Heading Towards the UP Polls, What Lies Ahead for Akhilesh Yadav?

There are several obstacles in the Samajwadi Party's way as it struggles to regain power.

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Lucknow: Akhilesh Yadav stands on the rooftop of his rath (chariot) in Uttar Pradesh’s Unnao district, starting his campaign for the 2022 assembly elections in the state. He takes the microphone and announces that the BJP government’s days in UP are numbered. It is the same rath which he rode before the 2012 elections – and now with just six months left for fresh polls, Akhilesh is hoping it will help him to ride to power again. But the road is not smooth and to come to power, he will have to drive through several obstacles.

Hindutva challenge

One of the biggest challenges before him is to counter the BJP’s narrative of Hindutva politics in order to make his slogan “Baees mein bicycle (The cycle – Samajwadi Party’s election symbol – will come to power in 2022)” a reality. Politics in UP has seen a major paradigm shift since 2014. The BJP has emerged as an all-encompassing Hindutva party of Dalits, OBCs and ‘upper’-caste groups.

Some analysts point out that Akhilesh has failed to provide any counter political or ideological narrative to the BJP’s muscular Hindutva ideology. Akhilesh’s challenge in countering Hindutva is difficult. His father, Mulayam Singh, was called “Mulla Mulayam” by the saffron brigade way back in 1991.

“On the one hand, Akhilesh wants to erase the ‘Muslim Party’ tag to garner support of the middle-class Hindu voter, and on the other hand, he needs all the Muslim votes to come to power. It is like walking on a tight rope,” says Hisam Siddiqui, editor of the Urdu weekly Jadeed Markaz.

Muslim vote

Muslims, who comprise 19% of the state’s population, will play a crucial role for the Samajwadi Party (SP) in the assembly elections. There is a general perception that Muslims will rally behind Akhilesh. However, there are three more contenders for the Muslim vote: the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), Congress and All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen (AIMIM).

There are rumours that Mayawati will field 100 Muslim candidates to make a dent into Muslim votes, but Shamil Shamsi, president of a Shia youth organisation Hussaini Tigers, says, “Mayawati has lost the trust of Muslims. They will vote for her tactically on those seats only where the BSP candidate is stronger than SP and Congress.”

AIMIM’s president, Asaduddin Owaisi, has declared that the party will contest 100 seats, but its performance in UP was terrible in 2017 when it got only 0.2% of the votes. Though its impact will be limited, the AIMIM may play spoilsport for the SP. Sharat Pradhan, a veteran journalist, says, “The Samajwadi Party shouldn’t underestimate Owaisi. Even 2-3% of votes can change the game.”

Also read: UP: Will Rivalry Between Two Caste-Based Parties Over the Nishad Community Benefit the BJP?

The Congress has launched a Speak Up Minority campaign, where they virtually interacted with Muslims from different walks of life. Speaking at the campaign, Shahnawaz Alam, state president of the Congress minority cell, said, “Muslims have 19% vote share in UP while Yadavs are only 7%, so Muslims are the real game changer. SP got en bloc Muslim votes but worked only for Yadavs.” He claims that this campaign will change the game of minority politics in the state. But SP spokesperson Juhie Singh says, “Congress thinks of Muslims only at the time of elections, while we are always in contact with them. Akhilesh Yadav has good relations with people of the community.”

Getting non-Yadav OBCs back in the fold

The OBCs constitute more than 40% of the state’s population. This time, the BJP is banking on them to win the majority. In the recent expansion of the Union cabinet, out of seven ministers from UP, four are non-Yadav OBCs.

Since the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, BJP has made a dent into the non-Yadav OBC votes of the SP. According to the Axis My India survey of the 2017 assembly elections, 58% of OBCs voted for the BJP while only 18% voted for the SP. However 80% of Yadavs voted for the SP. Varanasi-based socialist leader Subedar Singh says, “Netaji groomed various OBC leaders like Beni Prasad Verma, Ram Saran Das, Phoolan Devi, Raghuraj Shakya etc. across the state. Now there is no popular OBC leader in the party.”

But those close to Akhilesh say that the party has realised this fault and they are working on it. SP spokesperson Juhie Singh says, “Having identified it on the micro-level, we are communicating with those OBC communities who left us. We are also inducting them in the organisation and are trying to make alliances with local OBC parties.”

Akhilesh Yadav. Photo: Facebook/Akhilesh Yadav

Regional challenge

Western UP is also a weak link for the SP. The 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots divided Hindus and Muslims in the area. As a result, in the 2017 assembly elections, BJP bagged 78 seats in the region out of 99, while the SP had to settled for 16 seats only. The major castes and combinations that matter here are Muslims, Jats, Gujjars and Dalits. But a smaller Yadav population weakens the SP’s position.

