The Uttar Pradesh elections will in good measure determine which way the wind is blowing in Lok Sabha 2024.
Another victory for the BJP is likely to make it a favourite to come to power yet again — even if things can change very quickly in politics — and an upset in UP is likely to set the alarm bells ringing in the party, the past pattern of sharp breaks between state and Lok Sabha polls notwithstanding.
As of now, with Mayawati seemingly a depleted force and the Congress virtually non-existent in the state, Samajwadi Party is the only political party in the state that can jolt the BJP.
But the task is an uphill one.
For, the BJP is sitting on a formidable vote combine for the last seven years. It has had the upper castes — at least 20 percent of the population — firmly with it and has added an array of OBC castes, barring the Yadavs, to its fold.
In UP, OBCs outnumber the upper castes as well as the Dalits but are very heterogeneous.
While the BJP has made inroads only among a section of Dalits, the larger section — the Jatavs, who constitute more than half of the Dalit population — goes not to challenger SP but to a weakened BSP, thus not impacting election results.
The BJP has the advantage of a larger Hindu convergence in its favour, with only Muslims, Yadavs, Jatavs and, perhaps after the farm agitation, Jats against it.
While the upper castes are its traditional supporters around Hindutva as an idea, it has enrolled OBCs disillusioned with the SP for years now into its fold.
As per CSDS-Lokniti, the BJP’s national vote share among the most backward castes has gone up from 24 percent to 42 percent under Modi, himself an OBC, and its vote share among Dalits has gone up from 24 percent to 34 percent between 2014 and 2019.
In UP, the equation is simple: the BJP offers lower OBCs who for some years now see Mandal politics of the SP as a euphemism for Yadav-dominated politics more representation and, in return, gets their vote and support for Hindutva.
The BJP has made recent symbolic gestures to the OBCs, who are the determining factor of election results in UP.
Just two days back, the Centre extended OBC reservations to the All-India Quota (AIQ) seats in state medical colleges. The AIQ constitutes 15-percent of undergraduate seats and 50 percent of post-graduate seats in medical and dental colleges under state governments.
Since 2007, there was an OBC quota in central medical colleges but it had not been implemented in AIQ in state medical colleges.
Earlier, during the expansion of the Union Council of Ministers, it was widely reported that over 50-percent of the new ministers came from the ‘lower OBC groups’ and most marginalised Dalit communities.
There is also evidence that work may be on to specifically address the ‘lower OBCs’. It was reported in the media in February that the Justice Rohini commission to look into sub-division of the OBCs was set to consult states on a purported proposal to split the central OBC quota into four sub-quotas of 2, 6, 9 and 10 percent, respectively.
However, the Commission, set up in 2017, has been going slow, as the matter is politically very sensitive.
Amid these gestures to the OBCs, particularly to those sections among them who have tilted towards the BJP, the Centre also introduced the EWS quota to keep large sections of the upper castes — its original base — in good humour.
The BJP’s prospects
Despite a devastating second wave of the coronavirus pandemic in UP, many believe that but for a serious third wave, the election will veer around more towards identity politics than towards health or employment.
Why this is so is a tough question, but conversations with many supporters of the BJP suggest that they see the problems as natural or ‘God-given’ and believe that the Modi government was just unlucky to be in power when the pandemic struck. In fact, the pandemic also seems to have taken the blame for the beginning of the economic decline that preceded it and offered some kind of a popular explanation for the hardship in popular perception.
Many believe that, as of now, the pandemic is not the issue.
The issue is identity, woven in two complementary ways. One, there is an overarching Hindu identity — the construction of the Ram temple at Ayodhya ensures that it stays powerful – and the other is individual caste interests, largely of marginalised OBC and, in some cases, Dalit identities, which reconcile themselves with, rather than rebelling against, the Hindu umbrella.
The SP’s best bet
Many supporters of the Samajwadi Party believe that it did not hit the streets hard enough during either the Hathras gang-rape case or the second wave. Akhilesh Yadav was seen to be lacking the gumption to take on the Adityanath government in a major way. The main resistance came from west UP farmers, largely Jat.
However, with elections just months away, Yadav is now beginning to become more active. The SP is trying to address the present identity politics in two ways: one, trying to reach out to lower OBCs and, the other, trying to make some noises to split a small section of Brahmins from the BJP.
