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Sangam: A Site for Election Predictions

The pilgrims from every corner of the country who take a dip at the holy confluence of the Ganga and the Yamuna express their political views which are distilled by the local boatmen into a reliable brew of electoral prophecy.

COMMENTARY

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hai. (The contest is between the Elephant

Sangam: A Site for

and the Hand – the symbols of the BSP and the Congress.) Ranjan Kumar Nishad, who Election Predictions remembers me from my last visit in 2004, echoes the general opinion that the Congress will do much better in UP in 2009 Jawid Laiq than it did in 2004. The Samajwadi Party

The pilgrims from every corner of the country who take a dip at the holy confluence of the Ganga and the Yamuna express their political views which are distilled by the local boatmen into a reliable brew of electoral prophecy.

This is an extensive version of an article published earlier in Hindustan Times.

Jawid Laiq (bharatidelhi@airtelmail.in) is a political reporter and author of The Maverick Republic.

H
undreds of pilgrims from all over the country converge every day for a dip at the Sangam, the holy confluence of the waters of the Ganga and the Yamuna at Allahabad. I have been visiting the Sangam, not for spiritual solace but as a political pilgrim, since the 1977 Lok Sabha election which turned out to be an overwhelming verdict against Indira Gandhi’s Emergency regime. I am here yet again for the fifth time during a Lok Sabha election to garner the electoral wisdom of the Nishads, the boatmen, who row yatris from every corner of the motherland to the Sangam. On the sandy beach by the confluence, after a lot of persuasion, the reticent boatmen reveal what they have gathered from the election banter of p ilgrims from every state, clan and caste. The boatmen have proved to be more accurate in their election predictions than the professional pollsters commissioned by TV channels and newspapers.

I greet a group of Nishads sitting on a platform of rough planks embedded in the sand and gently inquire about the possible outcome of the current election. After some discussion, there is a definite consensus among them that the top two contenders for the vote in Uttar Pradesh (UP) are the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Congress. As they repeatedly put it in colloquial Hindi, Haathi aur Panjey may takar

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
may 9, 2009 vol xliv no 19

(SP) will fare badly this time and the BJP will be in fourth place in UP with only a handful of seats. Ranjan’s colleagues suggest that nationally the Congress may emerge again as the single largest party with significantly more than the 145 seats it got in 2004. They are not willing to guess the precise number of seats.

In 2004, the boatmen had clearly and accurately forecast that the SP would get the highest number of Lok Sabha seats from UP followed by the BSP. This time the SP is being dismissed as a mafia group and the BJP as a party that makes tall promises to Hindus, creates tensions and then fails to carry out its pledges. They are indignant that the BJP repeatedly launches a ggressive campaigns for building the Ram Mandir and then backs out from doing so.

Anirudh Kumar Nishad, organiser of the boatmen’s committee, claims that u nlike in the 2004 election, caste and community are not relevant this time. Last time, the Nishads, as a sub-caste belonging to the Other Backward Classes (OBC) category had voted for the SP as had many other OBC groups. This time due to the Mayawati government’s loan waivers and benefits for the poor, most Nishads will vote for the BSP while some will vote for the Congress. According to Anirudh, even Muslims are now going to vote as part of the downtrodden majority for the BSP and not as a religious minority.

COMMENTARY

Shyamji Nishad rows me out to the e xact spot where the Ganga meets the Yamuna and where dozens of boats are bobbing about heavily loaded with pilgrims preparing to take a dip. Shyamji joins me in carrying out an instant, rough poll. Each boat carries an extended family of about 20 to 30 people from a particular area. We approach a boatload from Jalaun district in UP. Their spokesman, Chander Pal Singh, a kisan farming 65 bighas, says that they will vote for the SP, as they did the last time. We move to a boatload from Bilaspur district in Chhattisgarh. Jeevan Lal Sahu, a village sarpanch, confi dently predicts, Chhattisgarh may R aman raj raheyga. (Implying that they will c on tinue to support the BJP headed by Chief Minister Raman Singh in Chhattisgarh.) We intercept a boatload of p easantry, all wearing starched white caps, from Beed district in Maharashtra. They firmly dec line to d iscuss elections at this holy site.

On another boat, we spot a solitary figure carefully tying his dhoti after a dip. He is Uma Shankar Dikshit, founder-priest of the Siddhi Vinayaka Temple in Sacramento, California. He has been living in America for 20 years but visits India every couple of months. His hometown is B angalore where he will be casting his vote for the BJP because the Congress plays casteist and Muslim-oriented politics. My note pad gets splashed with Ganga water from a passing boat and inky blue streaks smudge my scribbles.

