UP elections: Phoolan Devi’s village key to MBC vote bank

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Kalpi (Uttar Pradesh): Nine kilometres from Kalpi, a constituency town in poverty-stricken Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh, a narrow motorable road flanked by lush mustard fields leads to a village called Ghura ka Purva. Locals call it “Phoolan Devi gaon” or Phoolan Devi village.

But in the village there’s no mention of Phoolan Devi, the hunted bandit and subject of a celebrated biopic who became a member of Parliament before she was killed in 2001.

Didi struggled all her life for the welfare of others and when she finally got the opportunity to work for her own village, she was murdered. Officials from the government came and promised us that a water tank and a girls’ and boys’ college will be built in her name here, but that was the last we saw of them,” says Phoolan Devi’s younger sister, Ram Kali.

The 40-year-old works as a daily wage labourer, getting paid under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act.

Situated on the banks of the Yamuna river, Ghura ka Purva is a village of most backward castes (MBC), inhabited mainly by Mallahs—a fishing community—and has a population of a little over 1,400.

Situated on the banks of the Yamuna river, Ghura ka Purva is a village of most backward castes (MBC), inhabited mainly by Mallahs—a fishing community—and has a population of a little over 1,400.

Situated on the banks of the Yamuna river, it’s a village of most backward castes (MBC), inhabited mainly by Mallahs—a fishing community—and has a population of a little over 1,400. It was this backward caste identity which led Samajwadi Party (SP) patriarch Mulayam Singh Yadav to field Phoolan Devi as his party’s candidate in the 1996 Lok Sabha election.

A successful caste arithmetic fuelled by Phoolan Devi’s growing mass appeal—she surrendered in 1983—ensured victory for her during the 1996 and 1999 Lok Sabha elections. She was shot dead outside her home in Delhi in 2001.

Phoolan Devi’s political journey coincided with the rise of caste-based regional parties in Uttar Pradesh—the SP and Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP)—which have benefited from the patronage of MBCs in addition to their loyal support base of Other Backward Classes and Dalits. However, the 2012 assembly poll as well as the 2014 Lok Sabha election have seen a gradual shift of the MBC vote to Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) which swept the state in 2014, winning 71 of the 80 Lok Sabha seats. This trend seems to have seeped into the 2017 state polls as well.

Poor rains and drought have caused rural distress in Bundelkhand. Ghuva ka Purva is part of the region.

Poor rains and drought have caused rural distress in Bundelkhand. Ghuva ka Purva is part of the region.

Poor rains and drought have caused rural distress in Bundelkhand. Neglected for years by state governments, the people of Ghura ka Purva have found hope in Modi’s narrative of development.

“We have a hand-to-mouth existence. Be it water, electricity, education, health—we have received nothing in the name of development. Modi has done good work in the centre and he will work and get things done for us as well,” says Yogesh Kumar, a farmer who supported the BSP in 2012.

Analysts say development has taken precedence over caste considerations for the MBCs.

“This trend is visible in the entire state and especially in Bundelkhand which is an extremely poor region which has been neglected by successive SP and BSP state governments. Modi’s development pitch and the fact that the BJP is in power at the centre have made MBCs gravitate towards the BJP—shift that could boost the electoral prospects of the party,” said S.K. Dwivedi, a Lucknow-based political analyst.