Could Modi’s Cabinet Reshuffle Have a Meaningful Impact on the UP Polls?

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The BJP is keen to directly challenge the Samajwadi Party in the state and reduce the fight to the politics of religious polarisation.

Credit: PTI

Narendra Modi’s cabinet has now swelled to 78. Credit: PTI

Lucknow: Much is being read into Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s new look council of ministers, which was expanded as well as a reshuffled last week .

Political analysts were broadly of the view that the entire exercise had been undertaken with an eye on the upcoming state elections. No wonder then that three new faces from Uttar Pradesh were inducted in the expanded cabinet, besides Manoj Sinha, already minister of state for railways, getting additional charge of telecoms.

The three new picks are ideal from a caste perspective, and reflect the BJP’s focus on Dalits, OBCs and Brahmins.

From a regional point of view, however, the tilt was once again in favour of eastern UP. Thus, if Krishna Raj was BJP’s Dalit MP from Shahjahanpur (in western UP), Anupriya Patel, a member of NDA ally Apna Dal (although the party claims she has been expelled) and a first-time MP from Mirzapur, represented the Kurmi OBC group, while Mahendra Nath Pandey filled the party’s Brahmin bill from the eastern corner of Chandauli.

In fact, Modi has once again very strategically given preference to eastern UP (Purvanchal), to where a sizeable number of his ministers belong. Modi himself was elected to parliament from Varanasi, the heart of eastern UP, while most of the ministers from the state are from different parts of poverty-ridden, backward Purvanchal. A greater representation in the central cabinet from this region is aimed at sending a message to the large number of voters there – an investment that could reap great benefits for the BJP at the 2017 assembly elections.

Patel and Pandey, who represent almost neighbouring constituencies in eastern UP, were understood to have been told to spread the word in their respective areas about the government’s commitment to transforming the lives of people in that region. Both leaders have tremendous appeal within their respective communities. The induction of Patel, who inherited the legacy of her father and Apna Dal founder Sone Lal Patel, is bound to go well with Kurmis across large parts of eastern UP. If Sone Lal’s influence was limited to barely four districts in eastern UP, his daughter’s elevation as minister has given a big boost to her following, which is likely pay electoral dividends across a broader region. This is one of the reasons why the BJP was keen to merge with the Apna Dal, which Patel’s mother and current president of that party opposes.

Pandey was brought on board not only because the party had to placate the Brahmin community, which had not taken too well to the replacement of Laxmikant Bajpai by backward caste leader Keshav Prasad Maurya as the state party president. Pandey’s clean image and low profile were of particular significance as Modi clearly wanted to steer clear of any politician focused on self-promotion. This included the likes of Yogi Adityanath – head of Gorakhpur’s high profile, multi-crore Gorakhnath temple trust, the saffron-clad sadhu-turned-tainted-MP Sakshi Maharaj, or even Varun Gandhi, who had left no stone unturned to repeatedly propel himself as his party’s ultimate choice for UP. Modi’s message was loud and clear – any kind of self-promotion would be counter-productive.

It appears that the same logic was adopted in giving Sinha independent charge of the all important communications ministry. A prominent Bhumihar, he had been doing his bit in the railways as Suresh Prabhu’s junior without much noise. Sinha has emerged as the party’s face of the Bhumihar community, which also has a fairly large presence in eastern UP.

Raj, the Dalit entrant from Shahjahanpur, was apparently handpicked for similar reasons. Known for her mild mannerisms and approachability, which has made her popular among the downtrodden, Raj comes in sharp contrast to the arrogant and inaccessible Bahujan Samaj Party supremo Mayawati. Besides, Raj also represents the Pasi subcaste, who form nearly 30% of the state’s Dalit population.

Evidently, the BJP’s target is to dent Mayawati’s Dalit base, which was already been shaken with the recent sensational exit of her once close confidantes Swami Prasad Maurya and R.K. Chaudhari (also a Pasi). With Raj getting prominence, and Chaudhari likely to find some space in the BJP, the party would be able to wean away a chunk of the Pasi vote, leaving Mayawati with only her core vote bank, the Jatavs, who form more than 50% of UP’s Dalits.

By weakening Mayawati, the BJP could achieve its objective of getting into a direct contest with the ruling Samajwadi Party. This suits the saffron brigade’s obvious game plan to eventually narrow down the 2017 electoral battle to the politics of religious polarisation.

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