If the historic farm movement signalled the resurgence of secular values and religious pluralism as a counter to Hindutva, the upsurge of demands to restore the social justice agenda by Other Backward Classes (OBCs) has further jeopardised the Bharatiya Janata Party’s electoral prospects in Uttar Pradesh. The top leadership of the BJP, which rules at the Centre and in Uttar Pradesh, seems to be at its wit’s end as commentators openly talk about their party’s flailing prospects in the run-up to the February Assembly election.
The farmer movement bridged the Jat-Muslim divide in western Uttar Pradesh, breaking the spell of the polarisation politics of the BJP. The religious divide which the party’s leadership fanned in the wake of the riots in Muzaffarnagar earned it massive political dividends in the 2014 General Election. The communal divide, coupled with raising strongly nationalistic sentiment, contributed to its success in the 2017 Assembly election and the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. Jat farmers voted en masse for the BJP in those elections, breaking their unity with Muslims of the region, helping it script exceptional electoral victories that consolidated its Hindutva agenda.
After each electoral success, the BJP carried forward that agenda aggressively, excluding Muslims and targeting them viciously and violently based on their faith, food, even clothing habits. Many Muslims were lynched in the name of beef, and several were attacked in the name of so-called love jihad, a subject on which Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s regime has even enacted a divisive and controversial law.
When the Centre passed the farm laws without any consultation with stakeholders, it triggered a massive movement of farmers who united across faiths. The Kisan Mahapanchayat held in Muzaffarnagar best reflected the restoration of unity among peasant communities of the region. Members of all faiths responded to Rakesh Tikait’s Allah hu Akbar calls with Har Har Mahadev. Sikhs invoked Wahe Guru (True Guru or One God in the Guru Granth Sahib) while activist Medha Patkar raised the slogan “Hindu-Muslim-Sikh-Isai, apas mein sab behen-bhai (Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, and Christians are sisters and brothers)”. This demonstration of religious pluralism, central to secularism, struck a sharp contrast to the Hindutva agenda, which thrives on polarisation and divisiveness. Tikait and other leaders confessed to succumbing to divisive politics and resolved to defeat hate and violence. Tikait said, “They talk of dividing; we speak of uniting. The hallmark of BJP politics is hate.”
Such demonstrations of unity have adversely impacted the electoral fortunes of the BJP. That could explain why Prime Minister Narendra Modi decided to repeal the three farm laws, but it was already too late. The farmers’ unity—manifested splendidly in their adherence to religious pluralism and secular values—severely dented the BJP’s polarisation project and diminished its prospects in the coming election.
Social justice agenda
Alongside the farmer movement came the strident restoration of the social justice agenda by none other than several BJP legislators, including three ministers in the Uttar Pradesh government, Swami Prasad Maurya, Dara Singh Chauhan and Dharam Singh Saini. As acclaimed leaders who have a following among members of the backward sections of Uttar Pradesh society, they wield considerable influence. They resigned from the BJP and the state government, saying the BJP has subordinated social justice to social engineering, another name for its project to consolidate so-called higher castes with backward castes and Dalits supplying the numerical majorities required by the Hindutva project.
The leaders also said that the state government promoted members of elite castes at the cost of the minorities who are being excluded and targeted. The Uttar Pradesh government did not implement reservations meant for OBCs and Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes on the ruse that no eligible candidates were found who belong to these non-elite sections. The undermining of reservations in jobs and educational institutions spread disaffection among members of disadvantaged groups, who were denied jobs in an already tight employment scenario.
There is also an undercurrent of dissatisfaction over the alleged primacy accorded to members of the Thakur caste to which the Chief Minister belongs. Important positions occupied by the Thakurs in the political and administrative apparatus have generated an impression that the community dominates over Uttar Pradesh society. This feeling has reinforced the sentiment among members of non-elite castes that Hindutva uses their votes to come to power, then forgets their rights and entitlements. There is thus a growing realisation that the Hindutva project marginalises not just minorities but even the backward and Dalit sections.
