Caste returns to haunt BJP in Uttar Pradesh

The saffron party’s best-laid plans to sweep the country’s most populous State are in danger of being upended by the emergence of caste fault lines.

Published : Apr 28, 2024 16:31 IST - 7 MINS READ

BSP supporters at a public meeting addressed by party chief Mayawati, in Moradabad on April 15.

BSP supporters at a public meeting addressed by party chief Mayawati, in Moradabad on April 15. | Photo Credit: PTI

After the first two phases of polling in Uttar Pradesh, there is a clear emergence of caste fault lines, a worrying sign for the BJP’s ambitious target of winning all 80 seats in the State. It won 71 and 62 seats in 2014 and 2019 on the back of religious polarisation and the promise of development, but now the party is having to walk the extra mile. The Samajwadi Party (SP) looks resurgent while the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) sees this election as a battle for survival and is presenting a strong front.

Even in seats like Mathura, where the film star and two-term BJP MP Hema Malini looks set for a hat-trick, the party’s victory margin is likely to come down. In Mathura for the last day of campaigning, Hema Malini led a roadshow standing atop an SUV. Tarak Chand Nagar had come from Alwar (Rajasthan) to see her and recalled her film Kranti. As she threw a rose garland to an old man, the crowd turned to tease him. The 75-year-old actor still has star appeal, although there is much discontent about her performance.

As one crosses Golwalkar Setu, named after M.S. Golwalkar, the second RSS chief, one sees a poster of Hema Malini with the slogan “Dekha Parkha Baar Baar, Hema Malini Phir Ek Baar”. The star’s victory is not really in doubt. In 2019, when the BJP and the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) fought separately, they together polled nearly 95 per cent of the votes. Now that they are in an alliance, this number is unlikely to slide too far down. But what is noticeably missing is the Narendra Modi wave seen in 2019. And, tellingly, instead of invoking the Krishna Janambhumi controversy, the BJP’s campaign plan for Mathura shows its social outreach cell becoming active in villages of different castes such as Jatav, Nishad, Dhangar, etc.

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Sanjay, a BJP supporter, talks only of caste. “The BSP has fielded a Jat candidate [Chaudhary Suresh Singh]; the Congress has fielded Mukesh Dhangar, a shepherd and OBC by caste, and he will get the maximum votes of his community, but we are hopeful that a majority of Jats will stay with the BJP because the Bharat Ratna was given to Chaudhary Charan Singh,” he said.

Caste in many forms

Caste has come in through another route as well. There are rumblings of discontent from the Kshatriya (Rajput) community over low representation. This has emerged as a challenge in an area where Rajputs are the third largest community after Muslims and OBCs, even though the region is known as “Jatland”.

In the eight Lok Sabha seats that polled on April 19, the BJP fielded a lone Rajput candidate: Kunwar Sarvesh Singh in Moradabad, who passed away a day after voting. A massive Rajput mahapanchayat announcing the boycott of the BJP has continued from the first phase into the second phase. The Ghaziabad seat was represented by the BJP’s Rajnath Singh (2009) and Gen. V.K. Singh (2014 and 2019), both Kshatriyas. V.K. Singh was denied the Ghaziabad ticket this time around, which added fuel to the fire. The BSP doubled down with a Kshatriya candidate in Thakur Nandkishore Pundhir. And despite the BJP’s alliance with the Jat party RLD, Jats in Ghaziabad held meetings to announce their opposition to the BJP candidate Atul Garg.

Dimple Yadav of the SP with supporters during an election campaign in Mainpuri, where she is seeking re-election.

Dimple Yadav of the SP with supporters during an election campaign in Mainpuri, where she is seeking re-election.

In the Gautam Budh Nagar seat, the BJP has fielded former Union Minister Mahesh Sharma, a Brahmin. The SP’s candidate is Mahendra Singh Nagar, a Gujjar. The BSP has again fielded a Rajput candidate, Rajendra Singh Solanki, with Mayawati repeatedly pointing to the Rajput boycott of BJP. Taken aback by the caste narrative gaining momentum, the BJP has gone into damage control mode, pressing Union Minister and Thakur leader Rajnath Singh aggressively into the campaign. Clearly, the party does not want a repeat of the 2015 Bihar Assembly election, when a grand alliance defeated the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) on a campaign centred around RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s remarks about the need to review caste-based reservation.

