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UP Election: Notes Of A Parachute Journalist

Journeying through Uttar Pradesh in poll season and trying to make sense of the sounds and sights

Notes of a Parachute Journalist
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I unfastened my seat belt and parachuted into Varanasi, the best drop-location to get a feel of which way the wind was blowing in Purvanchal, in the last phases of the Uttar Pradesh elections. We skirted the ancient city Kashi and darted straight towards Kaleen Bhaiya country, to Mirzapur. It must be one of the few towns in the world which shows up as the 10th option on a Google search—after Mirzapur cast, characters, season1, season2, season3, trailer, release date, controversy and free download.

Far in the past, the town must have been alluring, located on a vast bend in the Ganga, surrounded by fertile fields and deep woods. As we approached it from the Shastri bridge, it app­eared as a dusty smudge on the river’s bank. We went to Majhawan constituency, a good place to test if the BJP’s equation with its allies like the Nishad Party was working on the ground. The candidate here is Dr Vinod Kumar Bind of the Nishad Party, a political grouping to give voice to the caste of river-related occupations like boatmen and fisherfolk. “Bind is a sub-caste of the Nishads, there are a considerable number of them in Majhawan, upwards of 65,000 voters. Then there are over 85,000 Jatavs. Brahmins too will be around that much and Rajputs roughly 15,000,” said Dev Prakash Pathak, district coordinator of Namami Gange programme. A parachute journalist (PJ) has no way of cros­s­­-checking this—not to doubt his numbers, but various experts have their own caste break-up of constituencies.  

BJP president J.P. Nadda was there too, to campaign for the party’s ally. The former MLA was Suchismita Maurya of the BJP who was not given the ticket this time. Pathak says there was some rancour about it but it was settled soon. As Maurya exited the stage after the speech, I asked her if she was unhappy at not getting a ticket. “We are disciplined workers and go by what the party’s senior leaders decide,” was all she would say. Yes, she would support Bind and make sure the Samajwadi Party candidate was defeated. If there is any rancour she didn’t show it. There was only friendly banter with her party colleagues. As her Innova left the venue, it hit a bump on the mud track and the spare wheel from its undercarriage dropped down with a big thud and rolled out. The entourage stopped to get it back in. And one of them quipped, “Maurya ji, it’s time to get a new car.” She ret­orted, “Why don’t you get me one?”

CM Adityanath’s moniker is Bulldozer Baba, as he is seen as having razed the numerous mafia gangs to the ground. In fact, Adityanath’s rallies always had a couple of bulldozers parked near the grounds, with supporters atop.

A few hours in Majhawan was hardly the time to understand the problems and issues here. It’s a town which stretches on each side of the state highway for a kilometre or two and then gives up. But it has its surprises. In the town centre, there is a taekwondo class on, with over a dozen int­ense students doing the moves. Half of them are girls. At the market square we asked people if there has been development, if people have jobs, and two groups formed on either side of a vegetable cart which almost resembled a TV news studio. “Where is development, where are the jobs? I am a graduate and I don’t even find work as a labourer,” shouted an agitated young man. “This road was not there three years ago. There is a medical college being set up now. If not for Modi Ji’s vaccine, you may not even be standing here today,” an elderly gent gave it back in equal measure.  

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SP supporters during a rally by Akhilesh Yadav

Jobs emerged as a real issue during our travels. But BJP supporters were careful not to blame the government directly. Many of them said it’s not the government’s fault that Covid hit the nation. The vaccination drive that all BJP leaders drum up in their speeches may not have a connection with the people in the villages. But the free ration and monetary benefits have reached the poorest sections.

The other big change most people talked about in the last five years was better law and order. A group of girl students in Ballia told us that wearing jeans and going out of the house after dark was unthinkable a few years ago. That changed. Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s moniker in this election is Bulldozer Baba, as he is seen as having razed the numerous mafia gangs to the ground. The encounter killings of ganglords have been controversial but many people in small towns and villages say they brought the fear of the law.

