Keeping up with UP | The caste factor in Yogi and Akhilesh's 2022 battle

  • While the BJP is handling caste at the party level, Akhilesh is using the time-tested formula of expanding his party’s base by opening the SP's doors to smaller, caste-based parties
Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath. (File Photo) PREMIUM
Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath. (File Photo)
Updated on Jan 14, 2022 10:04 PM IST
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BySunita Aron

Uttar Pradesh (UP) chief minister Yogi Adityanath — the face of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the upcoming assembly elections — and the Samajwadi Party (SP) national president Akhilesh Yadav — the main challenger to the ruling party, are beset with the same problem: Their image as pro-Rajput and pro-Yadav netas (leaders).

While the BJP is handling caste at the party level, Akhilesh is using the time-tested formula of expanding his party’s base by opening the SP's doors to smaller, caste-based parties, and projecting their leadership in the polls.

Experts believe the caste aspirations are the only antidote to hyped religious sentiments, as proven during the 1990s when both Mandal (quota for Other Backward Classes or OBCs) and Mandir (Ram temple movement) were determining the elections.

Yogi's aggressive casteism

Yogi’s pro-Rajput image has been an issue of heated discussion in the state. Although Yogi vehemently denies being casteist, with his supporters highlighting his monk status, the Opposition reels out reasons to drive home their point. However, Yogi is known to project his Hindu face and Hindutva ideology as a whole rather than focusing on caste, because he knows caste has its limitations in national politics.

A bureaucrat said there was a time when the state had 20 Rajput district heads. This is strongly disputed by Yogi supporters who raise the issue of infamous police recruitments by the Akhilesh Yadav government in 2013, which saw Yadavs packing the state's police force.

However, the fact that Brahmins have been upset by the pro-Rajput politics of Yogi is established by the BJP setting up a committee to look into their grievances.

The BJP is confident that with Prime Minister Narendra Modi taking care of the forwards, the Brahmins will not desert the BJP, but they do fear their non-cooperation in the elections. Brahmins are not only great influencers of voting, but even 10% absenteeism by them on voting day can change the BJP's fate.

Thus, efforts are on to appease the Brahmins, even though the party with its Hindutva plank is that they have the unfailing support of the Brahmins, much like the Banias, who would crib about the Goods and Services Tax (GST) and other issues during the BJP regime, but vote for the saffron party.

However, the pro-Rajput campaign against Yogi has disturbed the caste calculus set by Union home minister Amit Shah before the 2014 general elections. The BJP earlier faced a similar dilemma in the 1990s, when it was caught in the vortex of the OBCs vs Brahmins. At the time, Kalyan Singh, a leader from an OBC caste, was the face of the party, and later, Kalraj Mishra, a Brahmin, was appointed the state chief to restore the caste equilibrium.

Even while succumbing to the aspirations of his caste, Yogi projects his Hindu face and Hindutva ideology because of the limits of caste in national politics. After all, he is said to be the prime ministerial choice of the BJP's parent organisation, Rashtriya Swayam Sewak Sangh (RSS).

Akhilesh is shedding his pro-Yadav image

The young SP leader, Akhilesh, had to counter three main challenges after he took over the party from his father and founder-president Mulayam Singh Yadav in 2017 as the national president. He became the party’s state chief before the 2012 assembly polls.

The party, born in the early 1990s amid the Ram temple agitation, had used the emotive temple-mosque issue to consolidate its hold on minorities, who, until then, were divided between the Congress (pre-demolition days) and the Janata Dal. Mulayam took the stand of protecting the disputed shrine and earned the moniker "Maulana Mulayam". While he emerged as a leader to reckon with, his son Akhilesh faced legacy issues especially when a resurgent BJP went after his “red topi” and the alleged protection of the mafia and Muslims.

In 2017, students of Aligarh Muslim University, in an interaction with HT, said that while their first choice of a leader is Akhilesh, they had issues with the party. They mentioned the promotion of anti-social elements and aggressive casteism as two major issues that alienated them from the SP. The students, in the interview, were silent on the Muslim factor.

Akhilesh has done his bit in the past to correct the party's goonda image by denying the ticket to DP Yadav, a leader with criminal antecedents, back in 2012. He diluted the pro-Muslim image by projecting the SP as a new-age party that distributed laptops and focused on development issues such as metro and expressways. But the pro-Yadav image persisted.

However, it was in 2018 when he found a winning formula, which helped him shed his pro-Yadav image in the Phulpur and Gorakhpur Lok Sabha constituencies where bypolls were held in March. The vacancies were caused by the resignation of BJP Members of Parliament (MPs) Keshav Prasad Maurya and Yogi Adityanath from their respective seats after taking over as deputy chief minister and chief minister of the state, respectively.

Akhilesh built a secular alliance by entering into an understanding with Mayawati, national president of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), and fielding non-Yadav candidates.

In the 2018 Lok Sabha by-polls, the SP fielded Praveen Nishad, the son of Sanjay Nishad, a prominent OBC leader from Gorakhpur, and Nagendra Patel (Kurmi) from Phulpur. The SP won both the seats and an excited Akhilesh exclaimed, “We, too, have evolved a winning formula.”

Although his alliance with the BSP did not work in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, Akhilesh continued wooing prominent OBC leaders and now has an alliance with Mahan Dal (Maurya and Kushwaha- based party), Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party (Rajbhar-based party), Rashtriya Lok Dal (Jat- dominated party), Swami Prasad Maurya (a solid OBC leader who picked up lessons in mobilising caste groups from Kanshi Ram), Krishna Patel (Kurmi) and so on. On the flip side, they all are ambitious and unpredictable leaders.

The rainbow of the OBC coalition is complete.

At the personal level, Akhilesh has not only broadened his party’s base, but has emerged as a leader of the OBCs and not a leader of Yadavs and Muslims alone. After the demise of the BJP's Kalyan Singh, there has been a vacuum of OBC leadership at the state level.

It appears that after the 2022 elections, Akhilesh will not only shed his pro-Yadav image, but also emerge as the undisputed OBC leader of the state. His supporters contend that he will play a concrete role in national politics as he shares camaraderie with leaders of various political parties.

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