In Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh, power still flows from the barrel of the gun, where - believe it or not - dacoits play a key role in deciding who will win the five parliamentary seats from the region.
The gang of Sudesh Patel, more popularly known as Balkhariya, has been whipping up terror to demand votes. More than a dozen kidnappings and threats have materialised across villages to compel the residents to support a particular party.
In one such village, Navuka (Banda district), 60 of the 300 families have fled after letters were pasted on the walls of homes and menacing phone calls began to come at odd hours.
Lala Ram, the village pradhan who is among those who have fled, alleged he was asked to donate Rs.5 lakh for the campaign of a candidate. "The police do not help us. Patrolling is for namesake only," he said.
Amar Singh, officer in charge of the Kalinjar police station (under which the village falls), however, dismisses the charges. "The area is completely under our control. Sometimes, people make up such stories only to be in the news."
The influence of dacoits in the political affairs of the region started in 1978 when Shiv Kumar Patel alias Dadua gained ascendancy in the dacoit hierarchy. When Dadua was killed in 2007, the mantle was taken by Thokia, who was felled a year later. Balkhariya, who came next, now tops the state police's list of most wanted criminals and carries an award of Rs.5 lakh.
In the assembly elections of 2007, the slogan "Mohar lagegi haathi par, goli lagegi chaati pe, naak milegi ghaati mein" (The stamp will be on the elephant, the bullet in the chest, and the nose in the ravine) resonated through the region making clear which party the dacoits were supporting.
This year, Congress candidate Vivek Kumar Singh alleged: "The dacoits are terrorising people to support the Samajwadi Party. It is impossible for us to campaign."
Raja Yadav, founder of the Anand Dham Samiti, an organisation that has been working on water issues in the region for the last decade, says that unlike the dacoits of yore who picked up guns to protest the injustices of the feudal order or avenge personal wrongs, banditry is now a means of gaining influence.
"Young men join the gangs because it ensures a handsome monthly salary. Dacoits support political parties in exchange for money and also get a cut in the development funds meant for the region," he said.
R.B. Singh, assistant professor of social work at the BR Ambedkar Institute of Social Sciences, explained why Bundelkhand is a rich breeding ground for dacoits. "A lack of entrepreneurial spirit, the love of an easy life, a feudalistic social order and the acceptance of corruption have contributed to taking to crime a viable option", he said.
The lack of livelihood options is compounded by the fact that the Bundelkhand region, comprising seven districts of Uttar Pradesh and six of Madhya Pradesh, has been under the spell of a persistent drought since 2004-05.
Low levels of education, the absence of industry and an agrarian crisis have resulted in the region doing poorly on socio-economic indicators. The unique geographical situation -- barren tracks, a maze of ravines, forests that fall on both sides of the borders -- have made it a haven for dacoits who, according to some historical accounts, trace their origins to the Rajput kings who ruled the region but were forced into hiding by Muslim invaders.
The region goes to the polls on April 30.
(This story has not been edited by News18 staff and is published from a syndicated news agency feed - IANS)