Thursday, February 16, 2012

[ZESTCaste] U.P. Campaign Diaries: In Pursuit of the Brahmin Vote

February 16, 2012, 4:01 PM IST

U.P. Campaign Diaries: In Pursuit of the Brahmin Vote

By Margherita Stancati and Vibhuti Agarwal

9 a.m.: Indira Nagar (upper-middle class, Brahmin)

12:00 noon: Khurram Nagar (Muslim-dominated)

1.30 p.m.: Mahanagar (low-income, Muslim)

2:30 p.m.: Nishatganj (slum area, other backward classes)

3:30 p.m.: Vikasnagar (Brahmin-dominated)

5.30 p.m.: Kalyanpur (mixed)

7 p.m.: Valmiki Basti (Dalit area)

LUCKNOW, India–For much of the past month, when campaigning began in
earnest, K.C. Tripathi's daily schedule has looked a lot like this
entry from Tuesday.

Margherita Stancati/The Wall Street Journal
Children displayed Mr. Tripathi's campaign sticker in Mahanagar.

He is one of 75 upper-caste Brahmin candidates running on a pro-Dalit
Bahujan Samaj Party ticket for the ongoing state elections in Uttar
Pradesh, India's most populous state.

With just a few days left before voters in his constituency, Lucknow
East, go to the polls, the pace of canvassing is particularly brisk.
It's difficult to keep up with him as, in immaculate white kurta
pajamas, Ray Ban shades and Nike sneakers, he speeds through the
narrow lanes of Mahanagar, a low-income Muslim neighborhood where the
rare open spaces are mostly reserved for buffaloes and goats.

With an entourage of a dozen people, he pauses for just enough time to
smile, shake hands and tell housewives, shopkeepers and passersby that
"if you take care of me, I'll take care of you." The target is to
shake around 1,500 hands every day until Sunday, when voting takes

A few meters behind him, a party aide offers more practical advice:
"Press the button and make the elephant win," he says on a
loudspeaker. The BSP's party symbol, the elephant, is what appears on
the keyboard-like electronic voting machines in polling stations.

The swarm of party workers leave behind them a trail of blue flyers
and stickers that end up on doors, electricity poles, and walls, many
of which are painted green, the color of Islam. One even makes it onto
a child's sweater and another onto a stray chicken. They are
emblazoned with pictures of Mr. Tripathi and of BSP leader Kumari
Mayawati, U.P.'s current chief minister.

In a political landscape where caste or religious identity often comes
first, the BSP hopes candidates such as Mr. Tripathi will draw the
support of Brahmin voters. At the last state elections, 17% of BSP
votes came from Brahmins, according to a survey by the Centre for the
Study of Developing Societies.

While the BSP can count on the support of the overwhelming majority of
Dalits, who traditionally fall at the bottom of the caste system and
are the party's core constituency, with their vote alone it cannot
secure an absolute majority in the 403-seat state assembly. This means
the party's fortunes at these elections rest largely on its ability to
draw votes from its non-core constituencies, above all the state's
Muslims and Brahmins, who make up 18.5% and an estimated 10%,
respectively. And their support is far from certain.

Mr. Tripathi, 39, joined politics seven years ago after a bad
helicopter injury during the Kargil War with Pakistan put an end to
his military career. A close confidante of Ms. Mayawati, Mr. Tripathi
stood for elections in 2007 but lost.

Margherita Stancati/The Wall Street Journal
Mr. Tripathi speaks to an old lady in Mahanagar, Lucknow.

When Mr. Tripathi goes canvassing door to door, voters demand promises
for better basic services. "Hindu, Muslim, whatever they are, they are
concerned with drinking water and basic infrastructure," he says.

These are the kind of issues that come up on the next stop of Mr.
Tripathi's campaign: Nishatganj, a slum area that has grown on either
side of a railway track below a flyover. There, women gather around
Mr. Tripathi to complain about water access and lack of proper
housing. (He promises to install a new water tank for them before the
vote count and says that the BSP will supply them with houses within
two years.)

In Indira Nagar, a Brahmin-dominated area that lies on Mr. Tripathi's
campaign trail, roads are wide and well-paved and most houses have
their own parking garage. But Alok Arya, a 37-year-old businessman,
says the BSP administration has not done enough to improve
infrastructure and create new jobs.

"We thought Mayawati could make a difference," he says. "The present
government has not been up to mark."

For him, widespread corruption is another big issue. Although he voted
for the BSP in 2007, this time his vote will go to the Congress party,
he says.

Mr. Arya is not alone. The BSP's Brahmin votes are widely expected to
dip at these elections, experts say. Narender Kumar, professor of
political science at Lucknow's Ambedkar University, says their support
to the BSP in 2007 was an exception.

"Brahmins have never been the vote bank of the BSP," says Mr. Kumar.
"The ones who voted for the BSP only voted for Brahmin candidates."

In 2007, the BSP fielded 85 Brahmin candidates in the hope of luring
the Brahmin vote. While this "social engineering" strategy worked at
the time, it is unlikely to be as successful in these elections.

"The Brahmins who have been in power did not transfer benefits to
their people at a grassroots level," explains Anil Kumar Verma,
professor of political science at Christ Church College in Kanpur.

Margherita Stancati/The Wall Street Journal
Mr. Tripathi spoke to women in Mahanagar.

Some, like Harsh Pandey, a 27-year-old Brahmin, complain that the
party hasn't done enough to support groups other than Dalits. Mr.
Pandey, who comes from a family of farmers, graduated from university
but then struggled to find a job and is now a taxi driver. "We should
also get some benefits," says Mr. Pandey, who would "never vote for
the BSP."

Fewer Brahmin candidates will be contesting the elections for the BSP
this time than did in 2007 – a sign the party, too, doesn't expects to
fare well with its Brahmin constituency.

Not all Brahmins are turning their back on the BSP. Asha Awasthi, a
teacher who runs a school in Indira Nagar, credits the party for
making her city safer. She compares Lucknow today to what it was under
the previous Samajwadi Party government, when "women were scared to
leave their homes after 6 p.m."
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Using Social Media to Win Votes in India

Margherita Stancati/The Wall Street Journal
A view of Nishatganj, a slum area in Lucknow.

In this election, Congress is likely to benefit the most from Brahmin
support, experts say. Brahmins were the traditional vote bank of
Congress before the Ayodhya controversy sparked sectarian tensions,
pushing many toward the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata
Party. Now, they are gradually moving back to Congress, experts say.
Leadership matters, too: many Brahmins are likely to vote for Congress
because of Rahul Gandhi, who has led the campaign in the state, and
because the Congress party president in U.P. is also a Brahmin.

Margherita Stancati/The Wall Street Journal
Slum dwellers spoke to Mr. Tripathi in Nishatganj.

Should the BSP lose Brahmin support big-time, it will be difficult for
the party to retain an absolute majority in the state assembly. This
is a scenario dismissed by Mr. Tripathi, who is confident his party's
Brahmin electorate will support the BSP "with all its strength."

Besides, argues Mr. Tripathi, "It's not just about caste."

You can follow Margherita and India Real Time on Twitter
@margheritamvs and @indiarealtime.


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