Battleground Uttar Pradesh

A litmus test for BJP

Despite various surveys predicting easy win for BJP,  ground realities indicate UP will be far from a smooth sailing for the saffron party, reports Mudit Mathur

Amid apparent cracks surfaced after desertion of three prominent OBC ministers and 11 MLAs and pre-poll forecasts predicting comfortable victory for BJP–the much-hyped overconfidence of BJP stalwarts of winning with thumping majority over 300 seats seems to be a distant dream in the Uttar Pradesh. With no apparent sympathy or nationalism wave visible this time, unlike 2019 Lok Sabha elections focusing retaliatory Balakot airstrikes, the UP has turned out to be a biggest testing ground for the future discourse of Hindutva aggression with a larger outreach of BJP––through brand Modi––Yogi––versus forces of social justice struggling for their overall development and empowerment in the social, political and administrative setups.

No doubt that UP is heading for a bipolar contest by a large between Samajwadi Party alliance and ruling BJP alliance but Congress Party is also expected to do better and the silent strategy of BSP supremo Mayawati cannot be overlooked as she is betting on Dalit-Muslim-Brahmin combination by giving tickets to Muslims and Upper castes candidates besides her Dalit supporters. Aam Aadmi Party (Aap) has knocked its inception presence in some pockets but its influence area is almost negligible.

The people’s perception is fast changing about BJP which has lost its image of invincibility after West Bengal debacle and in UP it is carrying a heavy burden of anti-incumbency coupled with amaranthine subconscious memories of unimaginable atrocities inflicted upon weaker sections and farmers’ distress on various counts including their inhuman massacre in Lakhimpur Kheri during yearlong agitation over three farm laws which saw more than 700 deaths of farmers. Mishandling of farmers agitation also multiplied challenges before BJP to regain power of politically most crucial state that determine political route to power in the Centre which is due in 2024.

The efforts of Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi to transform political dynamics of caste-based polity with setting forth developmental agenda ensuring political accountability of its elected representatives–through her awareness and empowerment campaign for women–”Ladki Hoon––Lad Sakti Hoon,” (I am a girl––I can fight), which had taken a buck after she conceded possibilities of a post poll alliance with compatible non-BJP partners during her recent media interaction. Her efforts were aimed at consolidation of non-BJP votes through her outspokenness with a clear heart and mindset. The base of Congress Party ruined in the state ever since politics of caste and religion begun in late eighties to counter each other.

The rallies of Congress Party pitching its development agenda in Varanasi, Gorakhpur, Moradabad saw tremendous turnouts of people rising hopes for the revival of grand old party, but Covid-19 restrictions compelled it to go on backfoot.  Its seven to eight ‘Ladki Hoon––Lad Sakti Hoon’ marathon scheduled in Noida, Varanasi and other districts of the state were postponed which caused depressing effect on its cadre and steamed out the momentum of its escalating campaign promoting new casteless polity.

Thus, big picture is precisely visible with the battlelines clearly drawn between the forces of Kamandal (Hindutva-Temple) and Mandal (caste consolidation for social justice and empowerment). Though all the surveys have reflected comfortable return of BJP but ground realities do not inspire such a big confidence in view of a palpable antagonism in the state for a range of issues such as growing unemployment, unprecedented price rise, mishandling of the pandemic, agrarian crisis, and for allegedly encouraging caste discrimination in the state. The menace of stray cattle causing havoc for the farmers ruining their crops and giving them sleepless nights throughout the state.

The breakdown of crisis management mechanism during second surge Covid 19 that witnessed unaccounted unfortunate deaths of people for want of proper treatment and lack oxygen availability reflected sheer incompetence of administration and poor availability of supportive intensive care infrastructure compounded their miseries. The decayed dead bodies floating in the river Ganga left horrible inerasable memories in the public minds.

The atrocities on the weaker section and disillusionment of upper caste Brahmins due to discriminate treatment they meted out in Yogi rule. In this backdrop, such prepoll hype through surveys could not found to be based on objective assessment to predict real outcome. We have earlier witnessed such hype favouring BJP in the West Bengal assembly elections that ultimately not proved to be trust worthy mainly due to small sample size and manoeuvred projections.

Though the BJP is downplaying the recent exodus of backward caste leaders from the BJP camp, but on the grounds, it has practically reflected the deep sense of disgruntlement prevailing in its masses. The OBC leaders who walked out from BJP blamed chief minister Yogi Adityanath for deceiving them by allowing recruitment of general category people against allocated OBC quota without adhering to prescribe rules––a charge they substantiate citing the enquiry report of Backward Class Commission (a constitutional body created to safeguard the interests of the backward community). This perception deeply went down among backward castes that turned out to be a strong narrative of injustice among unemployed job aspirants in the poll plank of Samajwadi alliance campaigning.

