As BSP-SP join hands, BJP stares at twin challenges in Uttar Pradesh
From western UP’s Jat-dominated terrain through the heart of central UP all the way to Purvanchal, the BJP swept the 2014 Lok Sabha and 2017 assembly elections.Updated: Jan 21, 2019 07:37 IST
The impact of the Samajwadi Party-Bhaujan Samaj Party (SB-BSP) alliance, and why the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has taken recent decisions — from bringing in a significant constitutional amendment to introduce reservations for economically weaker sections to announcing a cow cess and promising cow shelters for strays — is visible in the cities, towns and villages of Uttar Pradesh.
The Janeshwar Mishra Park in Lucknow is bustling with activity. Conversations here provide a glimpse of the middle-class mood in the battleground state. A group of education department officials from Basti district are sipping tea, “killing time” as they call it, before their bus leaves back for home. Two are Kurmis, which falls within the other backward classes (OBC) category; one is a Brahmin; and one a Dalit. All four asked to remain anonymous, for they are not authorised to speak to the media.
When asked about the performance of the BJP governments at the Centre and in the state, one of the Kurmi officials said: “From the Centre, there has been some work in villages. But the UP government, particularly Yogi Adityanath, has done little. He is too busy with temples, campaigns and cows. The mood is turning against the BJP now.”
His colleague, also a Kurmi, chipped in: “The BJP won because of our [OBC] votes, but look at who is in power across government departments. It is the upper castes.” His Brahmin colleague smiles, but doesn’t say anything.
The slightly elderly Dalit employee says his primary concern is pensions, a local state issue. Only if pensions were revised upwards for staff at the lower levels in government would he vote for the BJP. When asked if he was a traditional BSP supporter, he responded: “I am from Mayawati’s caste (Jatav). But to think I will vote only on that basis is wrong. The BJP hasn’t shown me work or helped me. That is the reason.”
From western UP’s Jat-dominated terrain through the heart of central UP all the way to Purvanchal, the BJP swept the 2014 Lok Sabha and 2017 assembly elections. This was primarily because it won urban pockets; constructed multi-caste coalitions of upper castes (Brahmins and Thakurs), non-Yadav OBC groups and non-Jatav Dalits; and got the support of farmers. On the other hand, social groups loyal to the other parties, Yadavs, Jatavs and Muslims fragmented between SP and BSP, and to a limited extent in the case of Muslims, the Congress. With the SP and BSP formalising their alliance last week, the Opposition vote is set to consolidate.
The BJP has responded by saying it is ready to take on this alliance by aiming for a “50% plus” vote share in each constituency in UP. A top party strategist said, “Upper castes, OBCs besides Yadavs, and Dalits besides Jatavs helped us win last time. They together constitute 60-65% of UP’s population. Last time there was about 60-70% turnout of this demographic, which is why we got a little over 40% of the vote. Now we have to ensure an 80% plus turnout of these groups in our favour.”
But the ground reality in the state indicates that the BJP’s old coalition is cracking now. And so it will confront twin challenges. As groups antagonistic to it unite, key sections of its own vote base have, at best, lost their enthusiasm, or at worst, turned hostile. It is this mood, party leaders admit, that explains the slew of decisions that the BJP has taken both at the Centre and the state this month.
Some caveats are necessary. Cracks have appeared but this does not necessarily mean that a majority of its old voters have moved away. The impact of the recent decision to introduce reservation is not yet clear (reportage for this story largely happened before the move). Three to four months remain before the elections — parties have not declared candidates, campaigning has not begun, and a lot could change once Narendra Modi hits the ground. The BJP hopes and believes that expressions of disillusionment do not represent anger, and therefore these segments will not shift when it comes to the actual vote.
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On the way from Lucknow to Varanasi, at dhabas in the upper caste pockets of Pratapgarh and Jaunpur, there is a common refrain against the BJP – its decision to restore the “tough” provisions of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, that had been struck down by the Supreme Court was wrong and the party must correct it.