Forecast for AP

We head back to shore and meet Mohan Prasad, a judicial stenographer from Karimnagar district in Andhra Pradesh, who has come all the way in a tourist bus with 40 other pilgrims. His considered assessment is that the Grand Alliance and the Congress will each win about half the seats in his state in both the Lok Sabha and the Legislative Assembly elections which are being held simultaneously in Andhra Pradesh. Actor Chiranjeevi’s Praja Rajyam Party will play the spoiler in s everal constituencies but will get very few seats. The BJP may also win a few seats. According to Mohan Prasad, “Unbearable prices of basic food items and u nimaginable corruption” have turned many voters away from the state’s incumbent Congress government.

I bid farewell to my Nishad friends and next morning head for the predominantly brahmin village of Barwah, near Bamrauli, some 20 kilometres from Allahabad, to see Prem Narayan Tiwari, the cheerful retired food inspector whom I had met five years ago. Last time the entire village had voted BJP. This time there is some confusion as Mayawati has chosen Kapil Muni Karwaria, a brahmin, as the BSP candidate from the recently delimited Phulpur constituency which now includes Barwah. T iwari, surrounded by a group of young nephews, says that the village always votes collectively for a particular party. This time they will vote for the BSP, even though they do not expect the BSP or any other party and government to benefit them in any manner.

Support for Congress

The same cynicism about politicians is apparent in the neighbouring village of Bhagwatpur where I visit Mewalal the dhobi, his wife Raj Rani and his bright daughter A mrawati, who is now 22, and has just completed her BA final exam in Hindi and Sanskrit. When I had visited them in 2004, Amrawati was struggling to continue her studies in a private school as she was finding it difficult to pay the monthly fee of Rs 50. I am relieved to find that the smiling Amrawati, with the help of a generous teacher, has got through school and college. She will be voting for the first time. She will vote for the Congress as will her parents. In 2004, her p arents had voted for the BSP. Amrawati r uefully says that nothing has changed for the better in five years. No government has improved their condition. Her two brothers toil as daily wage labourers and have not heard of the National Rural E mployment Scheme. Her mother has b ecome weak due to a severe chronic a ilment. They do not know what is wrong with her as they cannot afford to take her to a doctor in town and there is no medical facility in the village. There is no electri city or clean water in their tiny mud hut and A mrawati and her parents earn a p ittance by pressing clothes all day with their ancient coal-fired iron. Amrawati is sceptical about getting a better occupation with just a BA degree but she continues to smile.

In the afternoon I return to Allahabad and visit the Muslim locality of Noorullah

may 9, 2009

Road. In 2004, the Muslims here were confused and divided in their voting preferences. Some were for the SP while

o thers said that they would vote for the Congress or perhaps for the BSP. Yet others said that the electoral exercise was m eaningless and there was no point in voting. This time there is relative clarity and confidence. Imran Hussain, owner of a shop selling cool blocks of ice in the 45 Celsius heat, says that the Muslim vote here is now clearly divided between C ongress and BSP supporters. For i nstance, he is one of eight brothers. Five will vote for the BSP and three for the Congress. Muslims in UP have abandoned Mulayam Singh Yadav and his SP. Many have been alienated b ecause the SP has welcomed the former BJP Chief Minister Kalyan Singh into its fold. Imran claims that most Hindus in UP, except Yadavs, will vote for the BSP this time. Mohammad Shariq Khan, who owns a shop s elling sunglasses, and other onlookers nod in agreement.

The following morning I go to Allahabad University’s elite Muir Hostel (renamed A N Jha Hostel), famous for producing large contingents of bureaucrats for the Indian Administrative Service and other All-India Services. The first student I come across is Ranjeet Jaiswal from a village in Chandauli district in UP. He has become a convert to the Congress after voting for the BSP in the UP Legislative Assembly election in 2007. He believes that at a national level the Congress is the most suitable party. Very articulately, he lists the Congress’ achievements – setting up new institutes of technology, developing infrastructure and helping the lower classes through the rural employment scheme. Sheshank Chander Chaudhari, who will be competing for the IAS, shows no interest in the current election. The other students I meet are also distinctly disinterested in the election and politics. When pressed, they are not bothered about whether they will vote at all, let alone which party or candidate they will vote for. They all agree that there is very little political discussion within the hostel. They seem politically and physically far removed from the passionate electoral and other concerns of the boatmen and the p ilgrims at the Sangam.

vol xliv no 19

EPW
Economic & Political Weekly

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