BJP tie-up doesnít go down well in Apna Dal land

Apna Dal, a party that targets the vote of Patels (middle-level peasants, known as Kunbis or Kurmis elsewhere), is in a state-level alliance with the BJP, fighting 37 of the 403 seats in UP. But what is curious is that head of the party Sone Lal Patel (formerly with the BSP) is in a direct fight with the BJP in Kolaslaóa rural constituency with under three lakh voters in Varanasi.

Ajay Rai, the sitting BJP MLA, defeated Patel in 2002. "Patel contesting from here is quite embarrassing, as our campaign is subdued. Voters also know that we are sharing seats in the state. I don't know why he is fighting me here." Rai, a Bhumihar who first wrested the seat from the CPI's nine-time MLA Udal in 1996 with merely 400 votes, feels he has earned his place in the area. "All that the Apna Dal can do is to cut his votes," say his supporters. But that, say others, is what Apna Dal does best.

A small party appealing to its core constituency as directly as the Apna Dal provides a chance to look at why voters in UP still stick to voting along caste lines and think it is rational and good politics.

In Kolasla region's Chilbila village there are several homes of mostly Kurmis. Ram Surya Singh has just crossed 70 and has retired after serving in Kanpur Ordnance Factory for several years. He says: "We have seen that governments only belong to those who constitute their core supporters. If Mayawati comes to power, she will work for Dalits and the BJP will do its bit for Thakur-Brahmins. So how do we get close to power? We feel, that if someone from our jaat-biraadari gets elected, we will have a voice. So, a vote for our caste is a vote for our development."

His son Yogendra Singh too has moved out of the confines of Chilbila to do what he wants to. He is training in Gwalior to be a volleyball coach. More graphic than his father when discussing how things in the state are going "all wrong", he never underestimates the importance of politics or of trying to create channels to the powerful.

"My friend who has a tempo business in Mumbai had to get his daughter operated in BHU, but doctors have already made him wait for two months, delaying things indefinitely. He has had to abandon his work in Mumbai and has incurred losses of up to thousands of rupees. The same doctors will immediately fall in line if a politician comes with a medical problem. Now if only the system worked, my friend could come in for a week, know when the operation is to happen, get it done and then go back." Yogendra is firmly of the view that with the system collapsing, politics and appearing powerful is the key. "Therefore, we vote for one who is our own, hoping that it would work out for us, we could get operations and other things done on time and we would also be empowered."

Asha, Yogendra's sister-in-law and a homemaker, says she will also "vote for Bhai Saheb as we want an improvement in our lives, our educated children to have a better chance in life."

But Patel's chances do not appear to be very bright if supporters of other parties are to be believed. Rakesh Yadav, an SP supporter, says, "In the village, both the BJP and the Apna Dal are in for a shock. Villagers are nodding when they come to canvass, but it is the SP that will throw up a surprise. This time sitting BJP MLA as well as the BSP candidate are Bhumihar and as the SP candidate is a Mishra, the BJP will lose two important caste constituents that it was hoping to bank upon."

But how are people on the ground taking the fact of the BJP being in alliance with the Apna Dal? People like the aspiring volleyball coach are very bitter, especially with Kurmi leader Vinay Katiyar in the BJP. "These people, when they become leaders, simply discard us. That is the limitation of voting for our own caste. All along, Katiyar has banked upon us, but he hasn't done anything for us since 1992. Also, look at how the BJP has treated him, not letting him contest from Ayodhya and pushing him to Lakhimpur Kheri...and now, our Kurmi party has gone and allied with the BJP. What is in it for us?"

Meanwhile, some supporters of Patel say he is operating on the logic of the Apna Dal harbouring a constituency, cementing it, and like a smaller version of Mayawati, using it to leverage power at the Centre.

Patel himself has not given much time to Kolasla so far. He is busy wooing Patels elsewhere to demonstrate his usefulness to the BJP by further "splitting up the backward vote", criss-crossing the state in a helicopter. And why not. After all, his election symbol is an aeroplane!

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