With exactly a month to go before Uttar Pradesh votes, two things are clear: Akhilesh Yadav 2.0 is hitting peak form and Yogi Adityanath is strapped to a major predicament.
As Chief Minister, Yogi Adityanath, according to sources, has the state Criminal Investigation Department watching many MLAs; his own vigilante army, the Hindu Yuva Sena, also apparently provides surveillance.
If that is indeed the case, they were embarrassingly bested by Swami Prasad Maurya, hugely popular in the eastern part of the state as an Other Backward Caste (OBC) leader, who resigned yesterday as a cabinet minister; four other MLAs, who are his supporters, took their cue from him. Their group exit has played out like the limbo at a wedding, all of them managing to evade detection till their boss made it official with his shock announcement. The timing was impeccable: the offensive rolled out as Yogi Adityanath was at a meeting in Delhi with party bosses including Amit Shah to select candidates for an election with increasingly more high stakes.
One of the MLAs involved said to me, jubilantly, "Yogi Maharaj ke ghar mein seend lag gayi, unhe pata bhi nahi laga" ("seend" is a particularly UP expression meaning an ingress into a home without the owner discovering it).
Swami Prasad Maurya, 68, quit the BSP in 2016,formed his own outfit, and then joined the BJP in 2017. He is key to the OBC vote and was instrumental to the BJP's successful strategy in 2017 of appealing to both upper caste and backward caste voters. The OBCs form around 45 percent of the population in UP; the Yadavs, as a subset, are nine percent; and the Kushwaha caste, which Swami Prasad Maurya belongs to, are six percent. Swami Prasad Maurya helps Akhilesh Yadav's outreach to the non-Yadav castes like the Kushwahas (the former are loyal to him for the most part in any case).
Swami Prasad Maurya had been in negotiations with Akhilesh Yadav for a while; pictures of his daughter, Sanghamitra Maurya, who is the BJP MP from Baduan, with Mulayam Singh Yadavpopped up three months ago. Sanghamitra Maurya is expected to follow her father out of the BJP. She has in parliament sought the caste census, embarrassing the party which has said that exercise stands delayed.
More defections from the BJP after expected this week. So how has Akhilesh Yadav got his groove back? This time around, the 48-year-old chief of the Samajwadi Party has taken expert help for his communication skills, and completely changed the way he functions with the realisation that this could be a career-ending election for him.
To consolidate the OBC vote, he has draped himself with alliances with a network of small OBC parties including that of Jayant Choudhary (popular with the Jats) the Mahan Dal which represents Mauryas, and the Janwadi Socialist party which represents Dalits.
Akhilesh Yadav has triggered an OBC revolt of sorts within the BJP, capitalizing on the perception that Yogi Adityanath has presided over a "Thakur Raj", favouring his own upper caste Thakur community while thwarting other castes who were integral to the BJP's winning formula last time around. Swami Prasad Maurya predictably logged out of his role as minister citing "gross negligence towards Dalits, farmers and backward youths".
Amit Shah in particular among senior BJP leaders had sensed the dangers of Yogi Adityanath's (perceived or real) favouritism for Thakurs, as also his authoritarian leadership, which has caused deep fissures in recent months. In July last year, RSS General Secretary Dattatreya Hosabale was dispatched to Lucknow to evaluate the extent of Yogi Adityanath's unpopularity, but the appraisal ended with an all-clear for the Chief Minister and a truce being organized between him and his deputy, Keshav Prasad Maurya. A reluctant Yogi Adityanath was forced lunch with his deputy in the full glare of the cameras.
After the second wave of Covid, which saw dead bodies crowding the Ganga, leaders within the BJP felt emboldened enough to publicly complain about Yogi Adityanath's mismanagement; the Prime Minister and Amit Shah held meetings to determine how to tamp down the criticism and its impact on the party.
With Swami Prasad Maurya announcing today that he will join the Samajwadi Party the BJP's big talking point - that Akhilesh Yadav and his team have no reach beyond the Yadavs - stands blunted.
Despite the all-is-well pictures released regularly of Narendra Modi and Yogi Adityanath on near-daily campaign pit stops, the BJP is aware that this is not a slam dunk of an election. Candidates are likely to be chosen according to the Amit Shah formula of culling nearly 40 percent of sitting MLAs to defeat anti-incumbency. This could cause new fires. Sources say that Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, heavily invested in the UP election given its standing as an audition for the next general election, know that they have to rein in Yogi Adityanath - no small task given the Chief Minister's allegiance to the theory that he is his own boss.
Amit Shah is rushing trusted aides to Lucknow to arrest the developments. But this week has been taken by Akhilesh Yadav. A fact Amit Shah will not easily forgive.
(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)
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