“We know that Brahmins are still by and large with the BJP, despite their unease with Yogi Adityanath. Our best bet will be to ensure that we can split a section of non-Yadav OBCs from the BJP,” said an SP insider on condition of anonymity.
The SP’s options are limited but certainly more widespread than those of the BSP or the Congress. In alliance with the RLD — a Jat and farmer-heavy party — in west UP, the SP can potentially do well, particularly if it can also strike some arrangement with Chandrashekhar Azad Ravana to eat into some of the BSP’s votes. It may also look at offering larger representation to the lower OBCs and Brahmins, but will have to look at doing this in such a manner that the core constituency of Yadavs and Muslims stays firmly on board.
The SP has Yadavs and Muslims — together 27-28 percent of the vote in the state, though not evenly distributed — with it. What it needs is what is called a plus-vote. Here, Jat votes in an alliance with the RLD in west UP can help.
It can also try to get votes of smaller OBC castes through fielding them or through alignments with their small parties — something Yadav is looking at. Any vote split from the BJP from these sections can be a shot in the arm for the SP.
However, this isn’t easy for three reasons. One, the BJP has them firmly in its grip till now because it gave them greater representation when they were feeling left out of a Yadav-heavy SP. Two, the SP does not have the advantage of being in power and, thus, can’t deliberately tweak policy to offer them greater representation. Three, the BJP always has surplus seats to offer these castes as, unlike SP, it need not field a single Muslim.
Both the SP and the BSP have made gestures towards Brahmins, about 10 percent of the state’s population, to wean them away from the BJP. The outreach includes SP’s Brahmin-outreach initiative celebrating Parshuram and the BSP’s call for a Brahmin convention at Ayodhya — apart from Mayawati’s promise to speed up the Ram temple there — to reach out to the influential community. The reason for the outreach is the perception that Brahmins have not taken kindly to a Thakur CM in Adityanath calling the shots and ‘promoting’ Thakurs. Much was said about the latent Brahmin-Thakur rift under Adityanath after the encounter killing of gangster Vikas Dubey last year.
However, as things seem now, Brahmins are largely with the BJP. There are two possible reasons for this. One, the investment of the caste in Hindutva is too deep to be easily shaken off. Two, they feel that despite their unease with Adityanath, their social status remains better under a BJP government than under Dalit or backward-led parties that have emerged out of some kind of a challenge to upper caste primacy and hegemony in society. And there is the added reassurance that the BJP’s fountainhead, the RSS, has a thick Brahmin presence in its top echelons.
The Brahmins may not be the best bet for the SP and the BSP, even if they can be one of the groups that are sought to be reached out to. Their previous tryst with the BSP in 2007 came in times when the BJP was weak and their original party, the Congress, all but dead: they joined the BSP from a position of symbolic political weakness. Now, the SP and BSP are reaching out to them from a position of weakness — something that may not have the same impact as 10 years back.
BSP and Congress
While the BSP retains its Jatav vote (11 percent of the population) till now, it retains little traction across castes. And other sections of Dalits have shifted to the BJP to an extent. Mindful of her diminished base and also of the larger Hindu shift in society, Mayawati is making concessions to Hindutva by making noises in favour of the quick construction of a Ram temple at Ayodhya. This is unlikely to help her. While she is apparently just responding to the changed mass pulse, as any politician does, the response hits her core politics. And this soft Hindutva outreach will also deny her Muslim votes, which will most likely stay with the SP.
As for the Congress, it remains a party with no vote chunk with it. This makes it a marginal political player in UP.
The key to UP
The key to UP lies with the roughly 26 percent non-Yadav OBCs. If they stay with the BJP, it is likely to return to power on its own. If Akhilesh Yadav somehow succeeds in slicing off a chunk of these castes, there may be a keen fight.
“The upper castes, Yadavs, Muslims and Jatavs are a fixed vote now. It is the non-Yadav OBCs and the non-Jatav Dalits who will determine the results,” said an SP worker. “If they stay with the BJP, we pack up. If we get a section to split, we in alliance with RLD will be the only ones to offer a fight to the BJP.”
—Vikas Pathak is a political journalist and media educator. The views expressed in the article are the author's own.
(Edited by : Ajay Vaishnav)
First Published: IST