If the 2017 UP assembly elections were defined by the Hindutva Wave, then can 2022 be defined by the fightback of Mandal Politics? It may be too early for a prediction, but there seems to be a new yearning amongst the backward castes (OBCs). The intensity of this reassertion will determine the result of the UP election. The resignation of Swami Prasad Maurya and Dara Singh Chauhan from the BJP and their probable entry into the Samajwadi Party is certainly a defining moment in the Opposition's campaign in this politically-crucial state.
Swami Prasad Maurya is no ordinary caste leader in UP politics. He had a long and resourceful innings in the BSP and was part of Mayawati's core team. But after Mayawati's defeats in 2012 and 2014, he moved to the BJP on the eve of the 2017 state election. The BJP racked up a spectacular victory and Swami Prasad Maurya was rewarded with a cabinet job. Though he was never close to Yogi Adityanath, he stayed loyal to the BJP till a few months ago. He belongs to the Maurya community, the third-biggest OBC in the state (the Yadavs and Kurmis are ahead) and comprises 8% of the total population. Swami Prasad Maurya is an MLA from the Padrauna constituency in Kushinagar district in Eastern UP; his influence on his caste extends around Raibareli, Unchahar, Shahjahanpur and Badayun districts. It is assumed that Mauryas have a sizable presence in more than 100 of UP's 403 seats. It is no surprise therefore that this community, in order to enhance its bargaining power, has formed its own party called Mahan Dal. And it is also no coincidence that Akhilesh Yadav formed an alliance with Mahan Dal before his campaign began.
Like Swami Prasad Maurya, Dara Singh Chauhan, who also resigned as a minister in UP today, belongs to an OBC. He is from the Nonia caste which is considered the most backward among OBCs and forms 3% of population in eastern UP. This community is spread around Varanasi, Chandauli and Mirzapur. Though the BJP has an alliance with the Prithviraj Jan Shakti party which focuses on the Nonias, Dara Singh is the biggest leader of the community.
Before Swami Prasad Maurya joined him, Akhilesh Yadav struck very important electoral deals with two other powerful castes. In 2017, the Jat community in western UP had wholeheartedly supported the BJP. Though the Jat community is only 2% of the population, historical reasons as also the stature of former Prime Minister Charan Singh, makes it a very powerful player with a huge presence in western UP, Rajasthan, Haryana and Punjab. The farmers' movement placed them on the warpath with the BJP and led to the main Jat Party, the Rashtriya Lok Dal headed by Jayant Chaudhary, partnering with Akhilesh Yadav (they were partners for the last state election too). It should not be forgotten that the RLD was under tremendous pressure to ally with the BJP this time, but could not risk angering its huge farmer base.
Rajbhar is another powerful OBC community in UP with a significant role in eastern UP where it is believed to form approximately 15% to 20% of the population. In a society where caste and sub-caste is the biggest deciding factor in electoral arithmetic, these are huge numbers, and no party or leader can afford to ignore them. Which is why Om Prakash Rajbhar has emerged as an important player in state politics. His party, the Suheldev Bhartiya Samaj Party, is the most vaunted in the region. In 2017, he was with the BJP, became a cabinet minister in Yogi Adityanath's cabinet, but then moved to Akhilesh Yadav three months ago. To neutralise the impact of his move, the BJP quicky tied up with two lesser-known parties of the Rajbhars - Bhartiya Suheldev Janata Party of Bheem Rajbhar and the Shoshit Samaj Party of Babu Lal Rajbhar. But these don't command the same respect and influence as Om Prakash Rajbhar. Along with these two, the BJP, a few months ago, forged an alliance with seven smaller caste-based parties.
The emergence of these smaller parties with localised influence among their castes and sub-castes can be seen as a reflection of the fragmentation of Mandal politics, but it is also an assertion of the smaller and weaker OBC groups against the more powerful OBCs ,who have cornered the socio-politico benefits extended through reservation quotas and more. Like the upper-caste Brahmans and Thakurs, the Yadavs within the OBCs, and the Jatavs within the Dalits, are guilty of using weaker castes for their electoral benefit. So smaller castes have formed their own parties and are negotiating for the best deal, functioning largely as ideology-neutral parties.
In 2014, the BJP successfully exploited their sentiment of 'being used' and lured them into the Hindutva fold. Narendra Modi and Amit Shah led this social engineering and the RSS believed that it had established a larger Hindu unity vis-a-vis the 20% Muslims in UP. In my opinion, it's a temporary phenomenon. These weaker castes supported the Hindutva forces believing they would get their share of power, but after three elections with the BJP, they seem disappointed and disillusioned.
One of the main reasons for the defeat of Akhilesh Yadav in 2017 was that he could not break the perception that his is 'only' a Muslim-Yadav party. The BJP successfully convinced the non-Yadav communities of the same. Akhilesh Yadav is working to change that. The disillusionment within the weaker OBCs is helping him. The OBCs also felt let down that Yogi Adityanath was made Chief Minister rather than BJP state president Keshav Prasad Maurya. Yogi Adityanath, during his term, has not made any effort to dispel the notion that he is assertive as a Thakur leader. Modi and Shah did realise that with Yogi at the helm, it would be difficult to win back OBCs, and tried to replace him, but he had the solid backing of the RSS.
Now, the BJP-RSS's attempt to create a meta Hindu identity could be eclipsed by the churn within OBCs. As always, Uttar Pradesh is throwing up new complexities as challenges for its election.
(Ashutosh is author of 'Hindu Rashtra' and Editor, satyahindi.com.)
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