How the SP-Congress alliance in Uttar Pradesh became a sponge that soaked in people’s discontent against BJP and Modi

It was able to present itself to the OBCs, Dalits, and minorities as a viable and inclusive alternative.

Published : Jun 10, 2024 19:34 IST - 9 MINS READ

Samajwadi Party president Akhilesh Yadav (at a party meeting held after the Lok Sabha election results, in Lucknow on June 7. The party won 37 seats, reducing the BJP’s numbers to 33.  

Samajwadi Party president Akhilesh Yadav (at a party meeting held after the Lok Sabha election results, in Lucknow on June 7. The party won 37 seats, reducing the BJP’s numbers to 33.   | Photo Credit: PTI

A fluid red gash (denoting the Samajwadi Party, or SP), broken occasionally by a splash of blue (for the Congress), cuts a swathe through a constituency map of Uttar Pradesh, almost without interruption. From Saharanpur on the State’s extreme north-western edge, it dips southwards to Banda and Hamirpur on the Madhya Pradesh border, then curves up northwards, racing up to Kheri and Shrawasti that sit on the India-Nepal boundary line, before travelling purposefully towards Robertsganj and Ballia on its south-eastern fringe.

This striking pictorial representation of the extent of the SP-Congress combine’s success in Uttar Pradesh in the Lok Sabha election appears on the website of the Election Commission of India. As if to emphasise the double whammy of the SP-Congress, the saffron of the BJP lies scattered in five parts.

The challenge the “UP ke ladke” (boys of UP) mounted in 2024 has been electrifying in its impact. They snatched seats from the BJP across the length and breadth of the State and ended up with a tally of 43. The SP’s score was 37, up from the 5 it managed in the general election of 2019 while in an alliance with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD). The Congress, which fought alone in 2019, won only Rae Bareli; this time, that figure has risen to six.

For those who thought that the BJP citadel in Uttar Pradesh was impregnable, and Narendra Modi invincible, the dramatic change in the party’s fortunes—one that denied it a majority on its own at the Centre—has come as a revelation.

Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra and Samajwadi Party leader Dimple Yadav offer prayers at the Kaal Bhairav Mandir in Varanasi on May 25.  

Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra and Samajwadi Party leader Dimple Yadav offer prayers at the Kaal Bhairav Mandir in Varanasi on May 25.   | Photo Credit: PTI

In 2019, the BJP won 62 seats in Uttar Pradesh, and its ally, the Apna Dal (Soneylal), or AD(S), 2. In 2024, the BJP’s tally has shrunk to 33 even though it acquired new partners—the RLD, the Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party (SBSP), and the Nishad Party—to strengthen its OBC base. Only the RLD delivered, winning the two seats it contested. Its old ally the AD(S) won one seat. Seven Union Ministers and two State Ministers lost their seats in the electoral bloodbath; even Prime Minister Narendra Modi saw his victory margin in Varanasi drop by nine percentage points.

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The BSP, which won 10 seats in 2019, failed to score at all, and its vote share crashed to below 10 per cent. Of the 17 reserved constituencies in Uttar Pradesh, in 2019 the BJP won 14, the AD(S) 1, and the BSP 2. In 2024, the BJP’s score has fallen to eight. The SP-Congress alliance, on the other hand, has won eight. And the Aazad Samaj Party (Kanshi Ram)’s (ASP[KR]) charismatic Chandrashekhar Azad won one seat, Nagina.

Chandrashekhar Azad, a 2020 photograph. His victory was an act full of symbolism as it accompanies the diminishing of the BSP.

Chandrashekhar Azad, a 2020 photograph. His victory was an act full of symbolism as it accompanies the diminishing of the BSP. | Photo Credit: SHIVKUMARPUSHPAKAR

Symbolic act

Azad’s victory, which he snatched from the BSP, was an act full of symbolism as it accompanies the diminishing of the BSP base: the latter’s vote share suggests that a section of even its most loyal supporters, the Jatavs, have begun to gradually desert it. During the 2022 Assembly election, in western Uttar Pradesh, some educated young Dalit and Muslim men who had joined the ASP(KR) told this writer that they saw Azad as BSP chief Mayawati’s true successor. This time, I heard similar sentiments from Dalit and Muslim youth again, but from even as far east as Lalganj.

The reasons for the sea change in the electorate’s preferences become clearer as one looks back at one’s travels during the campaign period. For the first time since the BJP came to power at the Centre, communities as disparate as Jats and Brahmins actually spoke of Prime Minister Modi in less than god-like terms: they criticised his “long boring speeches”, referred to unkept promises, and ended with a diatribe against the way “the Gujarat lobby was dictating terms” to the people of Uttar Pradesh. And I heard this in constituencies as far apart as Muzaffarnagar and Jaunpur, both of which have shifted their allegiance from the BJP to the SP.

These conversations brought back memories of 2004, when this writer heard a group of Brahmins in Agra criticising the then Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and his India Shining campaign. If the gleaming motorways built during Vajpayee’s time reminded the poor about their dismal condition, this time, too, the sleek expressways that connect every corner of Uttar Pradesh are no compensation for the sharp economic distress—unemployment and inflation—the common man is experiencing, and which were central to the SP-Congress’ narrative.

A photograph outside a shop near Rampath in Ayodhya on June 5.

A photograph outside a shop near Rampath in Ayodhya on June 5. | Photo Credit: PTI

The anti-Muslim sentiment that has leached into Uttar Pradesh’s soil has not been washed away entirely, but the fires of the riots in Muzaffarnagar in 2013 have been doused. The consecration of the Ram temple in Ayodhya in January this year, timed to revive the Hindutva spirit in the election, barely created a ripple.

Highlights
  • For the first time since the BJP came to power at the Centre, communities as disparate as Jats and Brahmins actually spoke of Prime Minister Modi in less than god-like terms.
  • They criticised his “long boring speeches”, referred to unkept promises, and ended with a diatribe against the way “the Gujarat lobby was dictating terms” to the people of Uttar Pradesh.
  • If the gleaming motorways built during Vajpayee’s time reminded the poor about their dismal condition, this time, too, the sleek expressways that connect every corner of Uttar Pradesh are no compensation for the sharp economic distress—unemployment and inflation.

How BJP lost Faizabad

The BJP even lost the Faizabad seat to the SP’s Dalit candidate, Awadhesh Prasad, ironical when one recalls that the Sangh Parivar—to underscore unity among Hindus—had invited a Dalit, Kameshwar Chaupal, to lay the first brick when the shilanyas for the temple took place in 1989. But as it turned out, voters in Faizabad were upset at not being adequately compensated for the shops that were pulled down and the family lands that the government acquired for the temple complex, even as it sold vast tracts to speculators from outside, including from Gujarat. Elsewhere in Uttar Pradesh, too, the Ram temple made little difference to most people.

In its place, caste, apparently, the only real bulwark against communalism, was back on the table. SP leader Akhilesh Yadav, having patched up with his uncle Shivpal Yadav, a formidable organisation man, realised that to win he needed to shift the focus from Hindutva. To change the SP’s image of a mob of Yadav hoodlums, one that catered exclusively to Yadav and Muslim interests, his party adopted a new battle cry, “Pichchda, Dalit, Alpsankhyak”, to help mobilise the non-Yadav OBCs, Dalits, and Muslims and give it a more inclusive look. To lend further credibility to its new resolve, the party gave its ticket to only a few of its core supporters, the Yadavs and Muslims, while reserving the lion’s share for the other OBCs and Dalits.

Awadhesh Prasad, Samajwadi Party candidate from Faizabad, shows his certificate after his victory, on June 4.  

Awadhesh Prasad, Samajwadi Party candidate from Faizabad, shows his certificate after his victory, on June 4.   | Photo Credit: PTI

The SP-Congress narrative also bolstered the alliance’s claim of being committed supporters of these sections, even as it warned voters that if the BJP returned with an overwhelming majority, it would amend the Constitution and take away their quotas. In village after village, I heard non-Yadav OBCs and Dalits—who had over the last decade shifted in large numbers to the BJP—expressing their concern at what would happen to their children if the BJP returned with an overwhelming majority at the Centre. Akhilesh Yadav’s gamble paid off, just as Rahul Gandhi’s demand for a caste census to further the cause of social justice resonated on the ground.

If this election saw a substantial section of OBCs and Dalits abandon the BJP for the SP-Congress combine, at the other end of the caste spectrum there were signs of impatience among the dominant castes. The Rajputs and Brahmins were chafing at the prominence that the BJP’s central leadership had given the OBCs: to them it translated into a loss of the traditional power they wielded in society. In western Uttar Pradesh, Rajputs held several caste panchayats denouncing Modi for not fielding enough candidates from the community and accused him of “stealing their history” by presenting many ancient kings as belonging to various OBC communities: for Rajputs, all ancient rulers were Rajputs.

In Pratapgarh, a powerful Rajput leader, popularly known as Raja Bhaiyya, who local folklore says tosses his victims into a crocodile pond, told his constituents that they were free to vote for anyone; the seat eventually went to the SP. Part of the anger among Rajputs was fuelled by the belief that Modi, after the election, would replace Yogi Adityanath, a Rajput, as Chief Minister, in the way Vasundhara Raje in Rajasthan and Shivraj Singh Chouhan in Madhya Pradesh had been moved out. Brahmins across the State also gave vent to their dissatisfaction with the BJP though more obliquely.

The discontent among the dominant castes was reminiscent of the time when they “revolted” against Kalyan Singh, an OBC from the Lodh Rajput community and Uttar Pradesh’s first BJP Chief Minister in the 1990s. Accusing him of promoting only the OBCs, the dominant castes had at the time brought down his government, and the BJP in the State had remained in the wilderness until Modi played the OBC card in 2014.

Also Read | Daring dozen: 12 crucial States where BJP is likely to face a stiff challenge

For the BJP, tackling the return of social justice as a key issue will be difficult, especially in the face of a revived SP in Uttar Pradesh and a resurgent Congress in the country.

No longer ‘pappu’

After this election, Rahul Gandhi can no longer be dismissed as a “pappu”. He won both the constituencies he stood from—Rae Bareli in Uttar Pradesh and Wayanad in Kerala—in style, demonstrating that he is a national leader, as much at ease in the north as in the south. His two recent yatras—the Bharat Jodo Yatra and the Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra—that criss-crossed the country have energised the party base and helped the Congress double the number of seats it won in 2019. His espousal of a caste census—already a must-have for the Mandal parties outside the new government, as well as inside it—makes it awkward for Modi, who has been opposed to it.

Indeed, the recent election has resulted in a churn in Uttar Pradesh, one that will send the BJP scurrying back to the drawing board. Its leadership will no longer be able to say publicly that it does not need the help of the organisation from which it derives ideological inspiration, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. 

Smita Gupta, a former Reuters Fellow, is a prize-winning journalist who writes on politics, Parliament, and identity issues.

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