What Does Om Prakash Rajbhar’s Return to NDA Mean for UP Politics?

After months of speculation, Rajbhar finally returned to the BJP, where his party icon Suheldev, as a crusader against Islamic rulers, fits comfortably.

Om Prakash Rajbhar, the fickle and outspoken backward caste leader from Uttar Pradesh, has made another flip. One of the many, in his political career defined by opportunistic alliances and experiments.

On July 16, Rajbhar, who is the founder and president of the Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party (SBSP), returned to the National Democratic Alliance’s (NDA) fold more than four years after breaking ties.

His formal announcement to ally with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) put a stop to all speculation about his future alignment. For months he had been inching closer to the saffron party after breaking up with the Samajwadi Party (SP) last year following an unsuccessful attempt at dethroning UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath.

Rajbhar’s return to the NDA not only proves his importance in the caste jigsaw of the state but also provides a definite fillip to the BJP’s prospects in eastern UP in the 2024 Lok Sabha election. It is a demoralising event for the Opposition.

Om Prakash Rajbhar with Union home minister Amit Shah. Photo: Twitter/@oprajbhar

Though still a marginal player in the larger scheme of things, Rajbhar has, over the years, emerged as a vocal and visible factor in the jati-oriented (caste) struggle for representation within the OBCs in Eastern UP. His topsy-turvy career trajectory, in a way, also helps us trace the journey of the politics of ‘social justice’ of marginalised backward castes over the last three decades—from Kanshiram to Modi. These dynamics have become more pronounced under the rise and rule of the BJP, which has cunningly merged Hindutva with caste-based mobilisation to outmuscle and outmanoeuvre its opponents in four consecutive elections since 2014.

Union home minister Amit Shah announced Rajbhar’s return to the NDA two days after they met for an hour in New Delhi to discuss the modalities, which have not been revealed as of now. Speculation is rife that Rajbhar, who contested the 2019 Lok Sabha election independently as a rebel against the BJP, wants his party to contest some seats in the SBSP’s stronghold around Ghazipur-Mau. He could also return to the state cabinet led by Adityanath. 

Rajbhar is an MLA from Zahoorabad constituency in Ghazipur. In 2022, six candidates of the SBSP, including him and Abbas Ansari, the son of jailed former legislator Mukhtar Ansari, won their seats as part of the Akhilesh Yadav-led Opposition alliance.

“With the arrival of Rajbharji, the NDA will become stronger in Uttar Pradesh and the efforts of the NDA under the leadership of Modiji towards the welfare of the poor and deprived sections will gain strength,” Shah tweeted.

A few minutes later, Rajbhar too announced that the SBSP and the BJP had come together. The two parties will fight together for “social justice, national security, good governance and to empower the deprived, oppressed, backward castes, Dalits, women, farmers, youth and all weaker sections,” said Rajbhar. The word Alpsankhyak or minority (a reference to Muslims) was conspicuous by its omission.

In Lucknow, addressing a press conference, a jubilant Rajbhar hit out at the main Opposition parties, the SP and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), for failing to stitch together an alliance. He criticised them for their inability to keep with them smaller caste-based parties. “I don’t think there is any contest left in UP now,” said Rajbhar, vowing to help the NDA win all 80 Lok Sabha seats in the state.

Rajbhar’s low-key return to the BJP-led alliance, through two tweets and a self-organised press conference, stands in contrast to the huge show of strength he had put up to formalise an alliance with the BJP in 2016 and then with the SP in 2021. Rajbhar’s relevance in UP politics helps us trace the rise and downfall of the Kanshiram-model of social engineering and the compatibility of the backward caste politics with BJP’s Hindutva.

Rajbhar, who has built his own constituency through a blunt and rustic demeanour distinctive of Purvanchal, was born to a Bhar (OBC) family in Varanasi in 1962. He tried his luck at farming and drove autos and jeeps for a living before joining politics with the movement led by Dalit-Bahujan ideologue Kanshiram who had formed the Dalit Shoshit Samaj Sangarsh Samiti or DS4 in 1981.

After the BSP came into being in 1984, Rajbhar rose to be its Varanasi district president in 1996 when he also contested his first Assembly election on a BSP ticket from Kolasla seat. Rajbhar stood third but lost to the winner Ajay Rai, then BJP candidate and now an opponent of Modi in Varanasi, by less than 6,000 votes, securing a decent tally of 32,777 votes.