The political scenario, however, is changing in western UP. The farmers’ movement led by the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) has brought the Jats and Muslims together in kisan panchayats, which has diluted the bitterness among the two communities. Jat farmers who voted en bloc for the BJP in recent elections are upset with the new farm laws.

These are the indications of a potential realignment of forces. The SP is in alliance with the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) and Akhilesh Yadav and Jayant Chaudhary have held several mahapanchayats in the region and are trying to revive the Jat-Muslim combination. Lucknow University assistant professor Ravikant says, “There is a lot of anger among people in the region due to the farm bills, hence most Jats will vote against BJP.”

Eastern UP

Eastern UP, comprising 102 assembly seats, is very crucial for the SP. In the 2012 assembly elections, SP performed well but in 2017, it got only 14 seats while the BJP won 77.

In UP there are 89 OBC castes, a sizeable number of which are in eastern UP. The three major caste-based parties of OBCs in UP have originated from here. Two of them, Apna Dal and the Nishad Party, are with the BJP, while the Suheldev Bhartiya Samaj Party is looking for an alliance partner.

Senior journalist Brijesh Shukla says, “The key to victory for SP in eastern UP is to get back OBC votes and for that, an alliance with smaller OBC parties is the need of the hour.”

Without the patriarch

Sidelining of the party patriarch, Mulayam, and his brother Shivpal have adversely affected the party. “Neta ji had huge popularity among backwards and Muslims. He had a great connect and was accessible to every worker, Akhilesh is yet to match those qualities,” says Subedar Singh.

Besides Mulayam, another leader who used to do heavy lifting in the SP was Shivpal Yadav. Brijesh Shukla says, “Shivpal Yadav was Mulayam’s ‘Hanuman’. He would travel across the state, meet party workers, attend even small functions. His organisational capabilities were par excellence. Akhilesh has no substitute to him.”

Also read: Ahead of Farmers’ Agitation, BJP’s UP Twitter Page Posts Cartoon ‘Warning’ Protesters

The USP of the SP has always been its street fights on public issues. That is missing now. There have been many incidents – from the Hathras rape case to the Sonbhadra firing on tribals – where Akhilesh chose to stay away. Ram Dutt Tripathi says, “While in opposition, SP always organised protests. Despite his old age, Mulayam used to lead bicycle marches against the Mayawati government.” But a close associate of Akhilesh’s says, “Akhilesh bhaiya has changed the strategy. He wants to protect his workers from the government’s vindictive designs and preserve their energy. At the time of elections we will fight with full force.”

The performance of the BSP and Congress will also impact the SP’s prospects. Professor Ravikant says, “The BJP in previous elections dented the non-Jatav Dalit votes of the BSP. If BSP fights strongly this time, it will be able to get back some of them. Similarly, there were traditional Congress voters of upper castes who voted for BJP last time. If Priyanka gets some of them back, that will again hurt the BJP.”

But there are analysts who think differently. Ram Dutt Tripathi says, “It is true if BSP fights strongly they will get back their non-Jatav Dalit votes. But if they become stronger, it may also attract Muslim votes which will help the BJP.”

The BJP, on the other hand has huge resources, well organised manpower and excellent infrastructure in the state. At every level, they are given specific tasks, which are monitored regularly by higher ups. The BJP, over the last few years, has developed faces from each caste who have a following in their respective communities, whether it is Yogi Adityanath, Keshav Maurya or Dinesh Sharma. There are more than 50 frontal organisations of the RSS which work indirectly for BJP’s victory. Besides that, BJP’s IT cell is stronger than any other political party in India.

The SP is considered to be the main challenger for the BJP. After the BJP, the SP has the biggest political network in the state. The party has a strong presence of its frontal organisations, like the Samajwadi Yuvjan Sabha, Samajwadi Chatra Sabha, Lohia Vahini and Mulayam Singh Youth Brigade. The party is also expected to get the biggest benefit of the anti-incumbency and the COVID-19 mismanagement by the government in the second wave.

Apart from this, the developmental work done by Akhilesh in his tenure gives his party an edge, Devendra Singh Dhama, a social activist in Baghpat says. “Construction of expressways, metros, creation of an IT city and then schemes like laptop distribution, kanyavidhyadhan, unemployment allowance are still remembered, while BJP on the other hand has not done even half of the work.”

SP spokesperson Juhie Singh says, “Akhilesh Yadav is a new age Samajwadi leader – he is a tech savvy, innovative, work oriented and is obsessed with infrastructure. He has brought in new concepts like gender budgeting. These are the qualities which make him the most desirable leader for the post of the chief minister.”