New Delhi: To win both the hearts and minds of voters across the country as India gets ready for the national elections in April, Uttar Pradesh chief minister and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) leader Mayawati is deliberately targeting an overhaul of urban infrastructure in pilgrim towns, such as Varanasi and Mathura, which see a large influx of Hindu pilgrims.
After announcing a Rs250 crore package for Mathura in August, Mayawati announced an Rs800 crore revamp plan for Varanasi last week.
Poll sops? BSP leader Mayawati. Nand Kumar / PTI
“By announcing these, Mayawati is telling the people—especially the non-Dalits—that they should not judge her or the BSP by their past (as a party that catered mainly to those at the bottom of India’s caste pyramid) and, instead, think of the future they are trying to create by catering to wider sections,” says Dalit writer Chandra Bhan Prasad.
Both Mathura and Varanasi are already covered under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) a Rs50,000 crore Centrally funded scheme that ties grants for urban renewal projects to a set of mandatory reforms that municipalities have to enact to be eligible to receive the grants.
As of 30 June, Varanasi had one water supply and one solid waste management project worth a combined Rs159 crore granted under JNNURM, while Mathura had one solid waste management project.
The urban infrastructure development package for Varanasi includes drinking water, sewerage and solid waste disposal schemes, apart from improving power supply to places of tourist interest, including the ghats along the banks of the Ganga river.
The Mathura-specific projects that were announced earlier in August included improvement in tourist facilities and new road projects.
In the 2007 assembly elections, of the total 12 seats in Mathura and Varanasi districts, the BSP, which won four seats, was the only party that gained seats compared with the previous elections in 2002, when it had won just one seat.
The main opposition at the Centre, the Bharatiya Janata Party, lost one and the Congress party, the Central ruling coalition leader, managed to retain the lone seat it had won in Mathura in 2002.
A senior priest with the Sankat Mochan temple in Varanasi said it was quite likely that Mayawati would benefit if she were to carry out the planned works.
“Caste politics has been played by all political parties, where promises specific to interest groups are made before polls. So there is nothing wrong in Mayawati announcing more development of temple towns keeping the upcoming elections in mind. At the end of the day, people want development. Let us see what Mayawati can do,” said this religious leader who didn’t want to be identified.
Mayawati and senior BSP leader S.C. Mishra couldn’t be contacted despite repeated attempts.
A study conducted by the New Delhi-based think tank Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) showed that the BSP had increased its share of upper-caste votes in Uttar Pradesh from 23% in the 2002 assembly elections to 31% in 2007. The share of Brahmin votes for the party increased from 6% in 2003 to 17% in 2007, after it handed out tickets to Brahmins and other backward class (OBC) candidates.
“It is interesting to note that among Brahmins, 27% of poor Brahmins voted for the BSP, while only 12% of the rich voted for it,” said Pravin Rai, an analyst with CSDS.
Ajoy Bose, the author of Behenji, a biography of Mayawati, has noted that of the 206 seats the BSP had won in 2007, 51 were held by Brahmins.