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Akhilesh Yadav Must Build OBC Movement to Make Gains in 2024

Ajaz Ashraf |
The BJP’s victory is impressive, but Uttar Pradesh’s social plates are moving, generating political energy that can lend to electoral gains.
Akhilesh Yadav

The Uttar Pradesh Assembly election results have six distinct messages the Opposition can ignore at its own peril. The Bharatiya Janata Party will remain an electoral behemoth till such time it enjoys the steadfast support of the upper castes, which are unlikely to vote for the Samajwadi Party, the principal Opposition party in the State. The SP, in order to win, has no option but to expand its social base among the Other Backward Classes.

Dalit’s votes are up for grabs until the community finds another leader to replace Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati. Or she is willing to roll up her sleeves and hit the streets. Social movements matter, as do hard work and tenacity. And finally, the BJP’s election campaign for 2024 will revolve around demonising Muslims and attacking Dalits, which defines Hindutva.

Some of these messages have not been grasped because of the dominant tendency to compare the BJP’s vote-share of 41.3% with the SP’s 32.1%. The difference of 9.2% between their vote-shares seems impossible to bridge in the next two years. But compare the vote-share of the alliance led by the Samajwadi Party (SP+) with that of the alliance spearheaded by the BJP (BJP+) and the difference between them shrinks to 7.1%, as Table I shows.

Table I: Entire State


*BJP is Bharatiya Janata Party, AD (S) is Apna Dal (Sonelal) and NISHAD is Nirbal Indian Soshit Hamara Apna Dal

**SP is Samajwadi Party, RLD is Rashtriya Lok Dal, SBSP is Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party and AD (K) is Apna Dal (Kamerawadi)

***BSP Is Bahujan Samaj Party and Cong is Congress

****Source: The Times of India

Compare also the election results of 2022 with those of 2017 and it becomes evident why it is possible to bridge the gap of 7.1% between the two alliances. In 2017, the Samajwadi Party had an electoral alliance with the Congress, because of which the former contested 311 seats and bagged 21.8% of votes. This year, the Samajwadi Party fought in 347 seats, 29 seats less than the BJP, and still increased its vote-share by 10.3%.

Yes, the Samajwadi Party must have, obviously, gained from the votes of its three allies—Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party (SBSP) and Apna Dal (Kamerawadi). The three parties have one Hindu caste constituting their nucleus—Jats for the RLD, Rajbhars for the SBSP and Kurmis for the Apna Dal (K), or AD (K). These three castes belong to the OBC category (Jats are not on the Central list of OBCs, but they are on the state list.)

This suggests that notwithstanding the BJP’s impressive victory, Uttar Pradesh’s social plates are moving—and generating political energy that can be harnessed for electoral gains. This argument is further bolstered by the collapse of the BSP, which slumped from a vote-share of 22.23% in 2017 to 12.9% in 2022.

Indeed, even Dalits are mulling options other than the BSP. According to the Lokniti-CSDS post-poll survey, 21% of Jatavs voted for the BJP, up from 8% in 2017—and 9% for the SP, up from 3% in 2017. Among non-Jatav castes, the SP polled 23% of votes, up from 11% in 2017, more than doubling their share over the five years. The BJP had 32% of non-Jatav votes in 2017 and increased it by another 9% this year. The BJP, as of now, gets more Dalit votes than the SP.

In fact, the BJP’s 7.1%-lead would have diminished further but for the SP underperforming in west Uttar Pradesh and Bundlekhand. It was thought the SP-RLD alliance would win the unstinting support of the farming community of Jats, which had been alienated, among other reasons, by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s stubborn refusal to withdraw the three farms laws framed in 2020. Modi’s retreat may have appeased the Jats to a degree.

But a more significant reason was that the participation of Jats in the farmer movement was not universally spread in west Uttar Pradesh. As a result, the BJP received 13.6% of more votes than the SP-RLD in the region. The BJP also won 42 more seats than the SP-RLD did, as Table II shows.

Table II: Western UP


*West UP includes the districts of Saharanpur, Muzaffarnagar, Shamli, Meerut, Baghpat, Bulandshahr, Noida, Ghaziabad, Hapur, Aligarh, Kasganj, Hathras, Etah, Mainpuri, Firozabad, Agra and Mathura (Agra, Aligarh, Meerut and Saharanpur divisions)

**Source: The Times of India

However, in the four districts of Muzaffarnagar, Shamli, Baghpat and Meerut, from where farmers joined the movement against the three laws in droves, the SP-RLD won 12 out of 18 seats. In other words, more than half the seats that the SP-RLD netted in west Uttar Pradesh came from just those four districts.

Lesson One: Movements yield high electoral dividends.

Bundelkhand was the other region where the SP+ collapsed, bagging 15.5% less votes than the BJP, as Table III shows.

Table III: Bundelkhand


*Bundelkhand includes the districts of Banda, Chitrakoot, Hamirpur, Jalaun, Jhansi, Lalitpur and Mahoba (Jhansi and Chitrakoot divisions)

**Source: The Times of India

Bundelkhand is Uttar Pradesh’s most backward region. One farmer leader told me that this region desperately requires a social movement, albeit of a different kind from the one waged by the farmers of west Uttar Pradesh. This is presumably the only way for the SP to grow in Bundelkhand, where the presence of Muslims is low—and, therefore, their alliance with the Yadavs, the SP’s mainstay, cannot be banked upon to notch victories.

By contrast, the upper castes are 27%, higher than their share of 18% in Uttar Pradesh’s population, always an advantage for the BJP in this era of Hindutva domination. The SP+ suffered in the region also because the BSP bagged 17.5% of the votes, as against the 12.9% it polled statewide. A triangular contest in Bundelkhand did not win the BSP a seat, but may have dampened the SP’s chances.

Among the other four regions of Uttar Pradesh, SP+ forged ahead of the BJP+ in Rohilkhand, even though it was by just 0.6%. In central Uttar Pradesh, the SP+ lagged by 5.8%, by 3.1% in south-east Uttar Pradesh, by 7.6% in north-east Uttar Pradesh. Table IV, Table V, Table VI and Table VII show that.

Table IV: Rohilkhand


*Rohilkhand includes the districts of Bijnor, Jyotiba Phule Nagar (Amroha), Badaun, Bareilly, Rampur, Moradabad, Sambhal, Pilibhit and Shahjahanpur (Bareilly and Moradabad divisions)

**Source: The Times of India


*Central UP includes the districts of Prayagraj [Allahabad], Ambedkar Nagar, Amethi, Auraiya, Barabanki, Etawah, Faizabad, Farrukhabad, Fatehpur, Hardoi, Kannauj, Kanpur Dehat, Kanput Nagar, Kaushambi, Kheri, Lucknow, Pratapgarh, Rae Bareli, Sitapur, Sultanpur and Unnao (Allahabad, Faizabad, Kanpur and Lucknow divisions)

** Source: The Times of India


*Northeast UP includes the districts of Azamgarh, Bahraich, Ballia, Balrampur, Basti, Deoria, Gonda, Gorakhpur, Kushinagar, Maharajganj, Mau, Sant Kabir Nagar, Shravasti and Siddharthnagar (Devipatan, Basti, Gorakhpur and Azamgarh divisions)

**Source: The Times of India

Table VII: Southeast UP


*Southeast UP includes the districts of Chandauli, Ghazipur, Jaunpur, Mirzapur, Sant Ravidas Nagar, Sonbhadra and Varanasi (Mirzapur and Varanasi divisions)

**Source: The Times of India

History shows that in the 1991 Lok Sabha election, after the VP Singh government implemented the Mandal recommendation for reserving 27% of central government jobs for the OBCs, the BJP’s road-roller crushed the Opposition until it ran out of steam in East Uttar Pradesh. This year too, the SP’s alliance with the SBSP and the AD (K) acted as a break upon the BJP, particularly in south-east UP.

The Lokniti-CSDS survey shows that 89% of Brahmins, 87% of Rajputs, 83% of Vaishyas, and 78% of the “other upper castes” voted for the BJP in 2022. Again, 70% or more of each of these castes had done so in 2017. Even in 2007, when the BJP was not even within striking distance of power, 40% or more of each of these social groups rallied behind the BJP, although the consolidation weakened a little five years later, in 2012, when the SP came to power.

Lesson Number Two: The upper castes will not leave the BJP, at least not in the 2024 Lok Sabha election.

Conversely, the Yadavs consolidated behind the SP, with 83% of them voting for it against 68% in 2017. This was even truer for Muslims, 79% of whom voted for the SP, in comparison to 46% who did in 2017. More significantly, the SP gained in just about each OBC category—Backward, More Backward and Most Backward—as it did also among Jatav and non-Jatav Dalits. Rajput and Brahmin votes for the SP dipped even further, below the already low-level of support they gave to the party in 2017.

Lesson Number Three: SP can expand only by growing among lower castes.

The BSP’s decline has been a feature of the party ever since it came to power in 2007, when it boasted a vote-share of 30.43%, which dipped to 25.91% in 2012, then to 22.23% in 2017 and slipped to 12.9% this year. The steep drop from 2017 to 2022 was largely because only 65% of Jatavs voted for the party, down from the 83% who did in 2017. Only 27% of non-Jatav Dalits sided with it, down from the 44% who did in 2017. Only 6% of Muslims voted for the BSP, down from the 19% who did in 2017.

Media reports suggest Dalits knew the BSP would emerge a distant third in the election. Yet a substantial percentage of them voted for the BJP, hoping Uttar Pradesh would produce a hung Assembly—and Mayawati could emerge as a king-maker, even manoeuvring herself, with some luck, into power. Dalits voters are unlikely to be deluding themselves in the 2024 Lok Sabha election, when Mayawati’s diminishing clout will count even less. Given her political behaviour over the last decade, it is hard to conceive her hitting the streets on Dalit issues and winning back supporters who have deserted her.

Lesson Number Four: Whichever party takes the largest chunk of Dalit votes will occupy pole position in 2024 in Uttar Pradesh, which sends 80 MPs to the Lok Sabha.

The controversy over the hijab and Modi’s endorsement of the controversial film, Kashmir Files, make it clear the BJP will not stop demonising Muslims. The bill raising the age of consent for girls to 21 years, which has been referred to a Standing Committee for discussion and improvement, will augment the BJP’s hate-tipped ammunition. There is also the long-pending BJP agenda to implement a Uniform Civil Code, a cause it could very well pick up.

Lesson Five: Hindutva will remain the BJP’s principal weapon.

The SP can hope to enhance its vote-bank by keeping intact the alliance it cobbled in 2022and roping a greater share of votes of castes comprising the OBCs. One way of doing it is to launch a movement for conducting a caste census and demanding that OBC reservation should be increased from 27% in proportion to their population in Uttar Pradesh—and India. With Modi removing the Supreme Court- mandated 50%-cap on reservation, to grant a 10% quota to the Economically Weaker Section of social advanced groups, mainly the upper castes, there is just no reason why the OBC reservation should remain pegged at 27%.

The shrinking jobs market was an important issue in the 2022 election. Might not Samajwadi Party leader Akhilesh Yadav campaign against the privatisation of the public sector and also for enhancing the budgetary outlay on agriculture to further broaden the base of his party? He has to assure lower OBCs and Dalits that they need not fear the Yadavs, a factor that has constantly put the skids under the SP’s wheel. This is only possible by mobilising diverse social groups through a movement, and building a party structure that gives space to lower OBCs and Dalits.

The latter measure will decrease the SP’s dependence on OBC leaders of smaller parties, for none can vouch for their continued fealty to the SP+ alliance. History testifies to their propensity to switch sides. After all, the SBSP was a BJP ally in 2017. A strong OBC movement will incentivise their stay under the SP umbrella.

But such measures to expand the party’s base imply that Akhilesh must immediately take to the streets and sweat it out. He has not displayed the inclination to work hard. Since 8 January, when the poll dates were announced, Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi held 209 rallies, Adityanath 203, and Akhilesh just 131. His laid-back approach to politics cannot trump the BJP, which works through the year and has the formidable Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh to back it.

Lesson No Six: Akhilesh must be willing to walk over burning coals to vanquish the BJP. Or else he will meet Mayawati’s fate.

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