Union home minister Amit Shah conducted door-to-door campaign in Kairana and also met several families, who allegedly, earlier had to leave the town due to threats from local criminals for extortion of money. “The families me that they no longer live in fear as after the BJP formed government in Uttar Pradesh, law and order situation has improved in the state,” Shah told media while campaigning for Mriganka Singh as its candidate from Kairana.

“They are doing their business peacefully. I want to tell people that we are committed to maintaining law and order situation in UP, end appeasement and tradition of governments working for a particular caste. Everyone is saying that in the forthcoming Uttar Pradesh assembly polls, “BJP 300 paar (BJP will win over 300 seats),” Shah added.

The way Amit Shah tried to reignite passions of the people in his door-to-door campaign in Kairana clearly depicts his old tactics of communal polarisation. It will be interesting to watch how his attempt works out this time after the reunion of Jat and Muslims who fought together on the same platform under the umbrella of Bharatiya Kisan Union against three farm laws enacted and repealed by prime minister Narendra Modi after more than 700 farmers sacrificed their lives for the cause.

In 2017 the BJP stalwart Amit Shah went for unique social engineering experiment to intermix the support of different castes to calibrate them with the polity of Hindutva by alienating them from SP and BSP. He promised them a better deal in BJP in terms of better representation in power structure and their social upliftment with a slogan of ‘Sabka Saath––Sabka Vikas’ (Cooperation of all––development of all). It was systemically designed to fragment sizeable segment of the non-Jatav Dalit voters from the BSP. Similarly, when addressing the Backward Caste electorate, the BJP has strategised to lure away the non-Yadav Backward Castes.

The shrewd political exercise dismantled Dalit consolidation under the BSP as it fielded 65 tickets to non-Jatav Dalit community in the 87 reserved constituencies and its 68 candidates won seats. Out of around 25% Dalit votes in UP, non-Jatavs make around 14% vote share. BJP had formulated a clear strategy to target leftover Dalits and Backwards Castes. ‎The target area for the BJP among Dalits was to placard the support from the Pasi, Kori, Dhobi and Khatik castes. These three castes together have got 39 tickets. The party has also given representation to around 11 other non-Jatav Dalit castes in ticket distribution.

Similarly in 2017, out of around 25% strong Backward Caste population, the BJP targeted the approximately 15% non-Yadav segment. It comes as no surprise then that BJP and its allies together have given tickets to 134 Backward Caste candidates, of whom only nine were Yadavs and six of them won the election from BJP ticket. Among the Backward Castes, the BJP lured major non-Yadav castes like Maurya, Kurmi, Lodh and Jats. With 29 tickets going to Kurmi candidates and 24 to Mauryas (including Kushwaha, Shakya and Saini), 20 tickets have been given to candidates from Lodh community and 15 to Jats.

Political analysts revealed the backroom strategy of Amit Shah which brought BJP back to power in 2017 with thumping majority over 317 seats after political exile of 14 years. “Out of UP’s electorate, there are 10% Yadavs, 11% Jatav‎s and 17% Muslim votes. This 38% of vote share is more or less out of the reach for the BJP. Hence Party mobilized support from ‎upper castes, non-Jatav Dalits and non-Yadav Backwards Castes. With an estimated 25% upper caste population, this together makes around‎ 55% of the voters that BJP targeted to woo.

A political researcher who conducted caste study in Uttar Pradesh pointed out, “For the party traditionally dominated and supported by upper castes, accommodating so many Backward Caste candidates was not an easy exercise. Despite this, 184 tickets have gone to candidates from upper castes. Party fielded 66 Brahmins faces and 42 of them recorded victory, similarly out of 67 Rajputs 60 won and 17 out of 28 won election from the Vaishya community.”

The consolidation of non-Jatav Dalits and Backward Caste came under BJP roof crossed its anticipated 30% vote share to new heights of 39.7 percent. Their collective efforts raised 317 seats with 39.7 percent vote share in 2017 elections whereas it secured merely 15 percent vote share in 2012 scoring just 47 seats. BJP allies Anupriya Patel led Apna Dal secured 9 seats while Om Prakash Rajbhar led Suheldev Bhartiya Samaj Party won 4 seats enhancing its tally to 317.

Besides caste chemistry BJP promised good governance promising no corruption and no rule of goons with zero tolerance for the crimes and criminals. It also made dividends from Muzaffarnagar riots and alleged exudes of Hindus from Kairana in western UP and scored 109 seats out of total of 136. Now part of Kurmi community led by Anupriya Patel and a section of Nishad under influence of Sanjay Nishad left in BJP alliance signifying erosion of caste chemistry forged in the last elections by Amit Shah.

