GORAKHPUR: “Haati, lathi, saat sau chhiyasi (elephant, baton and 786)”, the slogan symbolising Dalit-Yadav-Muslim unity, is doing the rounds in Humanyunpura close to the revered Gorakhshnath Mutt which is bubbling with activity even before the crack of dawn. As one proceeds towards the Mutt from the Muslim-dominated area where the pro-gathbandhan voices are emanating from the ground, the scene suddenly takes a saffron hue.
The Mutt has been turned into the war room of UP CM Yogi Adityanath who is camping in Gorakhpur for the past 10 days, supervising BJP candidate Ravi Kishan’s campaign. The seat is an issue of prestige for Yogi who is leaving nothing to chance this time. The BJP's defeat in last year's bypoll is both fresh and stinging.
Therefore, he has made Gorakhpur his base since the previous phase and his Hindu Yuva Vahini has been pressed into action along with the Sangh Parivar’s machinery to meet the challenge posed by the caste arithmetic of the SP-BSP alliance.
Gorakhpur, along with Varanasi, Maharajganj, Kushinagar, Deoria, Ghosi, Salempur, Ballia, Mirzapur and the reserved constituencies of Bansgaon and Robertsganj, will vote in the last leg on Sunday.
Done with the round of morning meetings with his lieutenants to plan the day, 'Maharaj ji', as Yogi Aditaynath is commonly known among his followers, leaves for a series of rallies in Bihar followed by a number of small meetings in assembly segments falling in Gorakhpur on the final day.
However, the shock of the 2018 defeat is palpable among many Gorakhpur voters who swear to make it up this time for the sake of 'Maharaj ji'. The BJP has been winning Gorakhpur since 1989. Yogi himself has represented it five times in the Lok Sabha since 1998. Before that, his mentor Avaidyanath enjoyed public support here.
On the other hand, the alliance candidate is former MLA Ram Bhuwal Nishad of the SP. In fact, the Gorakhpur bypoll was the lab for the SP-BSP gathbandhan experiment. Facing an existential crisis, the two regional satraps had decided to contest the bypoll necessitated after Yogi became the CM. They were backed by the Nishad Party which also lent its candidate, Praveen Nishad. He won the seat by a thin margin of 21,000.
This time, however, the Nishad Party has switched sides and the Gorakhpur MP is now the BJP's candidate from the neighbouring Sant Kabir Nagar. So, in Gorakhpur, it's a battle between the alliance's Nishad candidate and the BJP's Brahmin Bhojpuri actor Ravi Kishan Shukla supported by Nishads. The Congress is desperately trying to make the battle triangular by fielding a Brahmin, Madhusudan Tripathi. It also bolsters the party general secretary Priyanka Gandhi's claim that at many places the Congress has fielded its candidate to cut into the BJP's votes.
With the strong possibility of division in the Nishad vote bank, around 3.75 lakh in the segment, the question is whether the Nishads in Gorakhpur go by the party which claims to espouse their cause or a candidate from their community? “Of course they will go by what their leader will ask them to do. The alliance candidate, with a rather tainted image, has a very limited reach among the Nishads,” claims Dr Sanjay Nishad, president of the Nishad Party and father of Praveen.
On resentment among his community members over parting ways with the alliance and siding with the BJP, Sanjay Nishad claims his community had some heartburn initially but now they have realised that the decision to go with the BJP is in their favour.
“We have had enough during SP and BSP regimes wherein nothing was done for our emancipation. This time we have come along with the BJP hoping that the saffron leadership will keep its promise of putting us in the scheduled caste category and imparting us the benefits of it,” says Dr Sanjay Nishad, justifying his truck with BJP.
Residents in urban areas feel the bypoll loss was a personal setback for Yogi which shouldn’t have happened, given the kind of development work he has brought to the east UP city. “Ek baar galati ho gayee. Shahr ka voter ghar se nahi nikle yeh sonch kar ki BJP jeet jaygi. Is bar maharajji ka sar nahi jhukne denge (We committed a mistake once. City voters did not come out to vote thinking
that BJP will win the seat without much effort. We will not let Yogi Adityanath down this time),” says Girish, 29, while dusting his shop of puja samagri and prasad on the temple premises.
On the candidature of Ravi Kishan, the common refrain is that when Yogi is at the helm of affairs, the candidate hardly matters. Rafi of Zahidabad locality adjacent to the Gorakhnath temple feels that his family has always been voting for 'Maharaj ji' and this time also they will back him. “Temple has been with us always. Baba (Yogi Aditaynath) does everything for us. He takes care as our guardian. How can we think of voting for someone else,” he asks. But Nafis of Urdu Bazar feels that though Yogi has done his bit for Gorakhpur’s development, the BJP indulges in the politics of division.
However, the contest is tough and evenly poised. The pro-alliance voters are confident that the BJP will succumb to the strong caste combination backing the alliance. “The Nishad community is backing Ram Bhuwal as they feel betrayed by Praveen Nishad. BJP’s choice of candidate is not proper. Even the upper caste Brahmin voters are not happy with Yogi Adityanath. All these factors are working against the BJP on the ground and the party may lose the Gorakhpur seat,” says Anil Srivastava, head, Firaq Academy, set up in the name of legendary poet Firaq Gorakhpuri.
However, political analyst Manoj Singh feels that though Ravi Kishan doesn’t have the connect and is an imported candidate, the BJP may have an edge as the election is being fought in the name of Modi and Yogi. “The caste equation – Dalit-OBC-Muslim-Nishad— however, is not backing the BJP. Possible division in Nishad vote bank and Yogi’s personal efforts have made this fight interesting. Anyone can win here but the margin will be thin,” he says.
The uncertainty over the fate of Gorakhpur is substantiated further as one reaches the market area. “Why not give Rahul Gandhi a chance to lead the country as this government has pushed the country to hardships through demonetisation and GST. I think Rahul Gandhi should also be tried,” says Shahzad Ansari, a tailor, who feels that business has hit a low and the Congress has promised to simplify it.
In another locality, the opinion changes. Poonam Gupta, 27, who is aspiring to become a teacher, says, “Gorakhpur is witnessing unprecedented growth and development. Law and order has improved. Gorakhpur will back Yogiji again.”
However, Rashid Rizvi and Manish Yadav both back Akhilesh Yadav’s leadership and the work done during his regime.
Gorakhpur is a prestige issue not only for Yogi Adityanath. Much is at stake for the five party MLAs of Campierganj, Sahjanwa, Gorakhpur Urban, Pipraich and Gorakhpur Rural too. At most places, while the Modi factor becomes conspicuous on the ground, alliance supporters are also confident of repeating the 2018 bypoll result with the caste equations on their side.
While on the one hand, the BJP is flagging its development schemes—restarting of fertilizer factory, construction of highways, restarting of Pipraich sugar mill, construction of AIIMS, Metro Project, widening of roads, control of encephalitis besides highlighting central welfare schemes, benefits of free electricity, toilet, gas cylinder and pucca houses, on the other it has tried to keep Brahmins in good humour by fielding Ravi Kishan Shukla to blunt the decades-long Brahmin-Thakur rivalry.