In an unprecedented move in December 2019, around 100 BJP MLAs sat on a dharna in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly premises in Lucknow against their own government, accusing it of arrogance and high-handedness.
The protest came in the wake of BJP’s Loni MLA Nand Kishore Gurjar being prevented from presenting his side of the story in an assault case registered against him in Ghaziabad. While Mr. Gurjar’s motives were questionable, the incident showed that a party MLA couldn’t overrule the local administration in the Yogi Adityanath regime.
Cut to Swami Prasad Maurya’s impassioned speech on the occasion of Makar Sankranti earlier this week when he said the malai (perks) of power was not shared with the backward classes by the government in the last five years.
Both Mr. Gurjar and Mr. Maurya belong to OBC communities that roughly constitute around 44% of the electorate in the poll-bound State. The difference is while Mr. Gurjar is a small fry, Mr. Maurya is a regional satrap who has positioned himself as a bell-weather politician and an expert in negotiating the shifting political sands.
His supporters on the ground did not find anything unethical in his last-minute move and have backed his call to oust the government where he was a minister for five years.
Political Line | Mandal vs. Mandir in U.P.
Observers of the shifting sands said in the caste riddled State, it is the share and quality of the ‘cream’ of power that traditionally decides political allegiance during elections.
In the earthy nomenclature of what political scientists term the patron-client relationship, malai refers to a range of perks of power — from reservation in jobs, a share in government contracts, santion for illegal transactions, and the freedom to flaunt power and bend the law at the neighbourhood thana (police station).
Also, as a BJP insider explained, in eastern U.P., a cup of tea and a few words of warmth shared by the Chief Minister are sometimes more important than getting work done. The fact that Mr. Adityanath was perhaps unused to these courtesies of Lucknow worked against him. “He is trying to be Modi, forgetting the PM had earned his position while he was imposed on the State,” the party person said.
A day after Mr. Maurya’s resignation when pictures of Mr. Adityanath sharing a meal with a Dalit party worker emerged, they were seen as a damage control exercise by a party that has described such photo ops as ‘poverty tourism’ when Congress leaders publicised similar events.
Significantly, through just one speech, Mr. Maurya had shifted the narrative of the U.P. elections from religion to caste, something Samajwadi Party president Akhilesh Yadav had been trying to do for months by cobbling together a rainbow alliance with regional outfits like the Rashtriya Lok Dal, Suheldev Bhartiya Samaj Party, and Mahan Dal.
There is a reason. Experts say while Yadavs and Jatavs have received the fruits of the Mandal politics, Mauryas, Sainis, Kashyaps, Kushwahas that constitute the bottom of the OBC pyramid in the State remained disgruntled with their share of the pie. Observers said the latter could not benefit from reservations because Jats, Yadavs, and Gurjars are socially and economically better placed to secure jobs. For years, these groups backed Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) chief Mayawati, hoping that she would ensure their shift to the SC category, thereby opening up a share of reservation in that section. However, during the BSP regime, it was the Jatavs who enjoyed the so-called cream.
In shifting allegiance go the BJP, they saw yet another opportunity for a share in power. However, Mr. Adityanath’s attempts to include many castes languishing at the margins of the OBC category in the SC category could not bypass legal scrutiny.
Apart for social marginalisation, the push for privatisation under the BJP’s rule — particularly in basic education that attracts teachers from these castes — has made them insecure about the future of reservation in government jobs.
“Except for teaching everything has been privatised. Even our work is assessed by a third party. The impression is that if the BJP government returns, even the teaching part will go into private hands, leading to salary cuts. The talks for bringing down the retirement age to 50 has already started,” said the principal of a primary school in Aligarh. “The direct benefit transfer may be a good thing in the long run but right now it is creating bottlenecks because many poor parents’ accounts are not linked to Aadhaar cards. This government seems to think corruption is only at the bottom of governance,” she said, pointing out that when it came to political rallies, the first person to be put on duty was the primary school teacher.
Supporters of Mr. Maurya recalled that after the 2017 Assembly election, the BJP had imposed Mr. Adityanath as chief minister on them when the pre-poll promise was to make an OBC face the head of the State.
“We accepted Yogiji because he came as a monk wrapped in saffron but when he started imposing thakurwad in the garb of Hindutva, it irked our leaders,” said Rakesh Saini, a teacher from Saharanpur, recalling the ill-treatment meted out to Kalyan Singh during the Vajpayee rule. That’s why Mr. Aditynath’s 80-20 remark [referring to the population divide between Hindus and Muslims], which was supposed to be a masterstroke, annoyed the OBCs and suddenly became material for a spoof.
Mr. Saini quoted his benefactor and former minister Dharam Singh Saini who told reporters that he was sidelined in the cabinet because of his caste. “Officials didn’t take note of his presence and files didn’t reach him,” he said.
Thus the rush of leaders from the lower strata of the OBCs towards the SP is not being seen as a sudden move. For days, Whatsapp groups have been replete with messages sharing the disproportionate number of Thakurs [the caste to which Chief Minister Adityanath belongs] posted as district magistrates, superintendents of police, and station house officers during the Yogi rule. Observers also put the role of Deputy Chief Minister Keshav Prasad Maurya under the scanner and don’t give a clean chit to the central leadership of the BJP that has shared a hot and cold relationship with Mr. Adityanath in the last few years.
The fact that Mr. Swami Prasad Maurya’s daughter hasn’t put in her papers as the BJP MP from Budaun and is showing allegiance to PM Narendra Modi is being used to cement the impression that the BJP’s Central and State leaderships are still not on the same page.
“How could he miss the growing discontent in his own community? It seems he nudged the senior Maurya to flex his muscles arm at the last minute to settle scores within the party,” said a Yogi loyalist from west U.P.
Interestingly, SP insiders talk of an uncanny similarity between the Samajwadi Party of 2017 and the BJP of 2022. “In 2017, we failed to keep our house in order before the elections, allowing the Opposition time to stitch alliances with regional caste-based groups. This time it is the BJP’s turn,” said an SP leader from Bijnor.
Asmer Beg, professor of Political Science in Aligarh Muslim University, described the revolt of OBC leaders as “a mini but significant churn in the run-up to the Assembly polls.”
“The Hindu-Muslim narrative had become a bit of an overkill and as Akhilesh said if Samajwadi and Ambekarites could come together, we could be in for a surprise,” Prof. Beg said.
However, he added, it is still early days and the BJP would try every trick to shift the narrative back to religion. For the SP chief, he said, it is not going to be easy for to accommodate the ambitions of the new entrants to the party fold.
One thing is however certain: the Babua [youngster as Mr. Akshilesh Yadav has been referred to by his rivals] has finally become a worthy challenger to the Baba [Yogi Adityanath]. Elections in general and U.P., in particular, are all about hava (waves or perception) and finally, the SP has got a new wind in its sails.