On May 2, when the present slew of state elections is done with, it is time for political parties to brace up for the mother of all poll battles in Uttar Pradesh. Uttar Pradesh votes in February-March 2022. The Opposition has its task cut out because of the pre-eminent position that the BJP occupies. In the 403-member legislature, the BJP has 310 members, while the other parties were reduced to a rump in the 2017 polls.
Even in a scenario where the ruling party is predominant, past precedents show the Opposition has staged a comeback in a succeeding election. The prime example is the BJP. It was down to just two seats in the 1984 Lok Sabha elections but increased its tally exponentially to 85 in 1989 when it rode on the Ayodhya “wave”.
In a politically combustible state like UP whose voters never tire of politics, the last four years surprisingly saw a laid-back Opposition, reluctant to come out on the streets and protest, unable to corner the treasury benches in the Assembly and seize the issues of the day to hold the government accountable. The Opposition made no effort to form a joint front and agitate on popular issues of which there was no dearth.
Little less than a year before the next verdict is pronounced, there are signs that the non-BJP spectrum might have stirred out of lassitude. The Samajwadi Party (SP) and the RLD (Rashtriya Lok Dal) have tied up to use the farmers’ protests in west UP as a launch pad. The Congress reached out to the Bhim Army, a nascent outfit of the Dalits, to try and undermine the Bahujan Samaj Party’s (BSP) Scheduled Caste base while the Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party (SBSP), an erstwhile BJP ally, broke away from the NDA to join forces with Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen (AIMIM) and forge a backward caste-Muslim coalition. How do the odds stack up for the Opposition on a larger canvas that portends a BJP comeback given the shambolic state of the non-BJP spectrum?
The Samajwadi Party
The SP’s founder, Mulayam Singh Yadav, was not one to call it a day when he was down-and-out. When Mulayam was voted out by the BJP in the 1991 elections, he was out on the streets within months, undeterred by the fact that the BJP had knitted together most Hindus in UP’s first decisive pro-Hindutva mandate. He tapped the incipient manifestation of restlessness among the farmers and the OBCs, broke away from the Samajwadi Janata Party, floated the SP and aligned with the BSP before a mid-term poll in 1993. Mulayam’s political reflexes were quick and generally unerring.
In contrast, his scion, Akhilesh Yadav, who heads the SP, never ostensibly recovered from the serial electoral drubbings he got in 2014, 2017 and 2019. The SP’s organisation, its asset, came apart before the last Lok Sabha polls. Shivpal Singh Yadav, Mulayam’s younger brother, was the organisation’s backbone. Like a quintessential dynast, Akhilesh worked with a team of young activists who he cherry-picked and nurtured, and ignored his father’s peers and associates. Shivpal quit and formed his own party that irreparably damaged the SP in its strongholds in west-central UP. Shivpal has ambitions for his young son, Aditya, and realised that with a 47-year-old Akhilesh at the SP’s helm, it would take years for Aditya to reach parity.
Where Mulayam expanded the SP’s core base beyond the Yadavs and Muslims and made it a hold-all backward caste entity in the post-Mandal phase, in his tenure as the CM from 2012 to 2017, Akhilesh was perceived as being overly pro-Yadav and ignoring castes such as the Kurmi, Maurya, Shakya, Nishad/Mallah, Kumhar and Prajapati that Mulayam had welded together by promoting caste leaders (Phoolan Devi, a Mallah, was an example) and raising initiatives for them when he was the CM. As the SP’s caste coalition unravelled, the BJP, keen to transcend its image as a “Brahmin-Bania” party, stepped in, reached out to caste influencers, resurrected and projected caste icons from myths and legends, and augmented its vote banks. The BJP’s upper caste-OBC alliance seems unbreachable.
Akhilesh has a two-pronged approach. He and Jayant Chaudhary, the RLD vice-president, reunited to bring the Jats and OBCs together in west UP and revive Chaudhary Charan Singh’s MAJGAR (Muslim-Ahir-Jat-Gujjar-Rajput) axis, minus the Rajputs who are firmly with Yogi Adityanath. Akhilesh’s region-specific quest for allies took him to the door of the Mahan Dal (that represents the Mauryas), the Rashtriya Uday Party (of Gadariyas or shepherds), the Rashtria Apekshit Samaj Party (Prajapatis or potters) and Bharat Mata Party (of the Mallahs or fisherfolk) because he realised that the old Yadav-Muslim linkage was flawed and deficient.
When the binary is cast as Hindu-Muslim, an open identification with Muslims is perilous for a party, say SP insiders. That was why the SP never came upfront even when Azam Khan, its most prominent Muslim leader, was slapped with cases and arrested with his wife and son. Now, under duress from its Muslim representatives, the SP defended Khan whose vast properties in Rampur were attached by the state government. However, it will take more than peasant tourism and handshakes with caste leaders for the SP to recast itself as a pan-UP party. SP sources stressed Akhilesh will have to make up with Shivpal to fill the vacuum.
The Bahujan Samaj Party
For Mayawati, the BSP president, staging street protests is a no-no. In the recent past, she was preoccupied with settling and unsettling the BSP’s internal caste equations by shuffling around its 10 Lok Sabha MPs and the UP office-bearers. In the 17th Lok Sabha, Mayawati replaced the BSP’s parliamentary party leader five times, depending on who suited her: a Muslim, a Dalit or a Brahmin. As the Brahmin-Rajput fault lines surfaced in the Yogi Adityanath regime, Satish Mishra, Mayawati’s political adviser and Rajya Sabha MP, advised her to recycle the pro-Brahmin strategy that paid off for the BSP in the 2007 elections. Mayawati is busy disentangling herself from the corruption charges she and her family are embroiled in. Her perceived proximity to the BJP—she never attacked the Centre or the UP dispensation—fuelled the speculation that she might consider some “kind of understanding” with the party in the Assembly elections though given the pinnacle on which the BJP stands, such a suggestion was rejected by insiders. The BSP is on a sticky wicket.
Ironically, for a party that was in the cold since 1989, the Congress was the most visible on the ground, thanks to UP party president, Ajay Kumar Lallu. Lallu, a street fighter, was the only politician to court arrest when the UP government did not allow buses ferrying migrants from Rajasthan to cross the border during the 2020 lockdown. Political observers asked if Lallu could confront the Adityanath regime, why were Mayawati and Akhilesh such shrinking violets? Lallu is the first OBC politician to helm the UP Congress but he has no support from the party where entrenched leaders like Pramod Tiwari, RPN Singh and Jitin Prasada control the networks of patronage. Just when Priyanka Gandhi tried to play the OBC card for the first time, Prasada went on a “Brahmin Chetna Samvad” to protest the “victimisation” of the Brahmins and muddled the attempt. The Congress is caught between two stools. Added to that is the feeling that Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra are not invested to the extent they were expected to in UP. Priyanka was supposed to set up residence in Lucknow but there’s no sign of that.
UP always had space for other “fronts”. Here is where Om Prakash Rajbhar’s “Bhagidari Sankalp Morcha”, a tentative alliance of eight parties wedded to identity politics, acquires significance. It encompasses the neglected, excluded and undocumented backward castes and Dalits. The AIMIM is the newest entrant to this block that is purportedly inspired by the BSP’s architect, Kanshi Ram.
If the Rajbhar front fructifies as a player, it will hurt the other parties that make a play for the same votes, including the BJP.
Radhika Ramaseshan is a senior journalist. She was the political editor at The Telegraph. Views expressed are personal.