IN INDIA, vehicles owned by the powerful can have a mind of their own. They can skid out of control, mow down people for no apparent reason. Indeed, they can appear to have no apparent driver at the wheel and the machine on wheels can go berserk with nobody at fault apparently. Many believe Salman Khan invented the first automatic, driverless vehicle years ago in 2002 which ran over a few pavement dwellers in Mumbai’s tony Bandra. Finally, Khan’s family solved the mystery, confessing Khan’s SUV indeed had a driver – it was the actor’s chauffeur and not the megastar himself.
Years later, another whodunit is witnessed in Lakhimpur. MoS Home Ajay Mishra’s son’s vehicle ploughed into a group of farmers, killing a few of them, and nobody is quite sure who was at the wheel. The farmers swear they saw Ashish Mishra at the wheel but the bahubali Brahmin neta’s son dismisses all such talk. He was somewhere else at the time of the “accident” claims Ashish, asserting his driver was at the wheel who was actually lynched by the angry mob after the tragedy.
Call the above episodes drunken driving, road rage, or just sheer rash and negligent driving – and never mind who was at the wheel. What these tragic incidents do reveal is that the road to justice for the less privileged in India is still long and arduous, and sometimes beyond the reach of most Indians.
Why The Prime Minister Is Silent
Now, regardless of whose hand is behind the Lakhimpur tragedy, it’s striking, even unsettling, that the top politicians of the ruling BJP have maintained a studied silence on the controversy. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has addressed public meetings over the past few days – in poll bound Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand – but remained mum on the Lakhimpur episode. Nor have the other leading lights of the BJP including home minister Amit Shah and Rajnath Singh (Singh is an MP from UP’s Lucknow) commented on it.
Indeed, the Prime Minister often targets politics of privilege and entitlement in India – proudly highlighting his humble origins as a tea vendor – often targeting the Gandhi siblings and the “Khan market gang”, but has not been distressed by the Lakhimpur incident. Indeed, this is selective outrage at the yawning socio-economic inequity that persists in India. Surely, Ashish Mishra is privileged and an insider of the ruling-party caucus. And yet Mr Modi has had nothing to say on the deaths of farmers in Lakhimpur (at the time of writing).
Why Ajay Mishra Matters For BJP
Which, then, brings us to the bigger point. Why is MoS Home Ajay Mishra so vital for the BJP? So far, the probe into the Lakhimpur episode has been tardy and Ashish Mishra is being handled with kid’s gloves by the UP police. He is politely being summoned to appear for interrogation instead of being arrested outright. The pace of the investigation has already disturbed the Supreme Court.
Well, there are a number of reasons why the BJP has not asked Mishra to put in his papers. Above all, Mishra is a prominent Brahmin leader from Uttar Pradesh, a community the BJP is courting assiduously in the state ahead of the looming assembly elections. For a party which has always had heavyweight Brahmin leaders in its ranks – think Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Murli Manohar Joshi, Kalraj Mishra, et al – the BJP appears to have few prominent faces from the community at the moment. It explains why the Brahmins, a traditional vote bank of the BJP, appear alienated and a floating vote bank for politicians in UP. Increasingly marginalised in UP, the Brahmins have shown a willingness to switch sides if promised a stake in power. Remember, how Mayawati won over Brahmins in 2007 by showcasing SC Mishra as her main confidante.
But, surely, Brahmins would not close ranks around a politician with dubious credentials like Ajay Mishra? Well, the truth is somewhat complex in the caste cauldron of UP. Mishra appears to be a sort of a Bahubali Brahmin neta in the state. And Bahubali leaders, across castes, can retain considerable clout within their communities despite their chequered background – many of them, remember, have a Robin Hood image that often resonates with the masses. There are quite a few examples of UP Brahmin strongmen who have been popular within their community. Hari Shankar Tiwari and Amarmani Tripathi come to mind immediately. Many saw them as unscrupulous politicians, but both remained popular Brahmin leaders nevertheless.
Bahubali Netas Matter In UP
This caste reality in the badlands of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar often forces political parties to bend before Bahubali netas despite, as I said, their questionable antecedents. Remember how Kuldeep Sengar, MLA from Unnao, was cultivated by the BJP even after his name figured in a sensational rape case. Public outrage finally forced the BJP to expel him in 2019 but it demonstrates how Bahubali netas are courted by all – I repeat all – political parties. In fact, Sengar was associated with all major political parties in Uttar Pradesh at some point – Congress, BSP and SP (he has been a BSP and SP MLA).
Now, another fundamental question. Why are Brahmins so vital for politicians in the coming elections? That’s elementary if you do some number crunching and dissect the caste arithmetic in Uttar Pradesh. Brahmins are about 10% of UP’s population and add up to over 2 crore people in the state.
So, in the last election UP Assembly election, there were 77 seats which had a victory margin of about 10,000 for the elected MLA (the BJP winning 36 of these). Now, there are about 50,000 Brahmins per assembly constituency on average (simple math – 2 crore divided by 403). A big Brahmin swing away from the BJP could cost the party many of these 77 seats. So, Brahmin disaffection could make the difference between victory and defeat for the BJP in about 75 to 100 seats. That’s a big number and explains why the BJP appears a bit reluctant to show Ajay Mishra the door despite the major embarrassment he has caused them.
With the Supreme Court too taking up the matter, the options are narrowing for Ajay Mishra. Can he brazen it out, banking on his caste credentials in UP, and remain a minister? We’ll have to wait and watch, but the Lakhimpur episode once again highlights how the road to justice for the less fortunate in India is long and arduous – and never mind that our democracy has thrown up a tea vendor as the Prime Minister and a Dalit as the President. It should shake the collective conscience of the nation.