In every electoral battle in Uttar Pradesh since the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its top leaders, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah, used to proclaim proudly how their party fixed the election agenda and how other parties were always forced to respond to it.
However, with less than a month to go for the Assembly elections in the country’s most populous State—slated to be held from February 10 to March 7 in seven phases—the BJP and its allies in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) are staring at a phenomenon new to them: the election agenda and the debates around it are increasingly being set by Samajwadi Party (S.P.), the principal opposition, and its president, former Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav. As a result, the BJP and U.P. Chief Minister Adityanath are finding themselves forced to respond to the S.P.’s moves and react to its every manoeuvre.
Defections and disaffection
The impact of this new trend was evident from of the defection of as many as 15 significant political leaders, including three Ministers in the Adityanath Cabinet, to the S.P. in the course of just one week.
Many of these leaders were MLAs in the outgoing Assembly and a majority of them belong to the Other Backward Classes (OBC) or most backward castes. This dramatic turn of events was widely perceived in the State’s political circles as a sign of the opposition upping its ante against the BJP in the new year, after a relatively slow start last year, in the early run-up to the Assembly elections.
The exodus was triggered by Labour Minister Swami Prasad Maurya, on January 11, when he resigned and joined the S.P. on the same day along with three MLAs close to him, namely Bhagwati Sagar, Roshan Lal Verma and Brijesh Prajapati. The next day, Dara Singh Chauhan, Minister of Forests & Environment, followed suit along with Avtar Singh Bhadana, an MLA. On January 13, Dharam Singh Saini, Minister of State (Independent Charge) for Ayush, Food Security and Drug Administration, left the BJP with 3 MLAs, Vinay Shakya, Mukesh Verma and Bala Awasthi.
A visibly rattled Deputy Chief Minister Keshav Prasad Maurya urged Swami Prasad Maurya and Dara Singh Chauhan to reconsider their move. He said on Twitter: “If any family member strays, it is very sad. I can only appeal to the respected leaders who are going to not get on a sinking ship or it will be their loss. Big brother Dara Singh, please reconsider your decision.”
Dara Singh Chauhan was not only a Minister, he was the BJP’s OBC Morcha chief in U.P. His exit, along with those of the others, is expected to upset the BJP’s electoral calculations. In 2017, the BJP came to power through the consolidation of the non-Yadav OBC and non-Jatav Dalit votes. The migration of Swami Prasad Maurya and other leaders to the S.P. indicates that Akhilesh Yadav’s efforts to woo back communities and alter the S.P.’s image of being a Yadav-Muslim party were bearing fruit.
The exit of these politicians spurred the BJP’s OBC Morcha into action and its leaders accused Dara Singh Chauhan and the others of resigning for selfish motives. K. Laxman, the party’s national OBC Morcha chief, said on Twitter: “UP MLAs quit BJP for selfish motives, we’ll go door to door and showcase welfare.”
The BJP camp is attributing the exodus to the lack of ideological commitment on the part of these leaders, as none of them come from an RSS background. BJP supporters also termed it a “poaching operation” by the S.P. and claimed that it would hardly dent the saffron party’s electoral fortunes. According to them, these leaders left because they had an inkling that they would not be given the party ticket owing to the anti-incumbency in their constituencies. But what is not forgotten is that the party came to power in the State with the help of turncoats it poached from other parties. For instance, Dara Singh Chauhan himself hopped from the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) to the S.P. and then joined BJP before returning to the S.P. now.
Political commentators say that such defections, whether they would alter the fortunes of the parties or not, need to be closely watched. While poaching leaders from other parties ahead of elections worked for the BJP earlier in U.P., it did not pay dividends for the party in the West Bengal elections in March 2021, where all the turncoats scrambled back to the Trinamool Congress after the BJP’s defeat.
However, observers say that there is a striking difference between the defections engineered by the BJP in West Bengal and the shift currently happening in U.P. The West Bengal defections were essentially the result of the intense persuasions made by the central BJP leadership, deploying its vast resources in terms of money and muscle power. The SP, being in the opposition,, does not have access to such vast resources. Against this backdrop, the observers say, the S.P.’s current gains are primarily the product of pressure from below, from the support base of the migrating leaders and the people at large in their constituencies.
Rahul Verma of the Centre for Policy Research wondered whether these switchovers might affect the final tally in U.P. He said: “In itself this is nothing unusual, but sometimes small errors add up to a large shift.”
According to psephologist Sanjay Kumar of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, defections hurt the BJP’s image in U.P. but it is still premature to say whether they would result in the party losing the elections.
Gilles Verniers, co-director of the Trivedi Centre for Political Data, Ashoka University, cited the Trivedi Centre’s Individual Incumbency Dataset to show that in 2017, the five main parties in Uttar Pradesh fielded 153 turncoat candidates. The BJP fielded the largest number (65), followed by the BSP (29) and the S.P. (26). Only 60 of these candidates got elected, and most of them on the BJP ticket (52). Among the 312 BJP MLAs elected in 2017, 25 came from the BSP, 14 from the Congress, seven from the S.P., three from the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) and three from minor parties.
He said: “The real question today is whether these movements reflect ground-level discontent and can create a churn amongst OBC voters. What we know about electoral behaviour in Uttar Pradesh is that voters rarely make their decision on the basis of a single variable. Non-Yadav OBCs may have voted massively for BJP in the last two elections, but they still do not form a cohesive social ensemble that can be mobilised solely on the basis of caste. Religious mobilisation, the key plank of BJP in this election, also plays a role. So do development and welfare policies.”
