UP Polls: Akhilesh has seized the moment, is it enough?

Battle for Uttar Pradesh: Akhilesh Yadav has seized the moment, but will it be enough?

Unlike BJP, the SP can tell non-Yadav OBCs that the increased visibility of OBCs in BJP ranks has not resulted in an actual share in decision-making

This time, SP president Akhilesh Yadav has opted for a new model. He is assembling a larger alliance of Other Backward Castes (OBCs) by joining hands with a range of smaller parties, hoping to snatch a large chunk of the OBC votes that the BJP has succeeded in adding to its electoral pool in UP since 2014, the year it won power at the Centre. Credit: Twitter/@yadavakhilesh

The Samajwadi Party (SP) has emerged as the principal challenger to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Uttar Pradesh. As the countdown to the next state elections begins, it has its work cut out. In the Assembly polls in 2017, it tied up with the Congress Party; in the Lok Sabha elections in 2019, it aligned itself with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). Both experiments failed miserably. This time, SP president Akhilesh Yadav has opted for a new model. He is assembling a larger alliance of Other Backward Castes (OBCs) by joining hands with a range of smaller parties, hoping to snatch a large chunk of the OBC votes that the BJP has succeeded in adding to its electoral pool in UP since 2014, the year it won power at the Centre.

If that is the centrepiece of his strategy, Akhilesh Yadav is also busy putting his own house in order. He has made peace with patriarch Mulayam Singh Yadav and is working to tie up with estranged uncle Shivpal Yadav's Pragatisheel Samajwadi Party-Lohia (PSPL). By positioning himself as the BJP's most significant opponent, Akhilesh Yadav hopes that the Muslims will remain loyal to the SP and not get distracted by the Congress, the BSP and newcomers like Asaduddin Owaisi's AIMIM. Finally, Akhilesh Yadav is also trying to attract Dalit votes by poaching BSP old-timers like Ram Achal Rajbhar and Lalji Verma and stressing the "need to bring together the ideologies of both BR Ambedkar and Ram Manohar Lohia to oust the BJP from power in the state."

Also Read | UP polls: The many labours facing Akhilesh

In 2012, when he came to power, father Mulayam Singh had orchestrated a generational transition in the SP, with Akhilesh Yadav's fresh-faced charm, signalling hope, doing the rest. But in the subsequent two elections, the young man - who spent his five years as chief minister (2012—2017) in the shadow of his father, Mulayam Singh, and uncles, Shivpal Yadav and Ramgopal Yadav – tried hard to break free of family bonds to strike a path of his own. He wanted to change the image of the SP from that of a bunch of raffish Yadavs riding roughshod while in power into a modern party focussed on good governance. To underscore this message, he had even announced at the time that he would not field candidates with a known criminal record. 

Having tasted the rough and tumble of politics after – rather than before -- a stint in power, Akhilesh Yadav has adopted a more "practical" approach this time. He is holding out an olive branch to Shivpal Yadav. He knows that the defeats the SP suffered in its bastion in the Mainpuri-Etawah belt in the last two elections were because the latter had put up independents against the official SP candidates, thus dividing the traditional party vote.  

In these elections, he is no longer being as choosy when it comes to selecting candidates, looking for winnability rather than squeaky clean records. Akhilesh Yadav recently welcomed former MLA Sibghatullah Ansari, controversial politician Mukhtar Ansari's brother, into the SP. In 2016, he had blocked the merger of Ansari's Quami Ekta Dal (QED) into the SP, following which the Ansari brothers had teamed up with the BSP. The Ansari clan's influence is spread across eastern UP in Ghazipur, Ballia, Mau, Azamgarh and Varanasi districts.

Also Read | Uttar Pradesh Assembly Polls: The Pasmanda factor

Simultaneously, in a bid to expand his support base beyond his fellow Yadavs and Muslims, Akhilesh Yadav has joined hands with OP Rajbhar's Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party (SBSP), the Mahan Dal (MD), Sanjay Singh Chauhan's Janwadi Socialist Party (JSP) and the Apna Dal (Kamerawadi), which have a following among non-Yadav OBC castes. The SBSP draws its sustenance from the Rajbhars in eastern UP; the MD from the Shakyas, the Sainis, the Mauryas and the Kushwahas spread over a dozen Lok Sabha constituencies in western UP, including Aonla, Mainpuri, Etah, Nagina and Badaun, as well as Jaunpur in eastern UP; the JSP from the Binds and Kashyaps in the eastern districts of Ballia, Jaunpur and Prayagraj; and the Apna Dal (Kamerawadi)—a breakaway faction of the Apna Dal headed by union minister Anupriya Patel—among the Patels of Prayagraj and neighbouring districts. 

Kisan Kranti Manch (KKM) president Onkar Singh Lodhi has merged his party with the SP. Little known parties such as the Sarvsamaj Ekta Dal, the Rashtriya Jansambhavna Party, the Sarvjan Sampta Party and the Abhay Samaj Party have also thrown in their lot with the SP, and Akhilesh Yadav is currently in talks with the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), too. The Trinamool Congress has also offered its help to the SP-led alliance. 

And then there is the much-publicised alliance with Jayant Chaudhury's Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) that boasts of the support of the Jats of western UP, who have been the backbone of the still ongoing farmers' movement. 

Of course, the BJP is also busy tying up with small OBC outfits, hoping to retain its hold in UP. The SP's advantage vis a vis the OBCs is that it can tell the non-Yadav OBCs that the BJP has ensured that power has vested largely with the upper castes, the Rajputs and the Brahmins and that the increased visibility of the OBCs in BJP ranks has not resulted in an actual share in decision-making. 

The flip side of this conversation is that memories of the Yadavs ruling the roost whenever the SP has been in power, dominating the OBC space, are still fresh. The other serious challenge that the SP faces is that Hindu majoritarianism has put down very firm roots in UP society. At every opportunity, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and his BJP colleagues have been whipping up communal sentiment through inflammatory speeches and classic dog-whistle politics. On the ground, when people express their appreciation for the firm way Adityanath has dealt with law and order, it is shorthand for the crackdown on Muslims, the most recent flashpoint following an episode in Loni in western UP: seven Muslim men, including a 16-year-old, allegedly engaged in unlawful cattle trade, were arrested and jailed after each of them was shot a few inches below the knee on November 11. Subsequently, the Station House Officer was suspended, a suspension that is being strenuously objected to by hardline Hindu groups and local BJP leaders.

Of course, the Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM)'s choice of Lucknow to hold a mahapanchayat to press for a statutory guarantee for Minimum Support Price (MSP) for a range of crops as well as other farming-related demands - after the government decided to repeal the controversial farming laws – has sent out its own message: the farmers' movement could well play a role in the upcoming polls. 

Akhilesh Yadav has been quick to seize the moment: he has said that if his party comes to power in 2022, its government will give Rs 25 lakh each to farmers who died during the farm laws agitation: "The life of a farmer is priceless because he grows food grains for others," he tweeted in Hindi.

But will that be enough to take on the mighty BJP, backed as it is by state power, money and majoritarian rhetoric?

(The writer is a journalist)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.