As SP, RLD Inch Closer, UP Politics Gets a Chance to Rise Above Divisions of Caste, Religion

The farmers’ protests kickstarted the much awaited process of healing between communities. It is now up to the opposition political parties to take a cue.

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New Delhi: In what may be a political game changer in western Uttar Pradesh, the Samajwadi Party has formally declared its tie-up with the Rashtriya Lok Dal for the assembly polls due early next year.

The alliance between the two forces would likely translate to the social coalition of dominant peasant community Jats and a sizeable population of Muslims. A series of farmer mahapanchayats over the last few months had seen both the communities coming together on a common platform for the first time since the 2013 Muzaffarnagar communal riots. 

“Our alliance with RLD is final. Seat sharing is to be finalised,” SP president and former chief minister Akhilesh Yadav told the news agency PTI in an interview, while also declaring that he will not be contesting the assembly polls. Yadav, an MP from Azamgarh, had not contested the 2012 assembly polls, in which his party won, either. He then went on to serve as the chief minister for the next five years as a member of the legislative council. 

However, hours after Yadav’s announcement, a chance meeting between Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi and RLD leader Jayant Chaudhary at the Lucknow airport sparked off rumours that the latter may also be open to an alliance with the grand old party if it is handed a poor deal by the SP. Speaking to reporters, Chaudhary tactically didn’t declare an alliance with the SP but said that the talks between both parties had been “positive”.

Congress General Secretary Priyanka Gandhi with RLD chief Chaudhary Jayant Singh at Lucknow airport. Also in the photo are Chhattisgarh CM Bhupesh Baghel and Congress MP Deependra Hooda. Photo: Twitter/@JavedRashid_INC

Nonetheless, it appears clear that RLD’s first preference is likely to be SP, which has a substantial vote bank in the state.

SP has already decided against partnering with the Congress, with which it had forged a pre-election alliance for the 2017 assembly polls. The grand old party has been attempting to emerge as an alternative front with aggressive campaigning and a new agenda but a lack of cadre base could admittedly limit its electoral prospects.

Against such a backdrop, the RLD-SP may surge ahead of other opposition groups like the Congress and the Bahujan Samaj Party in positioning itself as the primary challenger to the Adityanath-led Bharatiya Janata Party. In terms of social coalition, the coming together of RLD, which has an emotional connect with the dominant Jats (who comprise around 14% of the population), and SP that enjoys the patronage of Yadavs and Muslims, would substantially improve the front’s electoral prospects. 

In 2013, communal riots had torn asunder the social fabric of the region and ruptured the historical alliance between the two communities that the former Prime Minister Chaudhary Charan Singh had tactically groomed on the basis of common agrarian concerns.

However, following the riots, Jats and other agrarian communities among the Hindus had veered towards the then fledgling BJP, which grew powerful on the basis of polarising the region on religious lines. Riding on majority support, the saffron party emerged as the most dominant political force in the region, sweeping the sugarcane belt in election after election since 2013.

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So strong was the saffron tide that western Uttar Pradesh’s tallest leaders, including RLD founder Ajit Singh and his son Jayant Chaudhary lost to BJP in both the 2014 and 2019’s Lok Sabha elections. In the last assembly polls, the BJP won 78 of the 100-odd seats of western UP spread across 20 districts, while the SP – the second largest party – could win only 16. 

The agitations against the farm laws and concerns over livelihood have now brought the communities together once again, giving a fillip to opposition political parties which have been looking for a window to bridge religious divisions and foreground livelihood issues as electoral concerns.

The formalisation of the RLD-SP  alliance would not only put the opposition in a formidable position in around 40 seats of the region but may also likely channel the political rhetoric towards often-ignored farm issues.

Much of the credit for such a social coalition will go to the farmers’ protests, which had highlighted the agrarian crisis in the region as one which goes beyond caste, creed, and community lines.

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It was a historic moment when Rakesh Tikait, the biggest farmer leader in western UP, raised the slogan of “Har Har Mahadev” and “Allahu Akbar” from the dais of the Muzaffarnagar mahapanchayat on September 5, 2021, reminding the participants of his father and one of the tallest farmer leaders of the country, Mahendra Tikait’s communally harmonious outlook.

Both Mahendra Tikait and Charan Singh had organised various communities of the region around agricultural issues. But following the riots, both Rakesh and Naresh Tikait had swung towards BJP, and were accused of having given provocative speeches against Muslims. Rakesh Tikait-led agitations against the BJP regime over the last year is thus being seen as a homecoming, and has further cemented his position as a farm leader instead of a representative of a particular community.

Farmer leader Rakesh Tikait. Photo: PTI

The RLD-SP alliance, therefore, would force BJP to change its political play.

Losing Jat votes may cost BJP dearly in the region. To counter its influence, BJP has already been working on uniting smaller and scattered communities which together make up a sizeable population. In Haryana, the saffron party was successful in uniting around 33 caste groups against the dominant Jats but had ditched the strategy in western UP as Jats were politically aligned with it.

The BJP’s play would be to emulate the Haryana strategy in western UP in the run-up to the assembly polls, during which it would primarily attempt to to bring together communities other than Jats, Muslims, and Yadavs in its fold. Gujjars, Sainis, Kashyaps, non-Jatav Dalits, Nai, Kurmis, Banias et al are some of the caste groups which have been under the influence of Hindutva.

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BJP’s attempt would be to engineer a reverse polarisation against Jat-Muslim unity in the region. 

Both the SP and RLD, therefore, have been organising regular outreach programmes to prevent such a caste-based polarisation. Over the last few months, especially the SP has held events to reach out to these smaller communities and have attempted to break away from its perception as a Muslim-Yadav party. Akhilesh Yadav’s alliances with Om Prakash Rajbhar’s Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party in eastern UP, Kurmi-dominated Mahan Dal founded by Keshav Dev Maurya, which is influential in central UP, and now with RLD are directed at altering his party’s perception among non-Yadav OBCs and non-Jatav Dalits,  a substantial section of whom have supported BJP in the last few elections.

“BJP has relied on Hindutva and support of Jats and other smaller communities in western UP. The farmers’ protests have largely neutralised the Hindutva influence in the area. What we are trying to do now is to prevent a reverse caste-based polarisation that would keep the BJP in play,” said an SP district president from the region, who requested not to be named.

He added that the party’s focus therefore would be to highlight chief minister Adityanath’s highhandedness and apathy towards farm issues that has the potential to unite all peasant communities against BJP, and defuse the saffron party’s expected political narrative that would pitch the dominant castes against the non-dominant ones.   

The RLD-SP alliance in the current context would go a long way in shifting not merely electoral dynamics but also the social equations of western UP. The farmers’ protests kickstarted the much awaited process of healing between communities. It is now up to the opposition political parties to take a cue and cement the developing harmony without fear.