Jatavs power BSP’s campaign in U.P.

Villagers are unhappy with Central schemes and are hoping for a change.

It takes just a slight pinch for the sand coating to crumble away from the edges of the walled structure housing the toilet. The poor quality construction not only frustrates Tara but also has her worried. She fears the structure may collapse anytime. “What if my children get buried under it and die,” she asked. The toilet also lacks water supply, deterring Tara and her family from using it. Built near a field facing her hut, the toilet door has a lock.

The family has reverted to visiting the nearest field to relieve themselves. “Won’t we die of illness if we use this toilet in such a condition,” she remarked.

But that’s not the end of her complaints. Like many rural women across Uttar Pradesh, along with the toilet Tara had also availed of a free cooking gas connection under the Central government’s ‘Ujjwala scheme’. But since the refill is too expensive for her family — averaging ₹1,000 to ₹1,300 — Tara has stopped using it and shifted back to the chulha (traditional earthen stove). The gas cylinder and stove are locked in an unused half-complete store room located next to her hut.

The only striking thing about the store room is the “Jai Bhim, Jai Bharat” painted on its door with a caricature of Bhimrao Ambedkar. An iconic statue of Ambedkar, with one hand holding the Constitution and the other raised high, marks the entry to the hamlet in Ghazipur’s Jakhanian area.

“Trying to get a refill for the gas cylinder means my children will have to go hungry,” says Tara, referring to the cost involved.

A resident of Babura, a nondescript village in the Ghazipur Lok Sabha seat, Tara is a Jatav.

And in her hamlet, there are many like her who are unhappy with the current government. Some Jatav women have not even got the cooking gas while others are still using the fields to relieve themselves. Many toilets are incomplete or poorly built. “The deeper you go inside the village, towards our settlements, the narrower and smaller the toilets get,” rued one woman, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Santosh Ram, a local resident, said he didn’t even have a ration card even though some upper caste Thakurs in the same village with government jobs were availing such benefits. “We got nothing from Modi,” said another Jatav woman Amravati. Others echoed her sentiment.

Jatavs are the largest Dalit group in U.P., making up about 56% of the State’s 21% Scheduled Caste (SC) population. And the resentment seen among the residents of Babura towards the BJP largely typifies the Jatav mood across U.P.

Even as they battle the odds of daily existence, their political choice is clear.

Hare ya jeete, sirf hathi (lose or win, only elephant),” said Jagvanti, who has never voted for any party other than the BSP. “This time we want to make Mayawati PM,” she said. “We are poor. She will do something good for us,” added Jagvanti, echoing a common refrain among the community across the State. She is so vocal against the BJP that she also said,“Modi ko bhagaenge (we will chase Modi away this time).”

Interestingly, most of the Jatav women in Babura didn’t even know the name of the BSP candidate, Afzal Ansari. For them only the “elephant” mattered.

The Jatavs are considered the bedrock of the BSP and travelling the width of the State, anecdotal evidence suggests that the community is firmly behind their leader and also powering the alliance through large turnouts at rallies and vote transfers to the BSP’s allies, the SP and the RLD.

They are especially driven by the possibility that Mayawati could become PM. In Gorakhpur, Sugriv, a Jatav mason, spelt out why he was voting for the SP candidate. He alleged that the BJP government only worked for the rich, while the poor Dalits still had to struggle to get bank accounts, pucca houses and ration cards, and continued to face discrimination.

But his primary reason was, he said, to make Mayawati PM.

So solid and easily transferable is the Jatav vote bank considered that in Agra, where the community are the largest voting bloc, a Bhim Army office-bearer campaigning for the BSP said they were paying more attention to ensuring the support of castes like Valmiki. The Valmikis, also Dalits, don’t share the same ideological affiliation as the Jatavs.

“The Jatav voter doesn’t need to be told much, they know what they have to do: step out of the house, press the elephant button and go back,” said the Bhim Army activist.

In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the BSP drew a blank in terms of seats in U.P. even though it garnered 19.8% of the votes. In the 2017 Assembly election, when the BSP was reduced to 19 seats out of 403, its vote share hovered around 22%.

While this time the BSP gains the Yadav support of the SP and the consolidation of the 19% Muslim voters, it is the Jatav vote which is still expected to provide the party base its base.

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