If it's 'Aurangzeb vs Shivaji' in UP, it's 'Ashoka vs Aurangzeb' in Bihar

BJP cultural cell chief Daya Prakash Sinha equating Ashoka and Aurangzeb has triggered a political storm in Bihar and neighbouring UP ahead of assembly elections in the latter, with old alliances dissolving and new one's ready to take shape among the BJP, the JDU and the RJD.

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Patna: A recent parallel drawn by former UP IAS officer and BJP cultural cell chief Daya Prakash Sinha between Mauryan emperor Ashoka – the Ashoka-chakra is at the centre of the Indian flag adopted on July 22, 1947 – and Mughal emperor Aurangzeb in terms of “cruelty” and “sins” has left the BJP and the Janata Dal (United) (JDU) butting heads.

The JDU, which is the ruling party in Bihar and thrives on the ‘Lav-Kush (Kurmi-Kushwaha) caste combination in the state, has broken out of its alliance with the BJP and has decided to contest the upcoming elections in UP on its own, fielding its own candidates against its Bihar ally.

While Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar’s party might not hold as much influence over the Kurmis and Kushwahas – classified as other backward castes (OBC) – in the election-bound neighbouring state as it does in Bihar, the party’s decision to contest against the BJP might inflict a psychological blow to the latter.

This becomes more pertinent seeing as how the BJP is currently contending with the recent exodus of three of its ministers and 11 MLAs from the Adityanath government in the poll-bound state, most of whom belong to the stock of castes which constitutes the nucleus of the JDU’s strength in Bihar.

Also read: Why JD(U) Is Taking a Tough Stand Against BJP Leader Comparing Ashoka, Aurangzeb

The Koiries or Kushwahas of Bihar are the equivalent of the Mauryas, Kashyaps and Varmas in UP whereas the Kurmis are similar to Patels, Kashyaps and Gangwars. To put it more simply, Swami Prasad Maurya – one of the BJP’s former UP ministers who switched over to the Samajwadi Party (SP) camp – is in UP what Koiri-Kushwaha leader and JDU parliamentary board chairman Upendra Kushwaha is in Bihar.

Kumar himself represents the caste that Apna Dal’s Krishna Patel represents in UP – the party which has broken from its alliance with the BJP and has joined hands with Akhilesh Yadav’s SP in UP.

This complex political reshuffle began when Sinha, who is a Padma Shree-winning Hindi writer and was conferred the prestigious Sahitya Akademi award last year for his play Samrat Ashok, made his aforementioned comparison between Ashoka and Aurangzeb in an extensive interview to national Hindi-language daily Navbharat Times on January 8.

“In course of my research, I found several similarities between Ashoka and Aurangzeb. Both were cruel sinners in their early life. Both murdered their brothers and imprisoned their fathers. Both resorted to ultra-religiosity in their later life to remit their sins and divert the attention of the people from their misdeeds,” Sinha said in the interview.

The former IAS officer, who is also the convenor of the Indian Council of Cultural Research (ICCR), quoted several Sri Lankan Buddhist pieces of literature Deepvansh, Mahavansh and Ashokawadan as well as Tibetan Buddhist scholar Taranath’s accounts to describe Ashoka as being “most ugly” and “amorous” in his early life.

Soon, a verbal war erupted between the JDU and the BJP with the former demanding “stern” action against Sinha for denigrating the venerated Mauryan emperor, who had ruled over a large part of erstwhile India (268-238 BCE) from his capital Pataliputra – the ancient name for Patna.

The Kushwahas and Kurmis trace their caste and descent back to Mauryan rulers. In fact, Kumar has named many recent development initiatives in his state Mauryan kings; the Chandragupta Maurya Institute of Management and Ashoka Hall among them.

Also read: By Raising Aurangzeb-Shivaji Binary at Kashi Vishwanath, Modi Indicates Divisive Agenda

The BJP had even celebrated Ashoka’s 2,320th birth anniversary in Patna in 2015, with its erstwhile union minister Ravi Shankar Prasad presiding over the celebrations. The BJP’s efforts were seen then as an attempt to appropriate the Mauryan rulers, eyeing the Koiri-Kurmi vote.

But the war between the two parties is now escalating. In his speech while inaugurating the Kashi-Vishwanath corridor project at the Vishwanath temple in Varanasi on December 13, Prime Minister Modi juxtaposed the “villain” Aurangzeb against the “hero” Shivaji. “When an Aurangzeb invades, a Shivaji rises,” Modi said, which many considered a part of the BJP’s open agenda to polarise voters in UP along the lines of the Hindu-Muslim binary.

The prime minister’s words had come around two months before the crucial elections, scheduled for the seventh phase of assembly polls starting from February 10.

Returning to the present case involving Sinha, the BJP, in an apparent bid to control the damage, had lodged an FIR against him at Patna’s Secretariat Police Station, distancing itself from the author. Bihar BJP president Sanjay Jaiswal had even said, “The party has no connection with Sinha; it has lodged FIR against him”.

But the JDU’s Kushwaha said, “The central government must withdraw the Padma Shri and Sahitya Akademi award to Daya Prakash Sinha. It should ban his book and punish him appropriately for equating Ashoka and Aurangzeb.”

The Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) – the main opposition party in Bihar – has now joined the JDU in demanding action against Sinha.

Also read: As BJP Exodus Leaves Modi, Shah and Yogi Tense, Keshav Prasad Maurya Has Nothing To Lose

“We are in touch with the Samajwadi Party leaders to expose the BJP on UP’s turf. We have communicated to the Samajwadi Party’s senior leader, Ram Gopal Yadav and others to explain to the UP voters how the saffron party was involved in denigrating the ancient historical icon that emperor Ashoka was. The successive union governments have issued stamps in his honour,” RJD’s national vice-president, veteran socialist leader Shivanand Tiwary said. The RJD has also shown support for the SP in Uttar Pradesh.

Faced with this relentless volley from the JDU, Jaiswal said, “The JDU must adhere to the alliance dharma. It’s inappropriate for the JDU to attack the BJP when it has lodged FIR against Daya Prakash Sinha and has disassociated itself from him and his work.”

The JDU, which has 40 MLAs in the Bihar assembly, is running the government with the support of the BJP’s 74 MLAs in the state.

But the unrelenting Kushwaha fired back, “We will not settle on anything less than withdrawal of the Padma Shree and Sahitya Akademi award to the controversial author and banning of his books.”

Lalu Prasad Yadav’s RJD, which has 75 MLAs in Bihar, has extended its support to the JDU in the event that the BJP withdraws its support. And with that, the battle rages on.

Nalin Verma is a senior journalist, author and professor of journalism and mass communication at Invertis University, Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh.