The resignation of four ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) legislators from Uttar Pradesh along with Labor Minister Swami Prasad Maurya ahead of the crucial state assembly elections next month has threatened the BJP’s well-crafted plans for a second term in power. What has boosted the opposition’s spirits is that the legislators have joined the Samajwadi Party (SP), the BJP’s principal challenger in the state.
The SP ranks are likely to swell in the coming weeks with more disgruntled BJP legislators slated to join the party, depleting the seemingly invincible government of Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath.
The BJP has been exhorting voters in Uttar Pradesh, to bring back to power its “double engine” government, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the center and Adityanath in the state, thus paving the way for a BJP victory in the 2024 general election. The party’s election campaign was in fact kicked off by the prime minister from Varanasi, a temple town that is his parliamentary constituency, by inaugurating the Kashi Vishwanath temple corridor.
Hindus comprise 80 percent of Uttar Pradesh’s population while minorities, of which the Muslims are a significant section, comprise 19 percent.
With a clear thrust on Hindutva (Hindu nationalism), the BJP seemed confident of trouncing the opposition. That seems to be changing.
Exuding confidence, SP chief and former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav pointed out that in the 2017 assembly election in Uttar Pradesh, the BJP’s tally rose from 47 to 312 seats. The SP now has 47 seats in the 403-seat Uttar Pradesh assembly. “We will reach 400” in the upcoming election, he said. In the 2017 polls, the then-ruling SP had allied with the Congress, an alliance which Yadav described in hindsight as “a mistake.”
Yadav has astutely shifted the focus of the elections from religious polarization to “social engineering,” bringing the caste factor into play in the election.
Caste continues to be a major factor in determining election results in Uttar Pradesh. So while the BJP enjoys the support of the upper/forward castes like the Brahmins and Thakurs, the SP is stitching up electoral alliances with parties representing backward caste groups. Yadav has redefined the electoral contest as a forward versus backward castes fight.
Interestingly, the BJP legislators who defected to the SP belong to the Other Backward Classes (OBCs.) Maurya said that his defection to the SP was prompted by the Adityananth government’s “gross neglect” of Dalits, backward castes, farmers, unemployed youth, and small traders.
Yadav has been targeting the Adityanath government for its poor governance, especially mismanagement of the pandemic. He has promised 300 units of free electricity to households and free laptop for students, if the SP is voted to power.
The huge turnout at Yadav’s election rallies is testimony to the SP’s growing popularity. Despite being the lone campaigner for his party (his father Mulayam Singh Yadav is no longer active in politics), Yadav junior has earned the respect and support of senior opposition leaders.
What also appears to be working to the benefit of the SP is the support from the farmer community in western Uttar Pradesh. The impact of the yearlong kisaan andolan (the farmer protests against the Modi government’s controversial farm laws) has resulted in farmers, who are mainly from the Jat community, turning away from the BJP.
Although Modi did subsequently repeal the farm laws, farmers perceive the BJP as pro-corporate and anti-farmer. The agrarian community has traditionally voted for the Rashtriya Lok Dal, and the SP has sealed an electoral pact with this party.
“What has also made a difference in this region is that the communal polarization the BJP had instigated, which resulting in Hindu-Muslim riots in Muzaffarnagar in 2013, has weakened,” a seasoned political observer told The Diplomat. The electoral benefit the BJP reaped in previous elections is “unlikely now” as Hindu and Muslim farmers are “rallying behind the SP-RLD alliance.”
Significantly, SP’s “social engineering” has also helped the party. The party, which is known as a bastion of the Yadav community, is attracting other community groups and voters. SP’s alliances have helped consolidate the anti-BJP vote to such an extent that it could obliterate SP’s track record of lawlessness. Even a section of Dalits are gravitating towards the SP, since the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) is not a strong contender in these elections.
The intensely communal campaign that the BJP has unleashed this time – Adityanath described the elections as a “a fight of 80 versus 20,” a reference to the proportion of Hindus and Muslims in the state – has deeply angered the Muslim community.
“Muslims are hurt and insulted, but we are not going to retaliate. Humein sabr se kaam lena hai. We will act patiently. We will reply through our votes,” Rizwaan Akhtar, a 47-year-old saree shop owner in Varanasi, told The Diplomat.
Pointing to the “nafrat ka mahual” (hate-filled climate) that the BJP is fostering, Akhtar said this will ruin the country.
“Hindus and Muslims in Varanasi (also known as Benares) are woven together like the tana-bana (warp and weft) of our Benarasi sarees.” Describing the saree as a symbol of the city’s syncretic culture, Akhtar said that while the weavers are mostly Muslims, the traders are largely Hindus. Muslims are “deeply disappointed” with Modi not even condemning the religious gathering at Haridwar where Hindutva leaders openly called for genocide of Muslims. “It is apparent that the BJP has nothing to show by way of achievements; hence, the attempt to communalize the elections,” said Akhtar.
In the past Muslim votes went to the SP and the Congress. This time around Muslims are likely to throw their entire weight behind a party that can decisively defeat the BJP. This would be the SP rather than the Congress or BSP.
In eastern Uttar Pradesh, religious polarization was expected to benefit the BJP. However, anti-incumbency sentiment is putting those assumptions into question. The BJP’s hopes of a massive Hindu consolidation with both upper and backward castes flocking under its umbrella, could just remain a pipedream.
While the Congress’ Priyanka Gandhi has tried to resurrect the sinking fortunes of the party by wooing women voters, a constituency that has largely been ignored by all other parties, it is unlikely to bring electoral success for the party. A series of defections and a feeble organizational strength on the ground has consigned the Congress to the role of a “spoiler” of votes.
The BSP has kept a low profile in these elections. Its chief and former chief minister Mayawati is being probed for corruption by central government agencies, which has ostensibly put her on the backfoot. (The ruling BJP is infamous for using central agencies to keep its opponents in check.) The Dalits, who are largely BSP supporters, are furious with the Adityanath government and its failure to act against heinous crimes against Dalits, especially in the Hathras rape case where a Dalit girl was gang-raped by upper caste men.
With Mayawati out of the reckoning in the elections, a large section of Dalits are likely to vote for a party that can win to teach the BJP a lesson.
Sensing that things are not going its way, the BJP has lately attempted to win sympathy of voters by alleging a “security threat” to the Prime Minister’s life, when his motorcade was stopped for 20 minutes on a flyover in Punjab.
Should the SP and its allies manage to stop the BJP in its tracks on March 10, when the Uttar Pradesh elections results are declared, it will put the wind into the sails of India’s splintered opposition, which is desperately trying to unseat Modi in his bid for a third term in 2024.