It would be unwise to jump to conclusions on the basis of the exit of a slew of OBC leaders from the BJP. As of now, the OBC revolt is a small one and has not resulted in an explosion.
The exit of a slew of OBC leaders from the BJP on the eve of a crucial Assembly election has given the Uttar Pradesh potboiler an unexpected twist. Suddenly, the party which exit polls had predicted would comfortably win a second term, no longer looks invincible.
Its formidable rainbow social coalition of upper and non-Yadav other backward castes, that swept it to victory five years ago, is showing signs of unravelling. There’s an eerie feeling of déjà vu as UP politics threatens to come full circle back to the 1990s when Mandal versus Mandir cleaved the state along caste and communal lines.
The BJP has sought to dismiss the recent dramatic developments as the usual “aya Ram gaya Ram” politics of politicians asking for too much. Someone wanted a ticket for his son which the party refused to give, its spokespersons claimed. Others were afraid of being denied nominations to contest in the upcoming elections, they said.
A dispassionate view indicates otherwise. The three ministers who have quit so far, Swami Prasad Maurya, Dara Singh Chauhan and Dharam Singh Saini are leaders with considerable political heft.
The first two were welcomed by the BJP with open arms from the BSP just before the last Assembly elections because of the influence they carry with their communities. In fact, Maurya, who represents the important Khushwaha community (estimated to constitute about 6 percent of UP’s population), set the ball rolling for the BJP to mop up the support of the non-Yadav backward castes and was key to crafting the 2017 winning social formula. Significantly, he played a similar role for Mayawati when he was in the BSP and is said to have contributed to her victory in 2007 by weaning his own caste and smaller OBCs away from SP to her party, particularly in eastern UP from where he hails.
Similarly, Chauhan represents the Nonia caste which is roughly 3 percent of the state’s population. Like the Khushwahas who have their own party in the Mahan Dal, the Nonias too have an outfit called the Prithviraj Jan Shakti Party. But just as Maurya is the tallest Khushwaha leader, so too is Chauhan the biggest Nonia leader in UP.
The exit of Saini is a surprise and must hurt the BJP. The Sainis have been the party’s most loyal voters, their support dating back to the days of the Ram mandir movement. They have not flinched since.
The loss of these three leaders could well be a crippling blow to the BJP. The vehemence with which they have slammed the BJP and the Yogi Adityanath government for their anti-OBC policies and their failure to meet the aspirations of the deprived classes is likely to set the tone for a return to Mandal politics but with a newer and more unifying narrative than the 1990s.
It is interesting that SP chief Akhilesh Yadav has been avoiding all talk of caste and is peppering his election campaign with references to the poor, the deprived and farmers. While his rhetoric has a strong Samajwadi flavour, instead of a divisive Mandal narrative, his outreach to smaller OBC groups and parties show a shrewd understanding of the caste matrix.
Yadav has already tied up an alliance with another influential OBC party, Rajbhar’s Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party. It now looks like both Maurya and Chauhan are heading towards SP. Akhilesh is also in the process of wooing the Nishads and the Kurmis, both of which are also significant OBC groups.
Till recently, it seemed that the non-Yadav OBCs were an unshakable part of the BJP’s social coalition crafted on the communal appeal of Hindutva. However, five years of the Yogi government along with debilitating missteps by the Modi government seem to have alienated these groups.
The rumblings have been there for some time. There’s been talk of Yogi’s oppressive Thakur Raj, growing lawlessness which leaves the poorer castes vulnerable to police high-handedness, the tragic toll that the mismanagement of Covid-19 took of the lives of the poor in UP, poor handling of the economy starting with demonetisation which has led to unstoppable joblessness and debilitating price rise and a general apathy to the plight of ordinary people. The OBC revolt has blown the lid off the BJP’s worst kept secret in UP: Simmering anger on the ground among the very groups that are vital to the party’s dominance.
It is hardly surprising that the BJP’s answer to the resurgence of Mandal yearnings has been to fall back on Mandir. After Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s spectacular sound and light show at the inauguration of the Kashi Vishwanath temple’s grand new corridor to the ghats, there is talk of fielding Yogi Adityanath from Ayodhya to bring the spotlight back on the Ram mandir that is under construction.
Yogi’s election rhetoric has been turning increasingly communal, his latest salvo being a remark on 80 versus 20, a euphemism pitting Hindus against Muslims in a battle for supremacy.
However much the BJP high command may want to restrain Yogi to blunt the OBC resentment that is boiling over, it is too late. It can only fall back on Hindutva and Mandir to paper over its shortcomings in delivery. And there is no better symbol of Mandir in UP than Yogi.
However, it would be unwise to jump to conclusions from recent events. As of now, the OBC revolt is a small one and has not resulted in an explosion. Also Akhilesh has a long way to go to actually pull off a victory in UP. The BJP’s vote share five years ago was 39.67 percent while SP’s was 21.82 percent. Akhilesh would have to shave off at least nine percent from the BJP’s votes or tot up 18 percent from the BSP’s and Congress party’s votes to edge the Yogi government out.
It’s a tough call. He will have to brush his Mandal politics with a fresh narrative to give it a new sheen if he hopes to trump Mandir.
The writer is a veteran journalist and political commentator. Views expressed are personal.