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Can 'Save Constitution' Pitch Help SP Break BSP's Grip on Dalit Voters in UP?

The 2024 election result will not only decide how strong the BJP is in UP but will also settle if the BSP will ever be able to rise up again. It will also indicate if Akhilesh Yadav has the acceptability to emerge as the future leader of the Bahujans and transform the SP into a modern version of Kanshiram’s BSP.
Akhilesh Yadav during Samajwadi Party's Lok Sabha campaign in Azamgarh constituency on May 22, 2024. Photo: X (Twitter)/@yadavakhilesh.

New Delhi: “If the BJP wins the election, it will change the constitution. And if they change the constitution, your rights and my rights will be snatched. All the respect we get will also be taken away. They will also seize our right to vote.”

This appeal by Samajwadi Party president Akhilesh Yadav to Dalits and OBCs in Doomariyaganj Lok Sabha constituency in Siddharthnagar, located along the border with Nepal, encapsulates the trajectory the Opposition’s campaign has taken in the 2024 Lok Sabha election in Uttar Pradesh. As the leader of the main Opposition party SP, Yadav has phrased the election battle in UP as one between those who want to change the constitution (read: Narendra Modi-led BJP) versus those who want to protect it (read: INDIA bloc).

Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

A key element of this emphasis on the constitution has been a direct appeal to the supporters of the Bahujan Samaj Party, which is contesting alone, to back the INDIA bloc and ‘save reservations’ and ‘save constitution’. In simpler terms, the SP is wooing the Dalits in the state in order to build a larger coalition of voters to challenge the BJP and its four OBC allies, three of which are influential in Eastern UP, where the remaining two rounds of voting are to take place on May 25 and June 1.

Dalits, who are 21.5% of UP’s population, are often considered sensitive to discussions on the constitution as rights provided to them, especially reservations and protection against atrocities, are tightly linked to their day-to-day socio-economic existence and political life. Through the legacy of B.R. Ambedkar, the constitution has also been immortalised in their thought process.

Although the BSP’s support base has drastically shrunk since 2012, when it was voted out of power after securing a historic mandate in 2007, the party is still placed as the frontrunner for the votes of the Jatavs, the largest Scheduled Castes community in the state. Known by various names in eastern UP, the Jatavs are estimated to be around 12-13% of the state’s population. Both the BJP and the SP have been trying hard to eat into the BSP’s Jatav base, which they believe are up for grabs. Several small Dalit-based groups – for instance, the Bhim Army in Saharanpur and the Ambedkar Jan Morcha in Gorakhpur – have emerged out of the BSP due to growing disenchantment with Mayawati’s working style, dilution of Ambedkarite ideology, inability to attract votes of other communities and now, nepotism.

The BJP has been trying to lure the community towards it through symbolism over B. R. Ambedkar, welfare schemes for the poor – the labharti card – and promoting their leaders as ministers. As of today, two out of the 22 cabinet ministers in UP under Yogi Adityanath are Dalits. Both of them – the BJP’s Baby Rani Maurya and the Rashtriya Lok Dal’s Anil Kumar – belong to the Jatav community. A third Jatav minister is police officer-turned-politician Asim Arun, who is a minister of state with independent charge. The BJP did not have as many Jatav ministers in the previous government between 2017 and 2022.

To attract the numerically significant non-Yadav OBC votes as well as wean away Jatav voters from the BSP’s grip, Akhilesh Yadav is ramping up the pitch over the constitution. In contrast, Mayawati, though targeting the BJP government for being “casteist” and rendering reservations ineffective due to increased privatisation of jobs, lends the saffron party some breathing space with her shriller criticisms of the SP and the Congress on the issue of Dalits even though the BJP has been in power since 2014. In Mayawati’s script, the BJP is not the villain but one which is following the path of the original villain, the Congress. Mayawati’s criticisms of the BJP have included broad and blunt accusations, customary in nature. But her criticisms of the SP and Congress are loaded with specific charges that are intended to create doubts among Dalits towards these parties.

This approach has ensured that the incumbent BJP is absolved of its failures. At a rally in Jaunpur, Mayawati narrated how Ambedkar resigned from the post of law minister under the government of Jawaharlal Nehru over, among many things, his differences with the Congress over getting quotas for OBCs and properly implementing the reservations granted to SCs and STs.

 “Their ancestors were against the constitution and did allow the full benefits of reservation to be provided to you. But today for votes, their followers are making tall claims about reservations,” said Mayawati. Had the Congress properly executed its responsibility, “we would not have to form the BSP,” she said.  Almost as an after-thought, she added: “The BJP is not far behind in this matter.”

The BSP has also made attempts to deter Dalits from voting for the SP. While she said that promotion in reservations for SCs and STs had become “ineffective” under the BJP rule, she also sought to remind voters that when in power the SP government had opposed promotion in reservation for these groups. “Will the SC community vote for such a party? I believe you will not forgive such a party,” said Mayawati in Basti, playing up the social antagonism that exists among a section of Dalits towards the Yadav-based SP due to decades of competitive politics and conflicting interests.

Mayawati with her nephew Akash Anand, who has been named as her successor. Photo: Facebook/Kunal Kishor Vivek

After Muslims, the Jatavs and the Yadavs are the single largest communities in the state, thereby increasing the chances of their interaction and possible conflict.

In all her election speeches and statements, Mayawati has followed a predictable script of implicating the past governments of the Congress at the centre while criticising the present BJP regime. Mayawati begins her speech by recording that post-independence most of the states and the Centre were ruled by the Congress but that it lost power due to its “wrong policies” and “wrong ways of working” in most matters. After this, Mayawati describes how this allowed the BJP to come to power but due to its “pro-capitalist, parochial, casteist, communal and spiteful” policies and working style, the saffron party will not come back to power at the centre “so easily this time”. The BJP’s “natakbazi, jumle baazi and guarantees” will not be of any use, she said.

