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UP Polls: Will Opposition Plan to Focus on Public Interest Issues Overshadow Caste, Communal Factors?

Asad Rizvi |
The Adityanath-led BJP government faces huge incumbency challenges, such as COVID mismanagement, stray cattle menace, cane arrears, unemployment among others.
up vidhansabha

The cauldron of political and caste realignments is heating up in Uttar Pradesh ahead of the Assembly polls due next year, with the Opposition parties getting their act together to challenge the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the state.

In UP, caste and communal factors have always played a key role in elections, but this time the Opposition parties are gearing up to bring other public interest issues on the centre-stage, such as the farm laws, handling of COVID-19 pandemic, price rise, unemployment , cane arrears among other things.

However, much would also depend on how the Opposition parties fare in working out the electoral arithmetic in this highly caste-ridden and communally sensitive state.

After an unsuccessful alliance in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the Samajwadi Party (SP) and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) have decided to contest the 2022 Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh independently. After assessment of their past experiences, SP has also announced that it will not have any truck with Congress.

On her part, BSP supremo Mayawati has also made it clear that her party will contest entirely on its own in the state.

However, SP president Akhilesh Yadav apprised the media that his party would contest the UP election in collaboration with small parties, such as Rashtriya Lok Dal etc. The SP’s eyes are on the Muslim community, which has been on the receiving end since the formation of the BJP government in the state in 2017. 

In 2012, SP rode to power in UP after a spectacular victory. It got 29.2% votes and won 224 seats in an Assembly of 403 seats. This was the first time SP formed a government on its own, since its birth in 1992.

Earlier, the party’s founder Mulayam Singh Yadav had become Chief Minister twice, in 1993 and 2003, with the support of other parties. Later, his son, Akhilesh, who scripted the thumping victory in 2012, held the reins of power as Chief Minister of India’s populous state.

But the party became weak after a few years because of a feud in the Yadav family. The stand-off between Akhilesh and his uncle, Shivpal Yadav, brought cheer to BJP, which was struggling to come back to power in the state after more than a decade. 

In 2017, Akhilesh joined hands with Congress ahead of the Assembly elections and contested only on 298 seats. SP offered the 114 seats to Congress. 

But both the parties failed to achieve the desired result. SP won 47 seats and Congress secured only seven seats. SP’s vote share also dipped from 29.2% to 22%.

In 2019, SP and BSP came together after a gap of 24 years. It was the infamous guest house incident of 1995 (when Mayawati was attacked by SP members), which had turned the two parties into sworn political foes. But this experiment also did not work out for SP, which could not win more than five seats in a total of 80 parliamentary seats. 

BSP stood the real gainer by raising its count from zero to 10 Lok Sabha seats. Yet, Mayawati went about blaming SP and announced her decision to snap her alliance with SP for all times to come. 

In 2007, Mayawati had created political history by her ‘social engineering’. The party whose strong base comprised  the Scheduled caste community, managed to win the confidence of Muslims and Brahmins also. BSP formed the government on its own after securing 30.43% vote share with 206 seats. 

BSP, which was formed by dalit leader Kanshi Ram in 1984, made the government on its own in 2017 under the leadership of Mayawati. However, the majority government of BSP was dented later after the serious allegations of corruption were levelled against it. 

Mayawati’s party lost the Assembly elections to SP in 2012, and since then the graph of the party has been dipping in both Assembly and general elections. At present, BSP has only seven MLAs in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly and 10 lawmakers in Parliament.

The biggest advantage for BSP is that support from the jatav faction of the dalits has remained intact with it. BSP won only 19 seats in the 2017 Assembly elections but it’s vote share dipped only marginally to 22.24% from 25.95% in 2012, when the party secured 80 seats.

Upper Caste & Muslim Votes

This time round, both SP and BSP are eyeing the upper caste brahmin and Muslim votes. In 2017, the brahmins overwhelmingly voted for BJP. As many as 56 brahmins won in the 2017 Assembly polls. Of these, 46 won on the BJP ticket.

Despite their massive support, the overriding feeling among Brahmins is that BJP turned a blind eye toward their 10% population. Extra judicial killings of community members, side-lining in power sharing in government and preferential treatment to thakurs (Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s community), has seemingly irked the Brahmin community. 

Muslims are also terrified under the Yogi Adityanath government and are expected to en bloc back a secular party in the coming elections.

In this scenario, Mayawati wants to repeat BSP’s magic of 2007 by wooing brahmins and Muslims. But this will be an uphill task for her, as a large section of Muslims believe that in the past few years, Mayawati’s rhetoric has been reflecting her tilt toward the saffron party. 

But, fact remains that Brijesh Pathak, who was a key brahmin face of BSP, has also walked out of the party and is at present a cabinet minister in the Yogi Adityanath-led BJP government.

Mayawati has entrusted the responsibility of consolidating brahmins vote for BSP to her close aide, Satish Chandra Mishra.

Also, the BSP supremo has been relentlessly targeting SP and Congress, but is going soft against the ruling BJP. The party has also announced that in alliance with Shiromani Akali Dal it will contest against Congress (which is ruling Punjab at present).