In a village in Jaunpur, Anil Singh is a local dhaba owner, Sushil Dubey is a former pradhan and Anupam Singh is a local contractor.
“The Supreme Court could see that this act is misused. It diluted it. Why then did the Modi government restore the old act? Imagine a Dalit comes to my dhaba. He doesn’t pay. I ask him for money. He can complain I harassed him and I will be locked in without even an enquiry,” said Anil Singh.
When told that the general impression was that Thakurs were dominant in UP and had all levers of power, Anupam Singh responded, “Kya Thakurwaad [what Thakur power?] This BJP just wants to back Dalits.”
Dubey concurs and says this is not about Thakurs or Brahmins. “All savarnas [upper castes] must unite. And if BJP can overturn a judicial verdict in this case, why don’t they do something on Ram Mandir?”
In the easternmost corner of the state lies Mirzapur’s Rajgarh bazaar, where, two years ago, one had encountered substantial support for the BJP. Now the mood is somewhat different. Neeraj Srivastava is standing outside a paan shop in the market. He is skeptical of the BJP, despite his family being an old supporters of the party. Why? “They restored the SC/ST Act and strengthened it. The act is misused against us. The BJP did not need to do it. This has caused wide unhappiness.”
But if those in rural pockets and smaller bazaars have concerns about the Act, younger people from upper castes in urban settings — a major support base of the BJP — have different motivations that revolve around livelihood, prosperity and development.
Back in Lucknow’s Janeshwar Mishra Park, four young friends are sitting on a bench.
Divya Singh works in a local company. She is critical of the Yogi government. “I don’t like the way they are dividing Hindus and Muslims always. Look how focused Akhilesh Yadav was on development. He made this park,” she said. “But I will end up voting for Modi. My family supports him.”
Chand, Ashwini Jaiswal and Rajnish Singh are commerce students. Chand, who is Muslim, concurs. “We have always voted Samajwadi Party,” he said.
Jaiswal says his family has always supported the BJP.
They ran a small business. But demonetisation and the rollout of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) had a devastating impact on their business and they had to shut it down. “We won’t vote for BJP this time,” he said.
Rajnish Singh says his primary concern is jobs. He does not see government recruitment happening on a large scale and he does not see private sector opportunities growing. “Let us see who can deliver jobs.”
Whether these voters turn against the BJP or stay on with the party despite disenchantment is unclear. Whether the reservation move is enough to neutralise anger over the SC/ST Act is also not known. But these voters are clearly sending out a warning.
It is in western UP that the shift of one of BJP’s key OBC support groups, Jats, could alter equations.
Soon after the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots, the BJP swept the Jat-dominated belt. The election turned into a Hindu versus Muslim battle in which the BJP was seen as representing Hindu, particularly Jat, interests. All other parties were portrayed as “appeasing minorities”. Despite murmurs of discontent in 2017, the BJP retained the support of both Jats and non-Jat backward groups in this region.
A drive across Muzaffarnagar reveals this may be changing. In a village near Budhana town, Jat landowner Manoj Sehrawat, who voted for the BJP in the last two elections, is not happy. “They promised farm loan waivers but most farmers in our region have still not got the waiver. Sugarcane payments are also not complete yet.” But his most important reason to move away is nostalgia and support for what he considers his own party, the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD).
“After the Kairana bypoll win, the RLD is on a comeback. Chaudhary Ajit Singh has told us that he will stand from Muzaffarnagar himself. We will then vote for him. It is probably Chaudhary saheb’s last election,” he said.
When asked if he would be willing to vote for RLD if it was part of a broader alliance with SP and BSP, two parties seen by Jats as “pro Muslim”, Sehrawat said, “Yes. Those tensions have now dipped. Jats and Muslims can vote on the same side.”
This is not necessarily the mood in the twin villages of Kutba-Kutbi, which were deeply affected during the riots of 2013, and which saw an exodus of Muslim residents. The BJP MP Sanjeev Baliyan is from here. “We are still with our local leader. Baliyan helped get many Jats implicated in the riots released from prison, even though cases still persist. Only the BJP can protect us against Muslims,” said Kawar Pal, a local resident, while admitting that the Jat vote this time around will split.
