“Behenji [Mayawati] has asked us to stick to our Bahujan Samaj Party [BSP]. She has suggested that in case we find that the Samajwadi Party [S.P.] is ahead in the race we should vote for the Bharatiya Janata Party [BJP],” said Ranvir Jatav (55), a BSP cadre at Ibrahimpur village in Aligarh, the seat of Aligarh Muslim University, in western Uttar Pradesh. Mukesh Kumar (25), an undergraduate youth at the village, countered him and said: “Cycle [the S.P.’s symbol] is ahead, and Akhilesh Yadav has promised employment. Why should I not vote for the cycle?” But Ranvir Jatav argued back: “It’s important to see our party’s interest. If Mayawati wins a substantial number of seats, she would dictate terms to the BJP in terms of Ministry formation and policies to suit Bahujan [Dalit] interests.”
This anecdotal account gathered from the field while touring the hinterlands of Uttar Pradesh ahead of the election helps explain the swing of votes. The BSP’s vote share has plummeted from 22.2 per cent in 2017 to 12.88 per cent in 2022, an unusual phenomenon for a dominant Dalit outfit of the Hindi heartland. The S.P.’s strategists had got a hint that this might happen from the fact that Mayawati was lying low, targeting the S.P. and soft-pedalling the BJP during the initial phases of the polling. However, journalists covering the election began decoding the “exchange” of appreciative words between Union Home Minister Amit Shah and Mayawati in last two phases of the election. “ Behenji ’s strength has to be appreciated,” Amit Shah had said. Mayawati replied: “It is Amit Shah’s greatness [to appreciate our strength].”
Chief Minister Adityanath has retained power with almost the same vote share (from 39.67 per cent in 2017 to 41.29 per cent now) but reduced legislative strength: 255 against 312 in 2017. But there is evidence to suggest that the BSP helped the BJP make up the loss of the votes of the non-Yadav Other Backward Castes (OBCs) that shifted to the S.P. The S.P. registered a substantial leap in its vote share and legislative strength too—it got a 32.1 per cent vote share and 111 seats in 2022 against the 21.8 per cent and 47 seats it got in the 2017 election—though it fell far short of forming the government. Along with its allies, the S.P. got a vote share of 36.1 per cent and won 125 seats.
Some political analysts argue that Hindutva of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and the BJP, its political arm, which borders on majoritarian politics, has subsumed caste metrics in Uttar Pradesh—the land of Ram Manohar Lohia and Kanshi Ram, who laid the foundations of backward class and Dalit movements in the post-Independence era. But this sounds too simplistic an explanation when one scrutinises how the dynamics of the various caste groups played out in the election.
S.P. president Akhilesh Yadav’s experiment of aligning with the Congress and the BSP in the 2017 Assembly election and the 2019 Lok Sabha election without doing the required groundwork at the grass-roots level failed. This time around, using this experience, Akhilesh Yadav gave suitable space to the smaller parties. He aligned with the Rastriya Lok Dal (RJD), the party with a strong base among the Jat farmers of western Uttar Pradesh; Om Prakash Rajbhar’s Suheldev Bhartiya Samaj Party (SBSP), the party representing the Rajbhar or Bhar caste; Krishna Patel’s Apna Dal (Kamerawadi), which has a base among the Kurmi caste; and the Mahan Dal, the party of the Pasi Dalits in eastern Uttar Pradesh and the Awadh region. Former Ministers in the Adityanath government, Swami Prasad Maurya, Dara Singh Chauhan and Dharam Singh Saini, who have a reasonable following among their castes of Kushwahas, Saini/Kashyaps and Nonias shifted to the S.P. from the BJP along with about a dozen MLAs after the Election Commission announced the elections in early January.
Akhilesh Yadav accommodated these leaders and parties for two broad reasons. The first reason is to rid the S.P. of its identity as the party of Yadavs and Muslims and broaden its base on the basis of Ram Manohar Lohia’s advocacy of “preferential treatment” to the marginalised castes. The second reason is to counter the RSS-BJP’s hidden agenda to dilute the policy of job reservations for OBCs and Dalits by privatising the public sector and outsourcing government jobs on a large scale. His promise that he would have the caste census conducted after coming to power was in pursuit of these goals. Akhilesh Yadav’s efforts have paid dividends. The defeat of Deputy Chief Minister Keshav Prasad Maurya at the hands of Pallavi Patel—the Apna Dal (Kamerawadi) candidate who contested on the S.P.’s cycle symbol won by a margin of 7,337 votes in Sirathu constituency—is one of the big indicators of the Kurmis—who largely voted for Keshav Maurya in 2017—throwing their weight behind her.
In fact, the swing in the S.P.’s vote share by over 10 per cent in comparison to the 2017 election happened because a large section of the non-Yadav OBCs—Kurmis, Kushwahas, Sainis, Sakyas, Nohias, Kahars, Kumhars, Gonds, etc.—voted for S.P. candidates. Yet, the shift was not large enough for the S.P. to finally demolish the BJP, which managed to retain substantial sections of these castes in its fold despite their leaders switching over to the S.P. The S.P.’s alliance with the RLD worked only in areas considered to be the epicentre of the year-long farmers’ agitation, particularly in districts such as Muzaffarnagar, Shamli and Meerut, and did not have sufficient momentum in other Jat-dominated areas such as Mathura.
The RLD won one seat in 2017 but eight seats this time. The farmers’ movement did play a role in bringing together the Jats and Muslims, who have a sizeable presence together in the region. Still the ground-level evidence suggests that RLD president Jayant Choudhary—son of former Union Minister Ajit Singh and grandson of former Prime Minister Choudhary Charan Singh—could not match Akhilesh Yadav in inculcating confidence among the non-Jat OBCs (Lodhs, Baghels, Sainis, Gujjars and Kashyaps) who have been at the mercy of the powerful Jats in western Uttar Pradesh. They largely stayed with the BJP, preventing the RLD from taking a big leap in terms of seats.
Also read: Hard-fought win for the BJP
After the results were declared, jubilant RSS-BJP supporters said that some journalists had misread the election: they had presented it as a tough contest when the BJP sailed through comfortably. It was, of course, a tough contest. The youths agitating against unemployment and the common people troubled by the price rise and awara pashu (stray cattle) devouring their crops were voluble against Adityanath and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and they voted for the S.P. It is these sentiments that the journalists picked up on and that got reflected in the swing of over 10 per cent votes in favour of the S.P. against the status quo.
What helped the BJP
Two things certainly helped the BJP ride out the tough battle. First, the dole of rations financed by the Rs.56,000-crore budgetary allocation made on the eve of the elections and the direct cash transfer of Rs.6,000 in three instalments to 25 million beneficiaries through the government machinery. Secondly, the behind-the-scenes, meticulous transfer of the Jatav votes by Mayawati to the saffron party. The BJP has won the battle of Uttar Pradesh. But the S.P. too has got the substantial wherewithal to fight on. Mayawati’s party is virtually dead. But Akhilesh Yadav has filled his armoury with enough weapons to continue in the battle that is expected to gather momentum in the two-year gap before the Lok Sabha election is held. But the million-dollar question is whether he will be able to withstand the BJP’s manoeuvres, especially the muscle and money games of strategists such as Amit Shah who will certainly make moves to break up the broad OBC–Dalit alliance that the former Chief Minister built up in the course of the current campaign.
Nalin Verma is an independent journalist and a professor of mass communication at Invertis University, Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh.