Kunda: To Uttar Pradesh’s political parties, barring the once spunky Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), his name was an alias for terror, intimidation and brutality. Yet, they valued him because he was a friend in need. He never lost an election ever since he fought his first one in 1993. He did business with the BJP and the Samajwadi Party (SP) and was a minister in the governments headed by Mulayam Singh Yadav and his son, Akhilesh Yadav, Kalyan Singh and Rajnath Singh, although Kalyan had labelled him the “goonda of Kunda”.
Kunda, about 150 kms to Lucknow’s south-east, is a tehsil in Pratapgarh district. It was a principality ruled by one of the protagonists of this account, Raghuraj Pratap Singh, who people still reverentially address as Raja Bhaiya. Singh is running for the seventh time in the ongoing assembly polls as a candidate of his own party, Jansatta Dal (Loktantrik), which significantly has a sharp-toothed saw as its symbol.
This time, SP leader Akhilesh Yadav junked the no-contest idea in Kunda and decided to put up an opponent against Singh. He is Gulshan Yadav, 38, a former associate of Singh who fell out with him and “miraculously” survived, according to locals. Singh of the saw symbol is allegedly ruthless towards his adversaries even if they were once close to him. However, Yadav waged an all-out spirited war against his former mentor. The SP took the seat so seriously that Akhilesh squeezed a meeting in Kunda.
The Kunda battle mirrors a deeper trend: Singh is a Thakur/Rajput and in today’s ambience, reflects “Thakurwaad”, shorthand for the chief minister Yogi Adityanath’s overt and undue patronage of the Thakurs in his dispensation. The BJP put up Sindhuja Mishra, a Brahmin, ostensibly to blunt the Thakur effect. “Sindhuja wants change because the rations distributed by the government never reached people here. We are confident that we will rewrite history,” claims the candidate’s election manager, Prathmesh Mishra.
Yadav’s presence ironically evoked to the surface, a long and deep-seated revulsion towards Singh’s persona and his feudal style politics because he often boasted to him “vikas” was not about building roads and houses but settling intra-family disputes and squabbles over land ownership. Yadav is perceived as a serious candidate, regardless of the outcome in Kunda.
On the last day of campaigning, one caught up with a cavalcade of SP workers, led by Yadav’s brother Deepak, at Hinnahu village. “Vikas here is synonymous with ‘goonda raj’. Only one caste benefitted from whatever the Raja handed out. For us, even one vote from every family will suffice,” says Deepak.
In the years one has covered this decrepit place that was lucky enough to get its roads and tube wells only from the government of the day, voters were always frightened and silent. Whether one met them in the bazaar or their hamlets and homes, it was impossible to coax words out of them. Voters now sounded more animated and less scared.
At Rahmat Ali ka Purva village, Gyanchand, a security guard, says, “Kunda is a ‘pushtaeni’ (ancestral) seat but people want change. Whether it’s possible in a place ruled by a ‘bahubali’ (strongman) has to be seen.” Gyanchand is a Dalit Passi and he was clear that while the educated Passis would vote for Yadav, the rest would root for Singh. “The main objective is to defeat the Raja. But he has a powerful network of local influencers who will bully the voters,” says Amarnath Yadav, a primary school teacher in the same village.
Kunda, which voted on February 27, witnessed bouts of violence this time until in the previous elections that essentially went one way. Yadav’s supporters were allegedly thrashed, his vehicle was attacked and an FIR was filed against Singh.
At Baraika Purva Baryanwan village, Ram Lakhan Yadav explains why it was important to elect Yadav. “It’s not about my caste as you think. I voted for Raja and the BJP in the past. But this time our problems are so many that we need to bring in a new government in UP and that’s why every seat matters. Inflation, no produce from our fields because the rogue cattle spare nothing. On top of that subsidies have ended. We get nothing under the Ujawala (LPG) scheme,” he says.
In Purani Babuganj village, dominated by the Banias with a few Dalit homes, Ramesh Chand, a Dalit Jatav tonga driver, echoed Ram Lakhan Yadav. “The Raja seems to be in trouble for the first time. But we are silent because if we raise our voices we are in trouble,” he says.
Singh, 52, had just one political bête noire before Akhilesh Yadav: Mayawati. As the chief minister in 2002 (with the BJP’s support), Mayawati arrested him, his father, Uday Pratap Singh, and his brother, Akshay Pratap Singh, under The Prevention of Terrrorism Act, 2002, or POTA and jailed them. Singh was accused of fomenting riots, extortion, robbery, assault, kidnapping and murder. In 2003, when Mulayam Singh Yadav succeeded Mayawati, he dropped all the charges against Singh, inducted him in his cabinet and gave him a Z security cover. In 2007, when Mayawati returned as the CM she arrested him for the murder of a police officer.
A lake spread over 600 acres behind Singh’s family palace at Kunda’s Bhadri estate was the subject of a major feud between him and Mayawati. Local lore has it that the lake was infested with crocodiles which were fed human meat. Singh laughed off the story in an interview in which he said, his children swam in the lake, so safe it was. But Mayawati was persistent and her government took over the lake which was renamed as the Bhimrao Ambedkar bird sanctuary.
The fables refuse to go away. Another one is that in his ‘90s, Singh’s father unfailingly goes to the Kunda-Harnamganj railway station every morning and hands over tiffin packets to travellers. Singh senior had a more daunting reputation than the son who is supposedly still in awe of him. “It’s the father’s way of doing ‘prayaschit’ (atonement) for the sufferings he inflicted on his subjects,” says Ramesh Chand.
Election 2022 is the first reality check for a clan which refused to acknowledge that royalty was a thing of the past.