This divide is visible among Sainis - another important social group that backed the BJP in large numbers. Surendra and Sunil Saini are sitting in a shop at Bhasana village. The former is strongly with the BJP and recounts its achievements on rural housing, toilet construction and power; the latter is with the Opposition and complains about the Yogi government’s lack of delivery on governance.
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In the east, the mood is similarly mixed. In Bhadohi’s Dhanapur, an hour or so away from Varanasi, Narayan Sharma, from the Nai sub-caste, continues to remain an ardent supporter of the BJP. He cites rural welfare schemes as the big accomplishment of the Modi government. “The PM has also improved India’s izzat, honour, in the world.”
In Mirzapur’s Chunar however, a group of Kurmi shopkeepers feel the economic performance of the government has been very weak. “The market is slow. The BJP is in power everywhere. Why is this happening?” they asked.
Caste and class have a strong connection in the heartland. In 2017, farmers across major castes backed the BJP for its promise of farm loan waivers. The mood is perceptibly different this time around.
Bhadohi is represented in Parliament by BJP’s National kisan morcha cell head, Virendra Singh Mast. But like in other districts we travelled to, the farmers here are angry — not as much because of the issue of pricing for their produce, which was the big concern in Madhya Pradesh, but because of the disruption caused by stray cattle.
In the Laxmanpatti village, Lal Bahadur, a Kevat, is angry with the CM in particular for his policies on slaughterhouses and protection and patronage to cow vigilantes. “Earlier, we had ways to dispose of unproductive cattle. Now no one wants to buy or transport them. Muslims are scared. So people quietly get rid of cattle at night on streets, in villages, in farms. These then become a menace, and farmers have to maintain a 24x7 vigil to ensure that stray cattle don’t destroy farms. It is madness,” he said.
This is a complaint spanning across villages in UP. Recent reports have confirmed its widespread nature. The government has stepped in by imposing a cow cess and promising gaushalas to ensure that there are ways to prevent stray cattle from destroying livelihoods. But this may well be a case of too little, too late, given the anger on the ground.
These voices — of upper castes, OBCs, and farmers— may not be entirely representative of UP’s large and complex demography. But they should be a wake-up call for the BJP considering such voices were almost absent among these social groups in the last two elections. The party, however, believes that these cracks are exaggerated.
The party strategist quoted above said: “First, I don’t buy the argument that our supporters have moved away. I feel we have consolidated our presence among these social segments. We were earlier absent among backwards and Dalits. But even if I was to assume that some are expressing their unhappiness, this is natural. It is before an election that citizens and social groups articulate their grievances. This does not mean they will not vote for us.”
The most obvious example, he added, was the perceived Jat mood in western UP in 2017. “Everyone said Jats have turned against us. But we swept the region. You will see something similar.”
He then offers a break-up of the social equations. “Brahmins and Thakurs will stay with us— you really think they will vote for SP or BSP and rather have Rahul Gandhi or Mayawati as PM?”
He adds that the 10% reservation has altered the mood on the ground in upper caste communities entirely. “They have begun saying that BJP is our party again.” The leader says that OBCs besides Yadavs will also stay on. “Even if they are not entirely happy with us, will they go to the SP where Yadavs corner all benefits, or the BSP where there is only one person who controls everything, or the Congress which has no presence among OBCs?”
This view appears to underestimate the SP and BSP’s possible strategy of giving tickets to non-Yadav OBCs in large numbers. In Gorakhpur and Phulpur, SP candidates came from Nishad and Kurmi communities, which were earlier seen as being locked with BJP.
How the party ensures that its old supporters stay over the next four months is central to its goal of achieving a 50% vote share in the state.
This is perhaps Modi, Amit Shah and Adityanath’s biggest challenge in 2019. It explains why Parliament, in two days, passed a landmark amendment.