SAHARANPUR (UP): The small kutccha houses with tin roofs stand out at Mirakpur Panjuwala - a nondescript village in Behat area of Saharanpur, nestling in the Shivalik foothills.
Cattle sheds and farms pan out - cheek by jowl - on which small and marginal farmers grow wheat and jowar crops, surrounded by the small habitations in close proximity to each other. Pucca houses are too few in this village.
Nevertheless, what stands out are the Swachh Bharat signages. They are all over as some 700 households were recently provided toilets.
This village was a BSP fortress and its chief Mayawati’s name still resonates here. But there is a new grouse.
“Behenji is fielding too many Muslim candidates. We cannot vote for Muslim nominees of either the BSP or alliance partners. She’s also supporting the Samajwadi Party, under which we had suffered the most,” says Mani Ram, 55.
“Those were the days when our cattle were stolen too often. Akhilesh Yadav was the chief minister then,” he recalls. Ram is a Jatav - Mayawati’s caste - but is disturbed over the alliance.
A group of Dalits sitting and hearing this conversation, nod in agreement.
“There was a sense of insecurity after SP came to power. Theft and dacoity were the norm, with miscreants not sparing even ailing cattle. Now, there’s rule of law. Goons have been tamed. It all happened after Yogi Adityanath became chief minister,” claims Sousehe Pal, 40, of Alipur Bhaguwala village, a couple of miles away.
The overall mood among the poorest here suggests Mayawati’s captive Dalit and most backward castes (MBC) vote bank could bolt as Western UP gears up to vote in the general elections. The mood in the Dalit strongholds has kept the BSP guessing and party workers on their toes. despite the formidable arithmetic of the SP-BSP-RLD alliance, Dalits are threatening to act as chinks in the armour.
Nathi Nath, 60, claimed himself to have wizened on politics over decades. This saffron-robed Dalit reasons that the scheduled castes, who were at the receiving end during SP rule, are being accorded the status of respect under the Yogi dispensation.
“The Hindu castes have come together,” he says.
“The mood among youth is different to their forefathers.”
If the young Jatavs had shown a fascination for Narendra Modi in 2014, Dalit constituents, who hold the trump card in the region, have apparently become vocal supporters of the saffron outfit on the back of having ‘gained’ from welfare programmes of the NDA government.
Santlesh, a Dalit woman in her 30s, argued that people in her village received the first instalment of Rs 2,000 under PM Kisan scheme, LPG cylinders under Ujjwala scheme and toilets.
“There’s hope that we could gain more if Modi returns,” she noted.
In neighbouring Muzaffarnagar, Dalits are seen giving a miss to political meetings of RLD chief Ajit Singh even as SP workers seem galvanised.
“We have voted enough for Mayawati. She cannot become PM. There are too many quarrelsome leaders hoping to become PM from the Opposition parties. We need strong government, which only can bring development to us,” says Devendra Prajapati, hailing from an MBC caste in Badhout block of Baghpat constituency.
Dalits and MBCs are keeping Muslim voters on tenterhooks.
“In Saharanpur, BSP’s Haji Fazalur Rehman and Congress’ Imran Masood are vying for Muslim votes. We’re awaiting feedback on Dalit mood to choose either of them,” said Mohd Imran in Behat.
Dalits are stated to be between 18-22% and spread evenly in the constituencies going to polls in the first phase.
However, there was a perceptible lack of cohesion among Dalits and MBCs on one side and the politically assertive Muslim-Yadav combination on the other.
Interactions with cross-sections of people in western UP reveal there is a mental block among the poorer who are yet to forget the horrors of caste wars.
That pre-empts the social glue, which the SP-BSP-RLD combine have attempted to apply to win them en masse.
Pullu Harijan, 40, of Muzaffarnagar says, “Our caste men are largely small farmers. But, it’s only now that we’ve benefited from improved electricity and water...That makes us think again.”