Photography by Nikhil Roshan

As election season peaks in India, it is one state, Uttar Pradesh, that psephologists and politicians are watching to foresee electoral fortunes. Owing to its size, and a population of close 200 million people, it claims, perhaps unfairly, the largest share of 84 out of 543 seats in the Indian Parliament’s lower house. And here, as elsewhere in the country, the mainstream media would have us believe there is a Narendra Modi wave sweeping through.

Modi, the leader the main opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and widely favourite in this election, has been running a multi crore PR campaign that has successfully created the opinion among large sections of Indian society that his rise to the helm of affairs in the country is inevitable. An authoritarian figure with the reputation among representatives of big business of a man who gets things done, the cheers for Modi have reached fever pitch in many parts of India. But not everywhere.

If there is one person who is believed to have the power to take the wind out of Modi’s sails in UP, it is Mayawati Kumari of the Bahujan Samaj Party. A figure who rose to power as the champion of the Dalit underclasses, traditionally oppressed and sidelined by the Hindu caste system, Behenji, as she is known among adoring followers, is making a serious pitch for power. Known to run a low profile campaign in her traditional bastions, Behenji took her time to make her bid this election season. But when she set foot in west UP’s Thana Bhawan village in Shamli district, she called forth an impressive display of support.

The audience at Thana Bhawan held some signs of her earlier genius of bringing together disparate vote banks. It was not just Dalits, who see her as their icon, who turned up. The districts of Shamli and neighbouring Muzaffarnagar are still smarting from the communal riots that tore through the rural landscape last year. The riots pushed hundreds of Muslim families into refugee camps, and many have still not returned home out of fear.

Muslims here have traditionally supported the incumbent Samajwadi Party (SP). But the SP’s failure to prevent the riots and its tendency to encourage communal polarisation is causing Muslims to gravitate towards alternatives, such as the BSP. Mayawati does not fail to dwell on their insecurities. During her speech in Thana Bhawan, she reminded listeners of Narendra Modi’s record with the gruesome riots in Gujarat in 2002, and of the SP’s recent crimes closer to home.

But for residents of Malakpur camp, crimes are not as clearly attributed to one side. Living in tarpaulin tents since September last year, they have suffered not just the loss of dignity and safety, but the pleasure of seeing their children grow up healthy and happy. There are tiny unmarked mounds of earth in the graveyard next to the camp that belong to children who died in the bitter cold of the recent winter. When the deaths were finally reported by an outraged media, help came in the form of blankets and money. But the camp’s inmates claim the money never reached them and instead went into the coffers of an aid worker close to the constituency’s BSP representative.

Modi has come to the fore with talk of Hindu and Gujarati pride. If his plans of building a statue of freedom fighter Vallabhbhai Patel to dwarf the Statue of Liberty seem farfetched, try Mayawati’s seven billion rupee Ambedkar Memorial in Lucknow. It is a touching sight to see Dalit visitors wandering about awestruck with Jyotirao Phule, Kanshi Ram and other pantheon gods of the anti-caste struggle looming over them, immortalised in white marble. Some even come and pray at their feet.

Symbolism has long held its place in politics, and in India it takes on surreal, often farcical turns. But whether the talk of pride and silent, stone figures will warm the hearts of Indian voters is yet to be seen.

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