Will BJP’s social engineering work in UP 2022?

Published on Jan 14, 2022 09:52 AM IST

The resignation of three ministers from the OBC communities come amid reports of different caste groups growing restive and distant from the BJP

Public outbursts by leaders such as Rajbhar, Maurya and Saini are seen as the manifestation of assertion by smaller parties. (ANI PHOTO) PREMIUM
Public outbursts by leaders such as Rajbhar, Maurya and Saini are seen as the manifestation of assertion by smaller parties. (ANI PHOTO)

New Delhi: The exit of three well-known ministers and a set of legislators, largely belonging to sub-castes within the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) category, from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — citing the “neglect” of their castes on the eve of elections in Uttar Pradesh (UP) — has led to questions about whether the party’s famed social engineering model will withstanding the political churn in the upcoming state assembly polls. This model rests on a matrix of diverse Hindu castes coming together in an electoral alliance.

The resignation of three ministers — Swami Prasad Maurya, Dara Singh Chauhan and Dharam Singh Saini — from the OBC communities come amid reports of different caste groups growing restive and distant from the BJP over issues such as lack of political empowerment and jobs.

In recent elections, the BJP has reaped dividends from its social engineering, which involves the inclusion of backward communities within its political structures and coalition. The emphasis on expanding the party base beyond Hindu upper castes was credited to a former party general secretary, K Govindacharya in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but this could not be sustained. Since the 2014 election, under the leadership of Narendra Modi, the party has carved out a wide coalition of castes, not all of whom are amiable and accommodating to each other; this has helped the party increase its vote-share and shed its tag of a so-called upper caste formation.

In states such as UP where caste is a key driver dictating political preferences, the party benefitted from stitching an unusual caste coalition helmed together by the Hindu identity and vastly improved its performance. From just 47 seats and a 15% vote share in 2012, the BJP came to power in the state in 2017 with a 31.45% vote share and 312 seats.

The only time that the party had a similar experience at the hustings was in 1991 when the Ram Temple movement was at its peak and the issue galvanised support for the BJP that went on to win 221 seats in the 403-member assembly.

OBCs account for 42% of the electorate in UP, of which Yadavs, counted as Samajwadi Party (SP)’s support base corner 9% of the vote-share. Over the last few elections, the BJP’s social engineering and targeted schemes for OBCs has seen its acceptance among the caste groups grow.

As per Lokniti-CSDS data, while 22% OBCs voted for the BJP in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, the number steadily rose to 34% in 2014 and 44% in 2019.

Impact of exits

While the exits did not come as a surprise, given that the murmurs about possible defections had reached the party headquarters in Delhi months ago, the timing and tone of resignations have left the BJP unsettled.

The OBC leaders who have switched sides to the SP have challenged the BJP’s claims of being all-inclusive. In similarly worded resignation letters that were posted on social media, the ministers  Chauhan, Saini and Maurya spoke about the “neglect of the Dalits, backwards, farmers, unemployed and small traders.”

BJP leaders blame “personal reasons” such as “disagreement with the CM” for the snapping of ties.

The 68-year old Maurya, a former Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) strongman joined the BJP ahead of the 2017 polls. The party had then boasted of getting a toehold in the Maurya dominated districts of Eastern UP. Maurya’s clout extends to the Rae Barely, Unchahar, Shahjahanpur and Badayun districts and covers about 100 odd seats. His exit is expected to dent the BJP performance in some of the districts.

While the BJP dismissed Maurya’s claims and blamed his departure on the party turning down his demand for a ticket for his son (his daughter is a lawmaker from Badaun), a belligerent Maurya told reporters, “Ab pata chalega Swami Prasad Maurya kaun hai. Main jahan rahunga, wahan sarkar banegi. (Now it will be known to them who Swami Prasad Maurya is. The party I go to will form the government)”.

The party is also expected to face resentment from the Lonia-Chauhan caste with a notable presence in Eastern UP’s Azamgarh and Varanasi that was represented by Dara Singh Chauhan. Also, a former BSP leader, this is his second stint with the SP.

Also expected to hurt the BJP’s electoral expedition is the differences that have cropped up between the party and OP Rajbhar’s Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj. After a public falling out with UP Chief Minister, Yogi Adityanath, Rajbhar signed up with the SP in 2019.

An OBC leader who honed his skill under BSP’s founder Kansi Ram, Rajbhar was welcomed into the BJP fold ahead of the last assembly election and wields clout in about a dozen districts in Eastern UP. In 2017, his party won four of the eight seats in contested and has carved out a space for itself among the castes counted as most backwards including pastoral communities and landless labour.

A senior BJP leader in Delhi said there is largely a consensus in the party that letting Rajbhar leave was “avoidable”.

No dent, says BJP

The BJP leadership, however, has been quick to term the exits as preemptive strikes by those who feared not getting a party ticket and asserts its heft within these diverse social groups remains unaffected by the departures.

“Why is that they waited full-five years before realising that BJP did nothing for their castes? Why did they not raise these concerns at the party forum or in the cabinet meetings?” said minister in the UP government, Sidharth Nath Singh.

