In Uttar Pradesh, the SP’s challenge
On Tuesday, the Samajwadi Party (SP) kicked off its campaign for the 2022 assembly polls in Uttar Pradesh with a “Vijay Yatra” from Kanpur; this yatra will, intermittently, continue till the elections and traverse the state. As is the norm with political campaigns, since parties believe that projecting the inevitability of their victory and the defeat of their opponent is essential to creating a “hawa” (broadly referring to a political climate in their favour), SP’s leader and former chief minister Akhilesh Yadav said that Yogi Adityanath would be swept away in 2022. But Mr Yadav knows that translating rhetoric into reality will be his biggest political test so far. In 2012, he rode the bicycle (SP’s symbol) as a fresh face, and leveraged the anti-incumbency against Mayawati’s government; but since then, in each election — the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha polls, and the 2017 assembly polls — the SP, under Mr Yadav, has faced a rout.
It has faced a rout simply because the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has overturned the formula that helped Mandal parties across the Hindu heartland ride to power. Be it the SP in UP or Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar, the formula was rather simple — pick a dominant backward caste (Yadavs) and promise them political power; ally with Muslims and promise them security; pick influential local political entrepreneurs as candidates who brought wealth and their own caste votes, and the election was sealed. The BJP has effected an electoral revolution by creating a larger sense of Hindu solidarity that spans castes, but doing so through careful multi-caste alliances. So it united upper castes (but with an obvious tilt towards Thakurs) and mobilised non-dominant backward and Dalits in terms of social alliances, stoked the politics of distrust against Muslims, delivered on provision of private goods on a mass scale (houses, gas, toilets), banked on the yearning for strong leadership, exemplified by Narendra Modi and, in UP’s case, Mr Adityanath, and created an organisational machine.
To win, Mr Yadav has to beat this formidable political machine. The SP, recognising that Yadavs and Muslims will anyway vote for the party, is now making a conscious attempt to reach out to other backward communities; its alliance with the Rashtriya Lok Dal in west UP will help in tapping the farm discontent against the BJP; and Mr Yadav appears to have finally hit the road. But as the last three elections have shown, underestimating the BJP will be a costly mistake.