- Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav will hold their first rally in Saharanpur
- BSP has twice won the Saharanpur seat in the last four elections
- Chandrashekhar emerged as the Dalit icon after the 2017 caste clashes
On April 7, Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav will hold their first election rally together to demo the appeal of their starter marriage as also squad goals for an opposition that simply isn't able to unite.
For their venue, they have chosen a venue in Saharanpur, which, till 2014, used to be fruitful territory for Mayawati, whose Bahujan Samaj Party or BSP had twice won the parliamentary constituency here in the last four elections. But in 2014, Saharanpur, like the rest of Uttar Pradesh, embraced Narendra Modi wholeheartedly, electing a BJP law-maker, sliding into the count of 71 seats that the party won of a total of 80, thanks to its leader's gangbuster ratings.
42% of the population of Saharanpur is Muslim; another 22% are Dalits. Mayawati's supporters are the sub-caste of Jatav Dalits, who make up about half of all Dalits in the state. In 2014, they cut loose from her for Mr Modi. In 2017, a village in the larger Saharanpur area, just a four-hour drive from Delhi in Western Uttar Pradesh, was thrust into horrific violence between Dalits and upper caste mobs in riots that lasted three weeks, leaving two people dead - a Dalit and a Thakur. Nearly 50 houses belonging to Dalits were set on fire after they tried to stop a procession by Thakurs to commemorate a 16th-century king.
Chandrashekhar Azad, leader of the Bhim Army and then 29 years old, was declared wanted for a lead role in the riots. He was arrested three months later in Himachal Pradesh. The Uttar Pradesh government in a huge misstep accused him of compromising national security before withdrawing those charges. He was released 16 months later.
The Saharanpur violence and the arrest of Azad, photographed often with aviators and lush moustache, panicked Mayawati who realized that the young law school graduate was gaining on her as a champion of Dalit rights. In 2015, he had formed the Bhim Army, an outfit that he said was committed to providing better schooling for young lower caste children, but was quickly appropriating the colour and tenor of a fire-in-its-belly organization that didn't play by the rules, went looking for a fight and wouldn't back down: perfect for Dalit youth simmering with discontent after the flogging in Una in Gujarat of four Dalit men who were wrongly accused of skinning a dead cow.
By the time "Raavan", as he likes to be called in a put-down of the upper caste focus on the deities of the Ramayana, was freed from jail in September, his legend had grown - especially in Western Uttar Pradesh, where Mayawati is contesting half the 22 seats she has been allocated across Uttar Pradesh as part of her political fusion with Akhilesh Yadav.
Mayawati has always been deeply suspicious of Chandrashekhar, half her age and like her, a Jatav. She has repeatedly accused him of being a BJP agent, funded by its ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh or RSS, who should have joined her party instead of founding the Bhim Army if he were serious about Dalit unity and rights.
"The Modi-Yogi regime jailed me for 16 months and slapped 43 false cases on me. How can I be working for a party that tried to destroy me?" Azad told NDTV, surrounded by supporters, after holding a public rally in Delhi. "I respect her hugely and would never do anything to undermine her status, or the interests of the Bahujan Samaj (Dalit society), but she has to trust me," he said after Mayawati outraged over his meeting with Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, Congress leader and member of the party's First Family.
That meeting took place in a hospital after Azad was detained during a political procession and then said he was feeling unwell. The Congress reportedly intended to demonstrate that after it was iced out by Mayawati from her alliance with Akhilesh Yadav, it has another charismatic Dalit leader it can befriend; Azad wanted to show that he's no marginal player.
"His growing popularity amongst young Dalits and Muslims in the last two years has not gone unnoticed by UP's top political players. That's probably why the Congress reached out to him," says Khalid Anis Ansari, a professor at a Saharanpur-based university.
A senior Congress leader told NDTV the meeting was "an investment for the future," going on to add that, "the party needs freshly minted leaders from the community to fight the 2022 assembly elections in UP."
For this election, however, the Congress, depleted and unwelcome in the historic SP-BSP alliance, is focusing on initiating Dalit leaders across the political spectrum from former BJP minister Savitri Phule - she joined the party last month - to several BSP lawmakers who cannot contest the election because their constituencies are allocated to Akhilesh Yadav's SP as a result of his alliance with Mayawati.
"Mayawati and Akhilesh shut the door on the Congress because they believed the party had no stature or support in the state and would only weaken their fight against the BJP. Any deal between Chandrashekhar and the Congress, specially in Western UP, where he wields considerable influence, may negatively impact the BSP-SP alliance," says Manoj Gautam, a call centre employee in Saharanpur who recently joined the Bhim Army but has always voted for the BSP. Gautam, who plans to attend the big political rally in April, hopes Azad will eventually back Mayawati.
If Chandrashekar's political naivete - and overreach - was on full display when he articulated his intention to run against Mr Modi in Varanasi as independent candidate, so was his unyielding ambition. "Narendra Modi is an enemy of all Dalits. The harassment faced by Dalits under this regime will not stop, unless he is stopped. And I want to do that. If the BSP-SP alliance and Congress have the same objective, then they should support me," he told NDTV.
He says since he announced that intention, he has called Mayawati five times. Strike rate: zero.
Till recently, Azad had said he would remain a social activist and eschew active politics. He offered two reasons for his change of heart to NDTV: comments by BJP leaders that point to their desire to change the constitution (describing the constitution as the "holy book" of the Dalits, he says he is obliged to protect it); and what he describes as the surging "humiliation" of Dalits by the BJP. "In February, the Prime Minister visited the Sant Ravidas temple in Varanasi. I was also there in the crowds and saw how his security humiliated our religious leaders. He is the outsider, we are the bhakts (devotes of the social reformer) who are made to feel small in our own temple."
Activists of the Bhim Army in Dalit strong holds of Western Uttar Pradesh have no hope that Azad will give Mr Modi any sort of competition - or that the opposition will support him. But they give him full marks for his bold move.
"Our leaders have always been treated shabbily by the upper caste mafia which controls all political parties. Power has corrupted Mayawati-ji to the extent that there is no difference between her and them. Chandrashekhar is like a breath of fresh air," said a young college student.
In the 2014 election, the BJP won the largest number of seats reserved for the scheduled castes in the country - 66 out of 84. This figure included all 17 seats in UP. "In the end, I will support the candidate who has the best chance of defeating the BJP, whether it's from the Congress or the BSP-SP alliance," says Azad.
For him - and his young supporters - the political horizon is only just being formed, not defined, with 2019.