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Lakhimpur Kheri/Kannauj/Lucknow: Across poll-bound Uttar Pradesh, a big question dominates the electoral discourse. Will the Samajwadi Party eventually be successful in its efforts to wean enough non-Yadav Other Backward Class communities from the saffron party’s confines?
The electoral outcome in the state is expected to largely depend on this crucial factor.
In the last few elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party managed to consolidate the most backward classes – also the largest chunk of the electorate, believed to be more than 30% of the total number of voters – in its favour by mounting a campaign against the dominant Yadavs among OBCs, even as it presented a cocktail of Hindutva and development agenda to the Hindu backward communities.
Hitherto under-represented in the state polity, the most backward classes who comprise multiple communities like Kurmi, Lodh Rajput, Pals, Saini, Kashyap, Maurya and others have believed that they may find leadership positions and greater representation in a BJP led by the Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who also belongs to a non-dominant OBC community.
The saffron party did give the leaders of these communities much greater representation than other parties in the electoral fray, and won with handsome margins to come to power. However, the last few years under chief minister Adityanath may have significantly altered how the most backward of communities perceive the BJP.
The latest exodus of BJP leaders possibly towards the SP reflects such a mood. All the sitting BJP legislators (altogether 15 including three ministers) who resigned from their positions belong to non-dominant backward communities. While the resignations of the state’s labour minister Swami Prasad Maurya and his four acolytes have garnered the maximum attention, such a trend among Most Backward Classes leaders had begun showing itself during the second wave of the pandemic last year.
Much of the dissent against the state government about mishandling of the pandemic had emerged from leaders belonging to non-Yadav OBC communities and to a certain extent from Brahmin and non-Jatav Dalits – all caste groups which are considered to be harbouring anger against the Adityanath regime currently. Two BJP legislators Rakesh Rathore (from the Teli community) and Madhuri Verma (from Kurmi community) had already joined the Samajwadi Party before Maurya and his followers made it quite evident that not all is well in the BJP’s camp.
Significantly, the legislators who quit the BJP made it a point to put across the resentment among backward communities as clearly as possible.
The resignation letters of Maurya and his followers are identically worded to send a political message to the backward communities. Their letters said that the BJP regime over the last four years “neglected” leaders belonging to “Dalit and backward communities and minorities,” and “ignored” the concerns of “Dalits, backward communities, unemployed youth, small-and medium businesspersons”.
Political observers say that two factors mostly contributed to bitterness among backward communities.
First, BJP could not live up to its image of an inclusive party. “While the BJP re-invented itself from a party led by only upper caste groups to one with a message of sabka saath, sabka vishwaas, [development for and with everyone] it did not act on it. By placing a Thakur leader Adityanath at the helm of affairs, BJP re-imposed its perception of an upper caste-driven party among the backward communities. Adityanath himself left no stone unturned to project himself as a Thakur leader,” says Gorakhpur-based senior journalist Manoj Singh.
The MBCs and non-Jatavs had expected that since SP had evolved as a party led only by Yadavs and Muslims, and the Bahujan Samaj Party gives prominence mostly to Jatavs, the BJP could fulfil the aspirations of other backward communities. The BJP showed promise by leading an extensive outreach programme among these communities. However, soon after it formed the government, the leaders representing these groups were relegated to unimportant portfolios and positions. This factor was also one of the primary reasons that Rajbhar leader Om Prakash Rajbhar, now an ally of Akhilesh Yadav, was among the first MBC leaders to walk away from the National Democratic Alliance.
Secondly, Adityanath is perceived in Uttar Pradesh as a hardline Hindutva leader who pushed all concerns of representation and social justice into the back burner in his attempt to foreground Sangh parivar’s Hindutva political line. Adityanath’s Hindutva push is perceived by many groups as entirely reversing the concerns of social justice. UP’s democratic polity has evolved over the years through different stages of politics of caste assertion in which various backward and Dalit caste groups have sought greater participation in the polity.
Says Samajwadi Party leader and political observer Sudhir Panwar, “A leader who is concerned only with asserting his Hindu identity becomes automatically antithetical to interests of aspirational backward caste groups. I feel that BJP’s shifting its focus away from such concerns compromised its development goals which would have been more inclusive”.
Hindutva’s probable saturation in the political stage led by Adityanath in Uttar Pradesh, therefore, prompted Akhilesh Yadav to chalk out a strategy to build an inclusive campaign, in the process transforming the 2022 assembly polls into a contest between Hindutva and social justice politics.
In the run-up to the polls, Akhilesh Yadav’s sole effort has been to build a larger coalition of parties representing interests of different MBC groups in the run-up to the polls, and shed SP’s perception as only a “Yadav-Muslim” force. More recently his welcoming gestures towards non-Yadav OBC leaders who quit the BJP reflects a similar attempt.
Challenges for the SP
The BJP’s social base composed of upper caste groups, non-Yadav OBCs and non-Jatav Dalits appears surely cracking.
However, the SP leader will still have multiple challenges to overcome. Although the MBC leaders are most likely to join the SP, Akhilesh will have to try harder to convince the non-Yadav OBCs and Dalits that his gestures are sincere. On ground, people belonging to MBC groups with whom The Wire spoke said that with a Thakur strongman at the top, not much vikas (development) came their way but also remained wary of the SP because of its record.
“We feel used by the BJP for our votes. But we also do not find a good alternative,” said Arvind Kumar who belongs to the Lodh community in Tirwa assembly constituency of Kannauj.
“At least, in this regime the police have stopped extorting from us. During the SP’s regime, policemen had become infamous for extorting money from poor people. Only if you were an Yadav, the police would stay away from you. Those practices have stopped now,” he added.
Another Kurmi man Shashank Verma in Bilhaur assembly seat said that Akhilesh is a “saaf chavi wala neta (leader with a clean image)” but added that those below him in the party are the real rabble rousers. “SP leaders are lying low now. But we know that the moment they come to power, they will be back to their usual ways of hooliganism,” he said.
Similarly, Prashant Rathore belonging to the Teli caste group in Lakhimpur and sells snacks in a cart for a living said, “No development work was taken up by the Adityanath government in the last five years. Akhilesh has a better record in the government. But my vote will still be for the BJP. There is relative peace now. At least no one comes and eats for free now.”
Nonetheless, Akhilesh remains popular across castes. Almost everyone across caste groups in Uttar Pradesh will admit that the Akhilesh tenure saw more development work in the state. But that may not be enough, as caste-level polarisation has historically been significant in UP polls. For the SP to win, it will have to dent the BJP’s social base drastically, and more importantly prove through concrete measures that SP under his leadership is ready to move beyond the stranglehold of dominant OBCs.
The course correction may be easier said than done, given the current composition of SP. However, Akhilesh has evidently taken steps to reform his party. It remains to be seen whether he will successfully persuade those whose votes he would need to defeat the BJP.