Neither the air strike in Pakistan's Balakot nor the Rafale jet deal but caste equation is what is likely to decide the winner in Ghazipur, a Hindi heartland Lok Sabha constituency the BJP is desperate to retain. Telecom Minister Manoj Sinha, who is seeking re-election from this seat, faces a tough fight from the joint candidate of Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party, who had together polled more votes than BJP in 2014 polls. Sinha had won the seat in 2014 by a margin of over 32,400 votes but total votes polled for him at 3.06 lakh were short of 5.16 lakh votes cornered by SP and BSP together. His fight this time has got a bit difficult as local muscleman Afzal Ansari of BSP is the joint candidate of the 'mahagathbandhan' (BSP-SP-RLD alliance). Of about 19 lakh voters in the constituency, about 21 per cent are Dalit and 10 per cent Muslim.
While the alliance is hoping to win over Dalit, Muslim and other backward classes for Ansari, the Congress may cut into their votes as its candidate Ajit Kumar Kushwaha comes from the influential backward agriculturist community. And these caste equations seem to be playing on the minds of many, if not all, voters in this seat in Purvanchal a region said to play a crucial role in determining government formation at the Centre. "People who don't know the ground reality talk of basic arithmetic but the election is all about chemistry. Gathbandhan is not working on the ground. People are highly agitated against the alliance. People in Ghazipur are rising above caste and religion to vote for development. People of all castes and classes are with BJP," Sinha said. If some locals are to be believed, 7-9 lakh voters belonging to the Yadav community, traditionally SP voters, Muslims and Dalits will dominate the election.
The mahagathbandhan is hoping that BSP candidate Ansari will help retain the Dalit votes, which form the core of Mayawati's party, plus attract Muslims. The crucial question, however, is will SP core votes of Yadav transfer to the alliance. But Sinha, a Bhumihar a caste group preponderant in neighbouring Bihar but numerically insignificant in Uttar Pradesh, is hoping his work will return him to Parliament for the fourth time. An agriculturalist at heart who maintains a low profile, Sinha is a civil engineer and IIT-BHU alumnus. He is fondly called "Vikas Purush" by his followers. Locals vouch for Sinha's work but not all say they will be guided by his development initiatives or BJP's thrust on national security. Neither do they believe in the Congress plank of 'NYAY' and alleged corruption in the Rafale deal. A newspaper vendor from Yadav community, who did not want to be named, acknowledged a lot of development work has happened in Ghazipur under Sinha but said his community is inclined to vote for mahagathbandhan.
On the other hand, Raj Narain Yadav, a teacher in Muskabad village, rejected claims his community will support only the mahagathbandhan candidate. "More than half of people from my caste in Ghazipur are literate and progressive. These people have seen the development that has happened in the last 5 years and will vote for development and not caste-based politics," he said. A Muslim shopkeeper said people in his community are not speaking their mind because they fear of being targeted. "Sinha as an individual has done a lot of work in Ghazipur but if we vote for him, (Narendra) Modi-Yogi (Adityanath) will not believe we voted for BJP and continue to target us. We appreciate development but Muslims have no option but to align with gathbandhan," he said. His views were contested by a Muslim student.
"This is a common perception that Muslims will align with mahagathbandhan but many of my relatives and people in the village will vote for Sinha ji because of the development work done by him," said Ahmad Rizvi from Arjanipur village. Ghazipur residents acknowledged the improvement in roads, electricity, job opportunities with the start of railway training and research centre in the city. Sinha claimed anger is specifically against the mahagathbandhan candidate. "The person who once said he will puncture cycle, reel off dhoti of Mulayam Singh Yadav from Ghazipur till Ghaziabad is today the candidate of the alliance. Parties have come together but not their hearts," Sinha asserted. He claimed the Congress is not even considered a political party in east UP. "Priyanka Gandhi Vadra has herself said they have fielded candidates to weaken BJP. People have already rejected Congress," Sinha said.
He also rejected any impact of Om Prakash Rajbhar leaving the BJP alliance. Ansari claimed the Kushwaha community is agitated with BJP as they projected Keshav Prasad Maurya as the CM face but gave the post to Adityanath. He alleged poor people from all castes and minorities have joined hands against BJP as they feel it wants to finish off Constitution and end reservation. Congress candidate Kushwaha alleged the BJP has not fulfilled its promises. "People are also not happy with the gathbandhan candidate. His image is not good. He has a connection with the crime world. People don't want to vote for him. Sinha as a minister could get roads constructed, set-up railway training centre but jobs were given to those who were close to him," Kushwaha said Sinha rejected Kushwaha's allegations, saying 7,000 people from all castes were directly hired by companies during a job fair organised in Ghazipur. Polling in Ghazipur is due in the last phase on May 19.