He went to challenge the claims of the government being apathetic towards the OBCs and SCs. “Maurya went on record to say that during the tenure of this government, the maximum number of samuhik vivah or community weddings were funded by the government. These weddings are organised for the economically weaker sections, most of whom belong to SC, ST and OBC communities. It was during this government’s tenure that 2.6 crore (260 million) toilets were built, 6.7 crore (670 million) Ayush cards made and 43 lakh (4.3 million) houses for the poor. Which communities benefitted the most?” Singh questioned.

BJP leaders also assert that the expanse of the social welfare schemes that has documented benefits for OBCs and other socially and economically marginalised communities will offset the losses that these departures are expected to inflict.

“The BJP has created a space for itself and a handful of leaders cannot influence the choice of an entire community, especially when they have benefitted from government schemes. We have seen what happened to the SP-Congress alliance in the last election,” Singh said.

The BJP has also pointed to its OBC-friendly credentials by citing its decision to set up the National OBC Commission with constitutional status on the lines of the national SC and ST commissions; and the appointment of 23 OBC leaders as ministers in the UP government and 27 in the union council of ministers.

Why are OBC groups unhappy?

A few party leaders said while the larger non-Yadav OBC cluster of castes still prefers the BJP, the most vociferously heard complaint is about lack of jobs. While the government claims to have created 4.5 lakh jobs in 5 years for the youth, there is resentment against the move to privatise enterprises. “The youth understands that reservation ends with privatisation. They also feel that the government has not been fair in appointments, sticking to the mandated 27% quotas for the OBCs. For example, in the teacher recruitment process, OBCs who were hired were not even close to half of the mandated figure,” said a second BJP functionary.

There is also resentment about the choice of representatives from communities. “There is a section that feels Keshav Prasad Maurya did not merit deputy CM’s seat and it should have been SP Maurya. Similarly, within the party there is discomfort about the CM’s leniency towards his own caste group (Thakur) and the control that the Yadavs still hold over the administration, especially lower constabulary,” said the second functionary. Several OBC leaders are learnt to have conveyed their discontent that the party chose Yogi Adityanath, a Thakur (7% of the electorate) as CM overlooking the OBCs who are numerically stronger.

Public outbursts by leaders such as Rajbhar, Maurya and Saini are seen as the manifestation of assertion by smaller parties. “There are parties that represent caste groups that are not numerically large, but still push for greater political empowerment. They feel the presence of a community leader at the decision-making table will ensure their sunwai (being heard). Then there is always the demand for greater representation in government jobs etc,” explained a third BJP leader, also an OBC.

The smaller caste groups are wary of the numerically large groups subsuming them and reducing their presence in jobs by cornering a bigger share of the quota pie.

“It (fear) is based on discrimination at various levels by various groups that led to the formation of parties based on caste groups. Today among the non-Yadav OBCs who account for 42% of the vote base there are smaller sections such as nai (barber), badhai (carpenter), lohar (blaksmith) and darzi (tailor); all of whom are politically aware and aspirational,” said the third leader.

Political commentator, Manisha Priyam said the political churn in the state has been set off by a resurgence of assertions among OBCs. “There is a demand-side led resurgence of the poor and the peasantry who are affected by the pandemic and rising prices affecting their livelihood. They are demanding social justice and leaving no room for political manoeuvring for their leaders. So, the leaders are being pushed to see if they can assert themselves and expand their social base,” she said.

The other reasons, Priyam said, centred around power distribution and the quest for the votes of the BSP. “We have seen a Jat reassertion (during the farmers' protest) and there has been a dissonance between the Thakurs and the OBCs as Rajbhar openly spoke about,” she said.

Keeping the Dalits close and OBCs closer

Aware of the possible consequences of a fractured vote bank, the BJP designed a community-specific outreach, pressing senior leaders to meet various caste groups to address issues and counter disenchantment. Rallies and sammelans (meetings) were organised where senior party leaders including union ministers interacted with the representatives of castes.

More recently, the election narrative has acquired more religious undertones so as to prevent the disparate groups from diverging. A high decibel campaign around issues such as the Ram Temple, the Mathura-Kashi temple demand has been carefully orchestrated to sway the vote bank using religious sentiments.

This appeal to the “Hindu” vote bank is also helpful in wooing the Dalits, a predominantly BSP support group. The BJP is hoping its social engineering will bring to its fold the plus vote bank (the non-core voters). The party is eyeing the 11% non-Jatav Dalit vote bank.

“There is a ‘plus vote bank' that is up for grabs. Though we did not see a transfer of the Dalit votes in 2019, the BJP will need the support of the economically backward, the most backward as well in addition to the Dalits,” Priyam said.

The perception and the optics of OBC leaders walking out, the third BJP leader said does not reflect the mood on the ground. “There are people who do not see the Samajwadi Party as an alternative given its predominant bias for the Muslims. In the rural areas particularly, the Yadav-Muslim combination in itself is a reason for many to opt for the BJP. In the end, it is either caste or religion,” the leader said.

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    Smriti covers an intersection of politics and governance. Having spent over a decade in journalism, she combines old fashioned leg work with modern story telling tools.

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