By K Ramachandra Murthy

Kushinagar: ‘Jo vikaas karega, unko vote denge’ (We will vote for those who work for development). This is the stock reply one gets from the rural voters in Kushinagar Lok Sabha constituency. But if one persists and persuades them to be vocal, they talk at length suggesting their preferences. They comment on Chief Minister Yogi and Prime Minister Modi. They also give their views on the candidates in the fray. Those who are living in huts at Satia, where Lord Budha had his last meal, are hopeful that Yogi would give them free houses after the election. Arjun Yadav, a 20-year old farmhand, was in agreement with others on Yogi’s welfare measures but not sure about voting for the BJP candidate. He would not commit that he would vote for SP candidate since he is a Yadav. He leaves you guessing. Kushinagar will vote in the last phase on the 19th.

It is less than an hour’s drive from Gorakhpur which has been connected to Hyderabad by air since May 3. Kushinagar is a tourist centre for Buddhists from all over the world. It was here that Lord Buddha breathed his last to attain nirvana. Kushinagar boasts of Vipasana park where the Buddhist monks prayed en masse after Buddha’s demise. The most important aspect for now is that Kushinagar is one and only Lok Sabha seat in eastern UP that the Congress party hopes to win.

The fight here has been between the BJP and the Congress for many decades with Samajwadi Party (SP) and Bahujan Samajwadi Party (BSP) never being able to win the seat. Only in the first General elections, Ramji Varma of Praja Socialist Party was elected. Then the Congress took over. Of late, it has been the BJP. Sons of two leaders who were ministers at the Centre are vying for the prestigious seat. Sitting BJP MP Rajesh Pande is the son of Raj Mangal Pande who was a minister in the short lived Chandrashekhar cabinet. In a State where caste matters the most, Pande is a Brahmin who won in 2014 by a margin of 85,000 votes. Ratanaji Pratap Narayan Singh (RPN Singh) is the Congress candidate. His wife Sonia Singh is editor at NDTV. His father CPN Singh was in Indira Gandhi cabinet handling Defence portfolio. Congress hopes to make it here because of the popularity enjoyed by the candidate rather than the party. The candidate fielded by the SP-BSP alliance is Nathuni Kushwaha of the SP. Out of some 18 lakh voters in Kushinagar Lok Sabha constituency, 2.5 lakh voters belong to Kushwaha community. Nathuni is a teacher and his father is a farmer unlike the fathers of the BJP and the Congress candidates who were union ministers. Brahmins are about 2.5 lakh in number and the Kurmi-Chatris, to which the Congress candidate RPN Singh belongs, add up to some 2.75 lakh. There are 17 percent Muslims. In this particular constituency the Muslims are likely to favour the Congress. About 80 per cent of the Muslims are likely to vote for the Congress candidate while the rest may prefer the SP. Although Mayawati is quite popular here, the dalit vote may not shift to the SP completely. The chances of the SP candidate depend on the BSP votes getting transferred to the SP. It may not happen in full measure.

Rakesh Chandra Pande, local correspondent of the ‘Hindustan’, says the Congress candidate has a slight edge as of now in a triangular contest. But Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to address a big gathering in Kushinagar on the 12th. He might influence the people to the extent that the BJP candidate might emerge as forerunner, says Rajendra Sharma of Dainik Jagaran. However, Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra are expected to address a meeting here before the curtains for the campaign on the 17th. The BJP has been assiduously working on non-Jatav Dalits and non-Yadav BCs as it successfully did in 2014 and 2017 when the Assembly elections were held. Though there is good chemistry between Mayawati and Akhilesh of the BSP and the SP respectively, some reservations persist at the level of ordinary citizens who never voted for the other party so far. Uncertainties of this kind make the situation unpredictable. If the BSP votes are transferred to the SP, the latter might create history by bagging the seat for the first time. SP chief Akhilesh had cleverly selected a Kushwaha, a non Yadav OBC to thwart BJP attempts at mobilising OBCs other than Yadavs. But the latest churning and the resultant split among Brahmins, Thakurs and BCs appears to favour the Congress candidate. As the three candidates are equally strong, it is pretty difficult to predict the outcome. But what can be said without any doubt of contradiction is that whoever wins, the margin will be far lesser than what it was the last time.

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