All the leaders who left the BJP for the S.P. cited the government’s “oppressive attitude” towards the backward, deprived sections, Dalits, farmers and unemployed youth as the reason for their decision to switch loyalties. Dara Singh Chauhan and Swami Prasad Maurya had even complained to the BJP leadership last year about Chief Minister Adityanath’s working style and arrogance.
It is no secret that Adityanath’s partiality to the Thakur community had caused considerable discontent in other leaders of other communities, including Brahmins.
Evidence of discontent
Travelling by road in as many as eight districts between Lucknow and Delhi in the days immediately following the shift of Swami Prasad Maurya and his loyalists, the Frontline team witnessed manifestations of this discontent. In rural Kanpur, several members belonging to OBC communities and most backward castes pointed out that Adityanath’s partisanship had grown to such levels that the recommendations of someone like Keshav Prasad Maurya, one of the Deputy Chief Ministers, was of no value even in a police station.
Chandan Maurya, a youngster in the group that spoke to Frontline in rural Kanpur, said: “What this showed was that the message of Thakur dominance had percolated to the lowest streams of administration.”
The shift of MLAs and Ministers has certainly taken the BJP by surprise and the party no longer looks poised for a comfortable win. For the first time in the run-up to the elections, it is on the back foot.
In western U.P., the BJP has suffered a setback owing to farmers’ anger over the three controversial farm laws, while in eastern U.P. the rebel OBC leaders are giving the party sleepless nights. The party, which looked set to sail through just a month ago, suddenly finds itself in troubled waters. In what is being seen as a damage control exercise, soon after the exodus, the BJP quickly announced tie-ups with allies Apna Dal and Nishad Party, without following the normal procedure of extensive and intensive bargaining.
At a media conference held to announce the tie-up, BJP president J.P. Nadda alongside Anupriya Patel of Apna Dal and Sanjay Nishad of Nishad Party firmly and repeatedly emphasised the party’s commitment to “social justice”.
Numerous worries for BJP
But there are other causes for concern too for the BJP. The Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM) has announced that it would relaunch Mission U.P. on January 21 from Lakhimpur Kheri and campaign amongst voters asking them to vote against the BJP. After the BJP decided to scrap the contentious farm laws a year into the farmers’ protests and promised to fulfil all pending demands through an official letter on December 9, it was widely believed that farmers’ movement would have a reduced impact on the U.P. elections.
With a month passing without any action from the BJP to fulfil the demands, the SKM announced that it would relaunch its political agitation against the party. Bharatiya Kisan Union president Naresh Tikait also apparently endorsed candidates from the RLD-S.P. alliance.
Meanwhile, Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi’s catchy slogan ‘Ladki hoon, lad sakti hoon’ (I am a girl, I can fight) is making waves at least on social media. She has announced that at least 40 per cent of the Congress’ candidates for the 403 seats will be women. Sadaf Jafar, an actress who was arrested for her role in the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests, the activist Poonam Pandey and a rape survivor’s mother are some of the women candidates being launched by the Congress this time.
Among other first-timers is Rajeev Yadav, a campaigner for minority rights. He is the Rihai Manch’s candidate supported by the United Democratic Alliance who will be contesting from Azamgarh’s Nizamabad seat.
Meanwhile, the Dalit vote seems to be up for grabs . While BSP leader Mayawati’s position regarding the BJP remains unclear, the BJP and the S.P. are trying to woo the Dalits. According to political observers, the impact of Mayawati’s failure to join hands with other Dalit leaders, including Chandrasekhar Azad Ravan, is quite visible in the State’s political context.
Chandrasekhar Azad Ravan, who floated the Azad Samaj Party (ASP), had expressed his commitment to an anti-BJP front and had initiated discussions with Akhilesh Yadav for seats. But the talks did not bear fruit as the two leaders failed to reach an agreement on the number of seats the ASP would contest. The failure of the talks seems to have generated considerable rancour as Chandrasekhar Azad Ravan declared that he would not tie up with the S.P. even if it gave him 100 seats as it was now a matter of ‘self-respect’.
For the Muslims of the State, they have no option but to rally behind the S.P., which has the best chance against the BJP this time.
However, despite the major gains it has made in terms of setting the election agenda and reaching out to new social and political constituencies, the S.P. leadership is facing the question whether it has generated enough traction to overcome the huge gap it had with the BJP in 2017 in terms of seat and vote share.
In the 2017 Assembly elections, the BJP won 312 out of 403 seats. The S.P. won only 47 seats, while its then ally, the Congress, got seven. The BSP, contesting separately, won 19 seats. In terms of vote share, the BJP had a whopping 39.67 per cent. The then S.P.-Congress-RLD alliance had a cumulative vote share of 29.85 per cent, of which the S.P.’s share was 21.82 per cent.
The general impression among political observers is that in the current context, given the intense rage among the farmer community against the BJP and the disenchantment amongst the backward communities, the S.P. would have added close to 10 percentage points in terms of vote share. According to observers as well as opposition leaders, this would result in the S.P. and its allies matching the BJP’s 2017 vote share. The BJP’s vote share is expected to come down in the background of the social and political churning signalled by the recent developments. A tough and interesting electoral battle is on the cards in the country’s most populous State.