Rajbhar’s relationship with the BSP, however, soured after he developed differences with Mayawati, Kanshiram’s chosen mentee who would go on to succeed him as the supremo and also become chief minister. He accused Mayawati of trying to erase Rajbhars history by changing the name of Bhadohi district to Sant Ravidas Nagar and only promoting members of her own Jatav caste to the neglect of others and eventually left the BSP. The Rajbhars believe that Bhadohi, a district adjoining Varanasi known for its carpet industry, derived its name from Bhar rulers.

Following his exit from the BSP, Rajbhar joined the Apna Dal, a party founded by Kurmi (OBC) leader Sone Lal Patel, who, like him, had been an associate of Kanshiram in the BSP. Today, Sone Lal Patel’s party and family are split between the BJP and the SP. Sone Lal’s younger daughter Anupriya Patel, president of the Apna Dal (Soneylal) is a minister in the Modi council of ministers and a key BJP ally, while his elder daughter Pallavi Patel is an SP MLA from Kaushambi. Sone Lal’s widow Krishna Patel heads the Apna Dal (Kameravadi), an SP ally.

Rajbhar, who was the state president of the Apna Dal’s Yuva Morcha, quit the party in 2001 after it was decided that Sone Lal, and not him, would contest the election from Kolasla. According to a family member of Rajbhar, actress Amisha Patel was the chief guest at the event where Sone Lal’s name was declared as candidate.

Om Prakash Rajbhar. Photo: Twitter/@oprajbhar

Feeling a sense of betrayal and with unabashed electoral ambitions, Rajbhar decided to form his own party in 2002. Groomed in politics of caste icons, he named his party after Suheldev, a mythical Bhar chieftain whom the RSS-BJP have over the years actively projected as a Hindutva warrior who halted the march of Muslim ‘invader’ Ghazi Mian, a nephew of Mahmud Ghaznavi. That Suheldev’s historicity is shrouded in mystery helped Rajbhar romanticise a valorized past for his community. SBSP’s distinct yellow party flag was inspired by the colour of Suheldev’s attire. Suheldev is considered an icon by both Bhars and Pasis (Dalits).

However, Rajbhar’s often-eccentric portrayal of himself as a descendant and modern avatar of Suheldev did not mean much for the SBSP electorally. Despite contesting several elections, the party found little success. In the 2012 Assembly election, the SBSP contested 52 seats, securing over 4 lakh votes but failed to open its account. Rajbhar himself stood third. Two years later, in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, which marked a tectonic shift in state and national politics, SBSP became a part of the Ekta Manch, a front that included the Quami Ekta Dal of tainted politician Mukhtar Ansari, today designated a gangster by the Yogi government. Rajbhar contested from Salempur constituency. Though he stood fourth he received a decent 66,084 votes, almost 25,000 more than the fifth placed Congress candidate.

Rajbhar’s big moment came in June 2016 when Amit Shah, who was stitching together a rainbow of non-Yadav OBC castes to dethrone the SP in UP, attended a huge rally—Ati-pichda, Ati-Dalit Mahapanchayat—organised by the former in Mau. The SBSP formally entered into an alliance with the BJP, which was already ruling the country. Rajbhar’s relevance for the BJP can be gauged from the fact that despite winning 73 out of 80 seats in 2014 in UP, the BJP felt the need to bring on board a second ally. That too, a party that did not have a single MLA and no electoral record to boast. The relationship, as strategized, would turn out to be mutually beneficial. While the SBSP transferred its support base, mainly consisting of Rajbhars and associated castes to the BJP across Purvanchal, and underlined the political gap between Yadavs and other OBCs, it got its first electoral success in the form of four MLAs, including Rajbhar.

The BJP trounced the SP-Congress alliance to win power in Lucknow in 2017. The party with its two allies won a massive majority—325 out of 403 seats. Rajbhar was rewarded with a cabinet berth as the backward classes welfare minister. The political honeymoon period did not last long, as Rajbhar, in his bid to carve out his own political legacy as the ‘leader’ of backward castes, as opposed to the ‘loaders’ of the BJP, started confronting his own government. By loaders he referred to the OBC leaders in the BJP who toed the party line instead of speaking up openly for backward caste interests.

A major flash point was Rajbhar’s demand to implement the recommendations of a social justice committee calling for sub-categorization of the 27% OBC quota into three categories. This would benefit the most-backward castes including his own community which, as per the report, would be in the most-backward category, consisting of the acutely deprived OBC castes having limited political drawing power. Rajbhar had also demanded that the 17 most backward castes be included into the Scheduled Caste (SC) category.