The 2019 Lok Sabha election marked a historic moment in the politics of UP, when Mayawati personally campaigned for her long-time arch-rival Mulayam Singh Yadav in Mainpuri. With Mulayam’s son Akhilesh Yadav on the dais, the Dalit leader, setting aside her past acrimony with the Yadav patriarch from Saifai, hailed Mulayam as the “real and true leader” of the backward castes. In another rally in Kannauj, while campaigning for Mulayam’s daughter-in-law Dimple Yadav in Kannauj, Mayawati placed her head on Dimple’s head as a gesture of blessing, following which, Dimple bent and touched Mayawati’s feet. But as things turned out, the bonhomie between the leadership of the two parties would be short-lived. Soon after the 2019 election results were declared, Mayawati called off her alliance with the SP, reasoning among other things, that the SP’s core vote bank Yadav community lacked the “missionary” zeal that her supporters from the Jatav caste had.

Since then, the paths of the SP and the BSP have diverged further. While Mayawati has formally maintained a neutral stance, deciding to go alone in the 2022 Assembly election as well as the 2024 Lok Sabha election, at various junctures her seemingly nonaligned positions and undeclared and tacit support have benefitted the incumbent BJP, either in winning Rajya Sabha seats or pushing a favourable narrative.

After recovering ground in the state in 2019, winning 10 seats due to the support of the SP, Mayawati slumped to an all-time low, winning only one seat and securing a dismal 13% vote share in 2022. Akhilesh, on the other hand, has grown in strength, not just in terms of the number of seats in the Assembly – 47 in 2017 to 111 in 2022 –  but also in political messaging.

So drastic has been the downfall of the BSP, that today, the SP has risen to be a contender for the Dalit votes, including the core and loyal voter base of the BSP, the Jatavs. Akhilesh achieved this by embracing Ambedkarite rhetoric, the symbolism of caste-based Bahujan politics and population-based representation inspired by Kanshiram (jiski jitni sankhya bhari, uski utni hissedari) and inducting mass leaders from several OBC and Dalit castes into the SP fold.

Several of these leaders had an association with the BSP. Prime among them are Inderjeet Saroj, a Pasi MLA and former minister in the Mayawati whose 25-year-old son Pushpendra Saroj made his electoral debut in Kaushambi this time; Lalji Verma, a former minister and multiple-time MLA, who is contesting from Ambedkar Nagar LS and Babu Singh Kushwaha, former minister under Mayawati who is the SP’s candidate in Jaunpur, where the BSP curiously changed its candidate, in effect, releasing the pressure from the BJP’s candidate.

While Akhilesh has tried to instil doubts among the Dalits and OBCs about the BJP’s intentions towards the Constitution, after the saffron party raised the pitch for 400 seats, Mayawati’s focus has been to ensure that her voters don’t stray due to the slew of promises and welfare schemes such as free ration publicised by the ruling party or due to the SP’s promise of safeguarding the constitution. Mayawati has tried to project Akhilesh Yadav as anti-Dalit by recalling his decisions to change the names of schemes and districts named after Dalit icons when the SP was in power.

Mayawati has diluted the charge of misuse of investigation agencies levelled against the BJP by repeatedly drawing on the past of the Congress.

“Like Congress, the BJP has politicised central investigation agencies,” she said in Mau. At another rally, Mayawati drew a parallel between the BJP and Congress governments. “Just like the Congress party, now the BJP has also mostly politicised central investigation agencies. When the Congress is in power, it misuses and politicises central investigation agencies. When the BJP is in power, it does the same,” Mayawati said in Basti.

Sensing that the BSP’s was a lost cause, Akhilesh Yadav has made several appeals to the ‘Bahujan’ Samaj to not waste their votes by voting for the BSP candidates. Instead, they should rally behind the SP-Congress candidates and put up a consolidated fight against the BJP, he says.

With Mayawati’s sudden downgrading of her nephew Akash Anand, who had made stinging attacks on the BJP government, Akhilesh Yadav hopes to benefit from the growing confusion and disenchantment of the core BSP voters. “In several instances, we have seen that a party, which accidently won one MLA seat (in 2022), has tacitly shaken hands with the BJP. That’s why I have come to warn the people of the Bahujan Samaj,” said Akhilesh in Doomariyaganj.

Throughout his campaign, Akhilesh has dubbed the election as one where “samvidhan manthan” will take place just like “samudra manthan” or churning of the ocean took place, according to Hindu mythology, to create amrit, the elixir of eternal life.

“They are after your Babasaheb’s constitution,” Akhilesh told voters in Lalganj. “One on the side are those who want to change the constitution. On the other side, are the SP and the INDIA who want to save Bhim Rao Ambedkar’s constitution,” said he. This is in addition to him raising voice on livelihood issues, promising to scrap the controversial Agniveer scheme for jawans, drawing attention to paper leaks in examinations for government jobs and the failure of the BJP government to double the income of farmers.

Unlike 2019, when Mayawati played the senior role in the Opposition alliance, this time it is Akhilesh Yadav who is leading the charge against Modi, in terms of strategy as well as arithmetic. Mayawati also benefitted from the fact that she got some of the more favourable seats as part of the alliance deal. This time the BSP had been reduced to a minor third wheel in a largely bi-polar contest.

The 2024 election result will not only decide how strong the BJP is in UP but will also settle if the BSP will ever be able to rise up again. It will also indicate if Akhilesh Yadav has the acceptability to emerge as the future leader of the Bahujans and transform the SP into a modern version of Kanshiram’s BSP.

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