[First published in HuffPost India on 7 February 2017.]
In Kasganj, the election ‘hawa’ became clear the moment it became clear who the candidates are.
The Bhartiya Janata Party’s candidate is a Lodh, Devendra Singh Rajput. The Bahujan Samaj Party’s candidate is Ajay Chaturvedi, a Brahmin. The Samajwadi Party candidate is a Muslim, Hasrat Ullah Sherwani.
If you ask them, they will all say they are getting votes from all castes and communities. “Saaton jatiyon ka vote mil raha hain,” is a refrain you hear often, the metaphorical reference to seven castes a reminder that this is a mathematical exercise.
Not just politicians and journalists, even ordinary voters seem to know the caste maths of Kasganj, though the figures get changed in travelling by word of mouth.
Depending on who you ask, Kasganj has 16,000 Brahmin voters or 42,000. There is similar confusion about other castes. The only matter of absolute unanimity is that Lodhs are the largest in number.
Here’s a rough caste breakup of the voters from local journalists who insisted these are the real numbers, not politically motivated ones:
Shakya, Maurya, Saini, Kashyap, Kushwaha: 35,000
Pal, Baghel: 8,000
That’s around 3 lakh voters. There are another 20,000 odd voters who don’t seem to have been counted here, mostly belonging to small OBC communities.
Since there is no Lodh candidate to divide Lodh votes, the BJP’s Devendra Singh Rajput should win easily, goes the public consensus. If you add the Lodhs to the upper castes and the non-Yadav OBCs there, the BJP looks like it is unbeatable here.
The Samajwadi Party says its combination of Yadav and Muslim votes matches the Lodh vote strength. The Bahujan Samaj Party says its combination of Dalit and Brahmin votes matches the Lodh strength, but how many Brahmins will vote for Mayawati’s party over the BJP? That’s why popular consensus is that the BJP’s main rival here is Samajwadi Party.
The non-Yadav OBCs–Shakya, Maurya, Saini, Kushwaha, Kashyap, Baghel and so on–are mostly with the BJP.
A strong equation
Voters seem to be aware of these caste equations–called samikaran–and it is after knowing the samikaran that they determine who the ‘hawa’ is with. Such is the Lodh domination of this seat–most MLAs in its history have been Lodh–that caste’s domination has assumed a larger-than-life image for voters. “Lodh’s are 65%,” says a Yadav voter. “There are 1 lakh Lodh voters,” says a Muslim barber. Both are wrong, because every Lodh voter knows the exact figure of 62,000. These numbers overwhelm public conversations around the election.
The Samajwadi Party has an argument on why it can beat the samikaran. Its Muslim and Yadav voters cancel out the Lodh strength, then it will pick up some votes thanks to the “Akhilesh factor”, the BSP candidate will take away substantial upper caste votes and help defeat the BJP.
Both the BSP and SP are hoping that the notebandi could be a silent killer for the BJP. The BJP is on a high because of its performance in the Lok Sabha elections in 2014. Extrapolating 2014 data for the Kasganj assembly constituency, the BJP won over 50% votes here. In the 2012 assembly elections, it had won less than 10%.
The BJP has lost a few elections in Kasganj in the past because Kalyan Singh, the Lodh stalwart, had left the BJP and created his own party. Kalyan Singh’s Lodh candidate would make sure the BJP’s Lodh candidate fared badly. Now that Kalyan Singh is back in the BJP, and honoured as Rajasthan Governor, the Lodh vote is firmly with the BJP.
Adding to the SP’s headache is a Yadav candidate, Sudhir alias Pappu Yadav, who is contesting from the Mahan Dal, a party formed by some sections of the OBCs. The sense that BJP is winning could drive Yadavs to support a Yadav candidate, since their vote is going to be ‘wasted’ anyway. BJP workers also say that Hindu voters other than Yadavs will not want a Muslim candidate to win.
Samikaran versus Chemistry
But is samikaran everything? “It’s only one of many factors,” says Man Pal Singh, the incumbent SP MLA, 78 years of age, who’s been denied a ticket this time. “Voters see fifty different things. They see the individual relationships with candidates, how accessible they are, who’s likely to win the state, and so on.”
In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Narendra Modi was able to go beyond samikaran and appeal to every voter, even winning some Dalit and Yadav votes. Does Akhilesh Yadav have the same appeal this election?
“If this is a samikaran election, it will be difficult for us,” a senior Samajwadi Party leader told me in Lucknow last month. “But if this election is about chemistry, we will win,” he said.
The growing sense that the BJP is weak in UP this election, and the Samajwadi Party-Congress coalition is surging ahead, is challenged in Kasganj, a bellwether seat since 1974. To win, the SP-Congress will have to win a chunk of non-Yadav OBC votes, but this is the category of voters the BJP has worked on, and is targeting this election. The arithmetic of upper castes plus non-Yadav OBCs is too strong, easily eclipsing the Muslim plus Yadav combination–in Kasganj and across UP.
What do Kasganj voters have to say? How are the candidates pitching themselves? Is demonetisation changing this election upside down? Who’s a greater figure here, Narendra Modi or Akhilesh Yadav? Are the upper castes moving to the BJP’s Brahmin candidate in large numbers? Are they trying to get rid of Lodh domination? We’ll find out over the next few days. Watch this space.