By Shivam Vij for ThePrint.in, 30 April 2019
Unnao, Uttar Pradesh: A few days before the polling in Unnao near Lucknow, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate, Dr Sakshi Ji Swami Maharaj, was addressing a group of Kurmi voters. Brahmins, he told them, should stick to chanting religious mantras and asking for alms. Election tickets, he said, should be given to the Other Backward Classes (OBCs).
This was only the last of many controversial statements marking his campaign. Brahmins in the constituency are up in arms. In a meeting of Brahmins, he is said to have apologised for the remark. It is Brahmins who taught me whatever I know, he said, according to Brahmin voters in the constituency. They’re still seething in anger.
Born Satchidanandan Hari but better known as Sakshi Maharaj, he is a Lodh. Lodhs and Brahmins in Unnao don’t see eye to eye. But it is not just Brahmins who dislike him. After winning the 2014 Lok Sabha election in Unnao, Maharaj became famous across India for his extremist statements. Hindus are ready to kill to protect the cow, Hindu women must produce four children each, Godse was a patriot, and so on.
The more Maharaj made national headlines, the more unpopular he became in Unnao. He rarely showed his face over five years, voters across caste lines complain. He didn’t do anything for the people, everyone except his fellow Lodhs admit. But even his fellow Lodhs, and they are in large numbers, are barely able to defend him. “He didn’t do much but…” The ellipsis is left unaddressed. Perhaps what they mean to say is, “he is a fellow Lodh”.
So unpopular is Maharaj with voters that most in Unnao were certain the BJP would change the ticket. Sensing trouble, he wrote a letter to the BJP state president threatening a revolt if he was denied a ticket. He was the only OBC leader in the BJP from Unnao, he argued. Crores of party workers across India would be hurt if he wasn’t given a ticket, he said, and the consequences won’t be pretty. That he had recently embarrassed the party by being seen grinning in the funeral procession of a Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) trooper who died in Pulwama, did not stop him from making such a threat.
He is not popular in his constituency and threatens a BJP run by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party president Amit Shah. One would expect such a person to be denied a ticket but to the surprise of many, he was repeated. He went on to tell voters they would have his curse should they not vote for him.
The saint in the Congress
It’s rare to find a constituency with such a contrast in the popularity of candidates. There is almost nobody in Unnao with a bad word for Annu Tandon, the Congress candidate. Unlike Sakshi Maharaj, she is seen in Unnao all five years. It helps that there are hardly any people of her caste — Khatri — in the constituency.
Since the mid-2000s, Tandon, a former Reliance executive, has been running an NGO in Unnao, where she was born and grew up. In a spacious haveli in the middle of a crowded market, she runs a parallel state through her NGO. There are desks to help people with different things. From medical check-ups and free cataract operations, to helping people with e-governance and litigation, Tandon does it all. Her most popular activity is giving people a handsome gift in return for wedding invitations.
She used to distribute buffaloes to widows and the extremely poor, but the curbs in transporting cattle thanks to cow vigilantism have stopped that. These buffaloes, used by people to earn a living by selling milk, are now too difficult to transport. Against charges that she tries to buy people’s votes through philanthropy, she says, like a filmi dialogue, “Maine mohabbat ki hai! (I have spread love.)”
Even those voting for the BJP or the Samajwadi Party have good words to say about her. Maharaj is an accused in 34 criminal cases, including serious charges like murder.
By contrast, it is Tandon who is seen as a real saint. She won the seat in 2009 with a margin of over 3 lakh votes. In 2014, she stood fourth. The BJP led a malicious campaign, she alleges, misleading voters that she had switched over to the lotus symbol.
If she did actually switch over to the BJP, she could exceed the 3 lakh margin. And she has repeatedly been offered to do so by the BJP over the years, including this election, she claims. But secularism matters to her. Muslim or Dalit, Lodh or Brahmin, everyone’s an equal beneficiary of her philanthropy.