Implementing the sub-categorization, which would have put the Yadavs along with the Kurmis, Jats and Gurjars in the same category and reduced their share in the quota to a mere 7 out of 27%, would have complicated the BJP’s caste calculation. The BJP’s strategy was to attract the rest of the OBCs by alienating the Yadavs, the SP’s core support base and the single largest backward caste in the state in terms of numbers and political clout. The report has been in cold storage since 2018.

Rajbhar was also disappointed after the BJP refused to cede to his demand of granting him as many Lok Sabha seats as its other ally the Apna Dal, which had two MPs, in 2019. The BJP offered him the Ghosi seat in East UP but on a BJP symbol. Snubbed and denied a ticket on his own party symbol, Rajbhar openly rebelled and intensified his rhetorical attacks against the BJP. In the 2019 election, he went as far as fielding over 40 candidates against the BJP and openly supported the Congress and SP-BSP nominees on some seats.

Despite the rebellion and his provocative remarks against the BJP – and exhorting his support to thrash workers of the saffron party if they attempted to spread any misinformation against his party – the BJP did not take any disciplinary action against him till the voting concluded. He continued to serve as a minister under Adityanath. The BJP did not want to alienate his Rajbhar support base.

Riding on the popularity of Modi, a superior strategy and contradictions between the SP and the BSP, the BJP comprehensively defeated the Mahagathbandhan. Rajbhar’s rebellion proved to be futile. On May 20, 2019, a day after the last day of polling, the axe finally fell on him. Adityanath sacked him as a cabinet minister and the BJP promptly promoted a new Rajbhar face, Anil Rajbhar, and allotted him the Backward Class Welfare Ministry.

Also read: Faced With an Opposition Coming Together, BJP Tries to Balance the Optics

Despite the dismissal, Rajbhar did not abandon hope and went on to form yet another front—Bhagidhari Sankalp Morcha, a loose group of several smaller outfits, mainly OBC, led by political leaders in the wilderness, including outfits led by former minister Babu Singh Kushwaha. Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) later became a part of the Morcha, providing it with its much-needed Muslim factor.

However, even that experiment fell apart as Rajbhar, after failing to come to a compromise with the BJP whose then state president Swatantra Dev Singh he regularly met, decided to warm up to Akhilesh Yadav. As Akhilesh Yadav was attempting to forge a large alliance of OBC castes to counter the BJP’s dominance of saffron, Rajbhar added ‘yellow’ in his rainbow of backward castes. Though exact figures are unknown in absence of a caste census, the SBSP claims that Rajbhars and affiliated castes form 18% of the vote share in East UP and can impact 126 Assembly units in different degrees.

Learning from the BJP, Akhilesh Yadav, the main challenger to Adityanath in 2022, formed an alliance with the SBSP. Rajbhar was also promoted as the conductor of this “Pichdo ka Inquilab” (revolution of the backward) to throw out the BJP from power. In October 2021, on the 19th foundation day of the SBSP, Akhilesh and Rajbhar formalised their alliance in Mau with a massive show of strength dubbed the Vanchit, Pichda, Dalit, Alpsankhyak, Bhagidhari Mahapanchayat, a call to unite OBC, Dalit and Muslim voters and elect the Yadav scion as chief minister again. During this period, Rajbhar even made some unsavoury comments against the BJP top leadership as he targeted upper castes.

The SBSP contested 19 seats and won six, two more than it did in 2017. However, the SP-led alliance, despite an improved performance, could not dethrone a dominant BJP. With the BJP’s return to power, the SBSP’s relationship also started to sour, with Rajbhar publicly questioning Akhilesh’s leadership skills and capacity to work hard by virtue of him being a dynast.

And after months of speculation, Rajbhar finally returned to the BJP, where his party icon Suheldev, as a crusader against Islamic rulers, fits comfortably. Rajbhar’s support is bound to increase the challenges for the SP, which had fared decently well in parts of East UP in 2022. The BJP, on the other hand, though aware that Rajbhar is a risky bargain and akin to unpredictable shifts, has displayed a pragmatic approach by welcoming him back. 

Its Rajbhar face Anil Rajbhar lacks the charisma and support base of Om Prakash Rajbhar. With other senior Rajbhar leaders, former BSP state president Ram Achal Rajbhar and the son of former UP Assembly speaker Sukhdeo Rajbhar, aligning with the SP, the BJP must have felt a vacuum within that space. With the return of Rajbhar, the BJP gains a vocal OBC face with a record of anti-Yadav politics. This also keeps its other two allies, the Apna Dal (Soneylal) and the Nishad Party, in check, as it tries to build a water-tight formula for 2024.

What Rajbhar gains this time as part of the deal is a question that still lingers. Will he finally secure a ticket to successfully contest the Lok Sabha election and enter Parliament?