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BJP supporters during a poll rally

In fact, Adityanath’s rallies always had a couple of bulldozers parked on either side of the grounds, with supporters atop it, like in Pindra where we attended one. In his speech, the CM harped on his party’s vikas karya (development work) but toned down the communal part though he did mock the Samajwadi Party: “The only development work they did was extending the walls of kabristan (graveyards).” It’s already beyond 5 pm when he started speaking, about an hour-and-a-half behind schedule. As dusk fell, most of the crowd started to troop out of the college grounds. Are they disillusioned with what he was saying or was it that the converted don’t need any more preaching? A PJ can never tell.

What is clear is that whether you are a local reporter or have barged in from Delhi, the new government has its task cut out. It just has to think up steps for people to find work.

Next, we were in Ballia to see an Akhilesh Yadav rally. The crowd was bursting at the barricades, some of them even breaching it with the police pushing them back. As he started to speak, the atmosphere became electrified, even though the PA system on the ground was muffled. His supporters here said they have all come on their own, not like the BJP rallies where people have to be ferried in buses. Akhilesh’s security helped us climb on to the stage and the sight of the waves of people cheering and shouting slogans was stunning. His speeches were short, he attended some 10 rallies and roadshows in a day. Later, we met him in Varanasi late at night. He looked campaign-weary but still charged with energy, going the last mile with gusto. He said policing was certainly an issue when they were in power the last time but all that has changed now, nobody could link the mafia with his party anymore.

After travelling on the featureless plains of Purvanchal for miles, Sonbhadra suddenly elevated us. Jawaharlal Nehru had called it the Switzerland of India, a tad lavish perhaps, but as we climbed the gentle slopes it did become scenic, only marred by the gnawing at the mountain sides due to stone mining. There were lusty cheers of har har mahadev, delirious supporters with saffron bandanas and tilaks smeared on their foreheads, rows and rows of Modis sitting in their masks, a trio in Ram, Lakshman and Hanuman get-up, at the government engineering college ground in Sonbhadra where PM Modi addressed a rally.  

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But before that, Anupriya Patel of Apna Dal (S) of the NDA, a fine orator, made a compelling speech to vote the BJP back to power, as this region has sizable voters of the Patel caste. The crowd went berserk as the PM’s three Mi17 choppers appeared on the horizon. They settled down as Modi cleared his throat, which sounded scratchy. He engaged the crowd in his trademark question and answer mode: “Didn’t you get free ration or not?” and a roar of ayes. “Didn’t the poor get money to build their own house?”, another roar of approval.

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Pramila Binod (Left) and Rinki Raju in separate villages in (Right) Sonbhadra. Photographs: Satish Padmanabhan

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As we went into the villages of Sonbhadra, many living in abject poverty do have pucca houses. But it’s not without problems. In Ganghwar village, Pramila Binod, a farm labourer, took me to her thatched hut to show that it’s falling apart. She complained that her neighbours got Rs 1.3 lakh from the government to build brick houses but they keep rejecting her application. Again, as an outsider I have no way of checking why. There are many criteria to avail of the funds for housing, maybe she doesn’t fulfil some. But looking at her state it is difficult to imagine the housing scheme is not meant for her.  

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In the neighbouring village of Jhudi, there are more people with houses. Rinki Raju got Rs 1.3 lakh from the government but she said it’s not enough to complete the house. She has taken a loan of Rs 2 lakh from a private micro-credit agency and has to pay back an instalment of Rs 2,000 every Monday. She is not able to cope as she and others in her family have found no work during the lockdown. The loan hangs heavy on her, she chokes when she says only God can help her finish the house.

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What is clear is that whether you are a local reporter or have barged in from Delhi, the new government has its task cut out. It just has to think up steps for people to find work. The other urgent issue, especially in the rural areas of UP, is that of stray cattle or chutta pashu. And it will have to build a house for Pramila Binod and wipe the tears off Rinki Raju.

(This appeared in the print edition as "Notes of a Parachute Journalist")

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Satish Padmanabhan in Varanasi

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