Small and marginal farmers from OBC communities have suffered the most due to the growing stray cattle menace, which has them intrude into their fields unhindered and destroy crops. They attribute this menace to the Yogi government’s Hindutva-driven cow protection policy. Paradoxically, the cow protection efforts of the ruling regime are economically hurting the OBCs, who are Hindus.
The sharp rise in unemployment, decline in the number of people seeking employment, unbearable price rise, lack of food security and crisis in health care are acute problems for all residents of Uttar Pradesh. Still, the backward sections, the disadvantaged and the poor face the worst of its effects. Still fresh in the minds of the people of Uttar Pradesh is the lethal second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in which people desperately searched for oxygen, hospital facilities, and medicine, all of which were hardly available. As a result, thousands died, and families that could not afford a funeral were forced to float their deceased family members in the river Ganga. People’s agony persists in the ongoing third wave triggered by the Omicron variant of Sars Cov-2, the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease. The Yogi regime mismanaged the pandemic, demolished the state’s health, human and food security, and deepened people’s sufferings.
On top of it, the Modi regime at the Centre and the state government did not heed OBC leaders’ demand for a caste census. This rejection has not gone down well with the OBCs, who feel slighted and rejected. Samajwadi Party leader Akhilesh Yadav’s recent pronouncements that the caste census would be conducted in Uttar Pradesh within three months if his party forms the next government would rally OBCs in his favour and put the BJP in a disadvantageous position.
Objective social and economic conditions that make life difficult for the backward classes is what forced them to prevail on their representatives to dissociate themselves from the BJP and Hindutva. They now realise that Hindutva ideology has caused their existential crisis. That is why the leaders who quit the BJP have flagged that the ruling party has entirely lost sight of the social justice agenda crucial for the uplift of OBCs, Dalits and minorities.
So, the secular values and religious pluralism of the farm movement and the social justice agenda of the OBC leaders have created a situation where the BJP is finding it difficult to manoeuvre the rough and tumble of electoral politics. The intensity with which anti-Muslim narratives are being aggressively pushed by BJP leaders clearly shows their restlessness over their recent losses. This would cost them invaluable votes of the OBCs, which are critical to sustaining the Hindutva project.
Adityanath’s formulation that this election is between 80% vs 20% was a form of dog-whistle politics that constantly pits the Hindus versus the Muslims. The figures he cited correspond to the relative shares of both communities in the population of the state. Such narratives reaffirm the Hindutva project to exclude Muslims and negate social justice. In the days of Ram Manohar Lohiya, the Samyukta Socialist Party (SamSoPa) coined the slogan, “SamSoPa nay bandhi ganth, pichde payen sau se saath—SamSoPa has resolved, backward sections would get sixty out of hundred.”
The revival of social justice also reminds of the Mandal versus kamandal politics, in which social justice kept religious politics in check for fifteen years. The kamandal assumed primacy only to weaken the forces of social justice, and pave the way for Hindutva politics. To blunt the edge of the demands for equity and justice coming from below, the BJP and its counterparts talk about construction of a Ram temple at Ayodhya and launching the Kashi Corridor Project. It is, once again, the aim of Hindutva leaders to assert the Hindu identity to push social justice into oblivion.
Recently, the Congress party decided to field women candidates in 40% of the Assembly seats in Uttar Pradesh. This has given a much-needed fresh dimension to politics in a highly male-dominated and patriarchal society. It reminds of Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik’s decision to field women candidates of his party, the Biju Janata Dal, in 33% per cent of the seats in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. The Congress decision can also adversely impact the anti-women Hindutva agenda. It is rightly said that the struggle for secularism is a struggle for women’s rights. The gender dimension in politics favours secularism and negates Hindutva.
Keep in mind that there is talk about social justice in Uttar Pradesh after many years. Combined with other factors, it can create not just expectations but also conditions for the BJP to lose considerable ground. The coming Assembly election might produce stunning a result that will decisively impact national politics and galvanise secular forces behind the ‘Idea of India’. Much of the credit for putting a check on the militant march of Hindutva would go to the farmers, members of backward classes and the forces that represent gender justice.
The author was Officer on Special Duty and Press Secretary to President of India KR Narayanan. The views are personal.