Former minister in BJP and BSP governments, Swami Prasad Maurya, a five-time MLA, is an influential OBC leader had joined Samajwadi Party with his supporters and MLAs. His clout among the voters of his community was evident from the fact that he had a considerable support base not only in the eastern UP but also in some other districts including Raebareli, Budaun and Shahjahanpur. His importance was recognised even by prime minister Narendra Modi who recently shared dais with him while inaugurating Kushinagar International Airport. Just few days later this heavyweight OBC leader Maurya stunned BJP leadership resigning from Yogi Adityanath cabinet expressing deep disillusionment of the masses over its misgovernance neglecting the issues concerning Dalits, Backwards, farmers, unemployed youths, traders (MSME Sector) and above all undermining constitution of India.

In a shrewd move seen as damage control exercise, the BJP poached Congress star campaigner and former minister RPN Singh who is likely to challenge Swami Prasad Maurya in his bastion Kushinagar. The firebrand Congress MLA Aditi Singh from Raebareli had cross voted against the party whip in Rajya Sabha elections and her utterances against the party favouring CM Yogi were foreseen as her defection to saffron camp. Congress MLA from Harchandpur Rakesh Pratap Singh also joined BJP. So, BJP gave jolt to Congress president Sonia Gandhi as both the MLAs come from her bastion. The step daughter-in-law of Samajwadi patriarch Mulayam Singh Yadav, Aparna Yadav joined BJP causing major embarrassment to Samajwadi family but she had no political following in the masses. As SP nominee from Lucknow Cantt assembly seat, she lost election to Rita Bahuguna Joshi of BJP.

The Bahujan Samaj Party also witnessed heavy loss in the process. 19 MLAs won last election on its ticket out of which only three––Shyam Sunder Sharma, Umashankar Singh and Azad Arimardan remained faithful to Mayawati and 16 have deserted her by now. The Samajwadi Party emerged as major gainer as 13 BSP MLAs found shelter under its umbrella and other three joined BJP including most prominent Brahmin face Ramveer Upadhyay, Vandana Singh and Anil Singh. Its Muslim face Naseemuddin Siddiqui was ousted by the party and joined Congress Party.

The BSP list announced by party president Mayawati contains candidates for seats in Saharanpur, Bijnor, Moradabad, Sambhal, Rampur, Amroha, Badaun, Bareilly and Shahjahanpur districts. The BSP has so far declared 109 of 113 candidates for the first two phases. Mayawati has given ticket to 41 Muslims (37.6%), 28 OBC (25.6%), 18 SCs (16.51), 12 Brahmins (11%) and nine others including Thakurs, Bania, etc. Minority community dominate both the lists declared so far whereas the number of Brahmin candidates stands out to be just a dozen.

The loss of BSP, BJP and Congress is natural gain for the Samajwadi Party in the Uttar Pradesh where considerable presence of Rajbhar, Kushwaha, Kurmis and Maurya communities in eastern part and Saini-Jats in western parts with its alliance with Jayant Chaudhri of Rashtriya Lok Dal further strengthened hands of Akhilesh Yadav with consolidation of OBC vote base where RLD is contesting on 19 seats in the National Capital Region with its strong presence.

One of the tallest and strongarm ‘Brahmin’ leaders in ‘Purvanchal’ (eastern region) Pandit Hari Shankar Tewari, a six term MLA from Chillupar seat in Gorakhpur also joined Samajwadi Party with his two sons, one of whom was a BSP MLA Vinay Shankar Tiwari and another a former MP Kushal Tiwari. Another BJP MLA from Khalilabad assembly seat, Digvijay Narayan Chaube, had also joined the SP along with several other prominent Brahmin faces from the eastern region of the state. The emergence of Yogi Adityanath in BJP as its poster boy of Hindutva and his cacophony with Brahmin leaders of area is not a hidden secret and this rift reflected many times in the elections in the past.

The invasion of so many senior Brahmin leaders into the SP caused unease within the saffron party. AICC secretary Imran Masood had quit Congress Party and supported Samajwadi Party. Congress nominee from Bareilly Cantt Supriya Aron deserted the party at the last moment for greener postures and joined Samajwadi Party. Now she has become SP nominee.

Akhilesh Yadav is lucky enough to have mustered the support from Dalit communities as most of the trusted lieutenants of BSP have joined hands with him. These leaders once had close ties with the BSP founder Kanshi Ram but Mayawati was humiliating and illtreating them with her monarchic style of functioning monopolising party functioning, allegedly, for personal gains which were against the principles of the mission led by their mentor Manyawar Kanshi Ram. These leaders include Daddu Prasad, Indrajit Saroj, Lalji Verma, Ram Achal Rajbhar, Sushma Patel and many others who had worked with grassroots workers of BSP.

The Uttar Pradesh is going to witness resembling realignment of social dynamics challenging polity of aggressive Hindutva of BJP by forging larger identical combination of OBC-Dalit and Muslim combination as conceived by Samajwadi patriarch Mulayam Singh Yadav with BSP founder Manyawar Kanshi Ram in 1993 defeating power equations of saffron brigade.