deep cynicism that emanates from wide-scale corruption and a caste cauldron that has every visitor foreign to UP shaking his head in disbelief.
For the last 20 years, ever since former prime minister V P Singh, in 1990 ordered that central government jobs be allocated on caste lines, the face of politics in India has been dramatically transformed. VP, of course, had sought to neutralise the growing demand by right-wing political parties, such as the BJP, to build a temple to the Hindu god Ram, on the site of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, by the caste instrument.
When the masjid was demolished in 1992, and UP was divided along religious lines, the BJP reaped the wind. But in a state of 175 million people, in which 20 per cent of the population is Muslim, the fiduciary interest must at least, sometime, prevail.
Today, the BJP is a lowly fourth in a four-horse election. The people of UP have firmly rejected its right-wing politics, not least because the more primeval caste instinct overcame religious affiliation. Dalit leader Mayawati and her BSP has ruled the state for the last five years with an iron fist. VP Singh must be laughing from beyond the grave or wherever he is right now.
Still, in India’s poorest state, the wheel is turning once again. Caste is dominant and will still decide the fate of most candidates in a 403-seat legislative assembly. But the glimmer of other factors, progress and development as well as what people loosely call the ‘Rahul Gandhi factor,’ could tilt the direction of the wind.
In the conversation about Hindu-Muslim ties with Mohammed Anwar and his friends in that Saidpur village, who insist that there are no communal issue, that people meet each other on Holi, Diwali and Eid, I point out to him that it was from this region that the villages got partitioned in 1947.
You can feel the silence for a few seconds. Then another man, standing behind Anwar speaks up. Muslims are doing well in UP, he says, our population is bigger than Pakistan.
That ends the debate. UP has clearly moved on, and like so much else, could show the rest of India the way.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 13th, 2012.