Meanwhile, SP has also announced that it will not go into alliance with any mainstream party. Now the party is in alliance with RLD. It is also trying to consolidate the 19% Muslim votes behind it. It may be recalled that the minority vote had split between SP-Congress and BSP in 2017, which led to a massive debacle for both.

In a bid to reach out to the Muslim community, Akhilesh has announced that if his party comes into power, he would withdraw the cases against anti-CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) protesters. SP also plans to dent BJP in western UP with its ally RJD. In the region, BJP is facing massive resentment by farmers and RJD is openly supporting the farmers agitation against the three farm laws, legal guarantee for minimum support prices, immediate payment of sugarcane arrears among other things.

To win over BJP in western UP, the SP -RLD will jointly try to unite the votes Muslims and jats in their favour. The jat-Muslim combination was once the strength of RJD. 

As of now, no party seems inclined to have any truck with the Congress which is completely down in the dumps in a politically crucial state like Uttar Pradesh. Recently, the party’s state president Ajay Kumar Lallu lashed out at Akhilesh Yadav for projecting himself as the next chief minister. 

However, the century old party has not made any announcement about its strategy for the 2022 Assembly elections. At present, it has only six MLAs and one Lok Sabha member in UP and has been out of power since1989 from the politically significant state. Therefore, it is not even in a position to appear as a contender in the state.

BJP: Many Challenges

In 2017, the people elected BJP overwhelmingly in the state with 312 seats and 39.67% votes. After the massive victory, the party chose a Hindu monk-turned-politician Yogi Adityanath for the prized office of Chief Minister.

However, the saffron party, which came into power with a massive mandate, is now facing challenges on many fronts. The Opposition is  gearing up to raise issues ranging from COVID mismanagement, repeated instances of police brutality, attempts to quell dissent, skyrocketing prices of fuel and cooking oil, to falling economic growth and employment levels in the state.

Rural distress and employment levels in the state will also be key factors in the next elections.

The Opposition is planning to use agrarian distress (MSP, new farm laws and stray cattle menace) as their political weapon against the ruling dispensation. Law and order issues like the Hathras rape incident etc will also spell trouble for the saffron party. 

Reportedly, the Opposition is also trying to bring healthcare to the centrestage of politics, as the incumbent government has failed to contain the second wave of COVID-19. From urban areas, semi-urban to rural areas, all have witnessed mismanagement during the second wave. The shortage of oxygen and beds in hospitals unmasked the unpreparedness of the government. 

SP believes that the ruling BJP has failed on each front from health to rural crisis. Former party MLA Pawan Pandey told the NewsClick that his party would contest on public interest issues. He said the ruling BJP government had ignored public health, which caused devastation during the second wave of COVID-19.

Pandey said SP would also focus on rural distress in the state. “Due to the slaughter policy of the government, stray cattle are freely roaming in villages and grazing crops of poor farmers. My party will also question the ruling dispensation on rampant corruption in the state” the former lawmaker added. He alleged corruption spread in every government department, from police to health. 

After its formation in March 2017, the Adityanath government had been running a campaign against the functioning of illegal slaughterhouses. Amendments to the existing laws will mean a complete ban on animal slaughter outside modern slaughterhouses (except for religious purposes).

Congress, too, plans to target the Yogi government in a big way on issues of rural distress and law and order. Congress leader Zeeshan Haider told NewsClick that BJP governments, from Centre to the state, had created trouble for farmers. He said his party would focus on rural crisis, with issues, such as the misery of sugarcane growers.

Sugarcane farming is done by around four million farmers, primarily in western UP, but this is the third straight year when the government’s State-Advised Price (SAP) for sugarcane remains unchanged.

“This is an additional woe along with the farm laws for sugarcane growers,” Zeeshan added. The Congress leader also said that deteriorating law and order and police brutality against common people would also be a poll issue.

Political commentators also believe that SP is making every effort to consolidate Muslim votes behind it. Ramdutt Tripathi, former bureau chief of BBC, said as BSP and Congress are both weak in the state, the SP would attempt its best to attract minority votes. It was the consolidated Muslim vote that made it possible for SP to form a government on its own in 2012, he added.

According to Tripathi, BSP could make an effort to repeat its 2007 experiment of social engineering by fielding a large number of brahmin candidates. But now it seems difficult that the brahmin votes will tilt toward parties dominated by SCs or OBCs (Other backward classes). However, he added that the current perceptions about brahmin votes may change after ticket distribution by parties. 

Political analyst Atul Chandra said Muslims will vote for a party that gives a tough fight against BJP. Taking advantage of weakness of Congress, BSP is trying to win the trust of the brahmins who are miffed with BJP, he added.

But BSP has no brahmin face, except general secretary Satish Chandra Mishra. It is impossible for a single leader to manage the whole community, which with their sub-castes make up close to 11% of the population, Chandra added.

However, some political commentators feel that the coronavirus devastation would be the single biggest factor that would work in the next Assembly elections. Alok Joshi, a journalist with experience of covering many elections, ffelt that in the coming elections, people would not vote on caste and communal lines.

Joshi believes that the corona catastrophe had given a lesson to all, people will vote for anyone who can defeat those who were failed to manage the devastating situation which, leading to the huge loss of lives in the state.

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Uttar Pradesh.

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