In Amroha, which has been a switch seat for the past 40 years and never re-elected a sitting MP, Kunwar Danish Ali, who won as a BSP candidate in 2019 and was suspended by the party in December 2023, is contesting on the Congress ticket this time. Amroha could see a triangular contest between Ali, the BJP’s Kanwar Singh Tanwar, and the BSP’s Mujahid Hussain. In 2019, the Muslim vote had consolidated behind Ali, who defeated Tanwar by over 60,000 votes. However, by fielding a Muslim candidate, the BSP is now making it tough for its former MP.

Unemployment in Agra

In Agra, the BJP can breathe easy despite rampant unemployment. With a sharp decline in the city’s famed marble work and with the leather tanneries shifting to Shastripuram-Sikandara, Agra’s youth are either migrating or becoming tourist guides. Rajiv Kumar Singh, secretary of the Confederation of Tourism Associations, said there are 380 approved guides in Agra but concedes that thousands are engaged in the work for lack of better options.

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This is not impacting the BJP’s prospects. It has repeated Union Minister S.P. Singh Baghel against the SP’s Suresh Chandra Kardam. The party won the seat in 2009 and 2014, and on both occasions the runner-up was the BSP. The SP is making an all-out effort to make a comeback (Raj Babbar won it in 1999 and 2004), but the odds are stacked against it.

In Mainpuri, where Dimple Yadav of the SP is contesting, an interesting controversy is playing out after the BSP changed its candidate Gulshan Shakya and fielded Shiv Prasad Yadav instead, a move that could lead to a division of Yadav votes. An angry Gulshan Shakya joined the SP, claiming “the Shakya community will avenge this insult”. After the Yadavs, the Shakyas or Kushwahas are the most numerous in this constituency. An SP bastion, the party has won all 10 elections here since 1996; it is a safe seat that the party won even during the 2014 and 2019 Modi waves.

In Meerut, the BJP is trying to capitalise on Hindu sentiments by fielding Arun Govil, who played the character of Ram in Ramanand Sagar’s TV serial Ramayan, replacing three-term MP Rajendra Agrawal, who was facing a strong anti-incumbency sentiment. In 2019, Agrawal’s victory margin was less than 5,000 votes. Facing Govil is the SP’s Sunita Verma, a Scheduled Caste candidate, in line with the party’s attempt to forge a Dalit-Muslim alliance, something that Kanshi Ram had visualised on a larger scale. Verma and the SP are reportedly getting strong support.

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Despite Meerut having over six lakh Muslim voters, no major party has fielded a Muslim candidate. The BSP’s Mohammed Akhlaque was the last Muslim MP from Meerut in 2004. This time, the BSP has fielded Devvrat Tyagi. The underlying disgruntlement is obvious in Meerut too. Rajiv, a BCom graduate and avid YouTuber, runs a popular channel called “JoshRiders” devoted to reviews of truck drivers. Standing in his kirana store at Jangethi village, he said: “This time I will not vote. Perhaps I will vote for change. Why vote at all? Nobody comes back after winning the elections.”

“I have both Hindu and Muslim customers,” he added angrily. “There is no difference. The difference is deliberately created.” Rohit, who works at the shop, said that most of his friends from Meerut are in Delhi, Gurugram, and Noida, as there are no jobs in Meerut.

In Baghpat, the youths depend on Gulf remittances. A large number of Muslim homes there have at least one family member in West Asia. The contest in Baghpat is between the RLD’s Raj Kumar Sangwan and the SP’s Amarpal Sharma, while the BSP has fielded a Gujjar candidate named Praveen Bainsla. Baghpat, once represented by Charan Singh, former Deputy Prime Minister and RLD founder, is a pale shadow of its past. The RLD seems to be in decline, as does the dominance of Jat politics in the region. What will fill that vacuum and whether caste can displace religion are the interesting questions arising in Uttar Pradesh.

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