Other States

Om Prakash Rajbhar changes track, again

File photo of Om Prakash Rajbhar.   | Photo Credit: Rajeev Bhatt

Amid rising political temperatures in Uttar Pradesh ahead of next year’s Assembly polls, OBC leader Om Prakash Rajbhar has planned a big rally — a Vanchit, Pichda, Dalit, Alpsankhyak Bhagidhari Mahapanchayat — in Mau on October 27, the 19th foundation day of his party, the Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party (SBSP). And significantly, the SBSP leader has invited Samajwadi Party president Akhilesh Yadav to be the chief guest at the rally.

The two parties are expected to declare an alliance for the 2022 election, in what has been a complete turn around for the SBSP over the past five years, with Mr Rajbhar emerging not just as leader within his community but also a sought-after mobilizer of the non-Yadav MBC votes for the bigger players in the Purvanchal region.

It was also in Mau in June 2016 that then BJP president Amit Shah attended a similar rally — an “ati-pichda, ati-dalit mahapanchayat’, targetted at Dalits and most backward communities — and announced an alliance with Mr. Rajbhar.

The SBSP is named after an 11th century mythical warrior, Maharaja Suheldev, considered an icon by both Rajbhars (OBC) and Pasis (Dalits). Though Suheldev’s historicity is shrouded in mystery, over the years, the BJP and RSS have aggressively projected him as an ideal Hindutva warrior who halted the march of the Muslim invader Ghazi Mian, a nephew of Mahmud Ghaznavi, and fitted the story to suit their Hindutva narrative for OBCs.

The BJP since coming to power at the Centre and in Lucknow and through Prime Minister Narendra Modi has taken several steps like building memorials to appropriate his legacy.

The SBSP’s relevance for the BJP can be gauged from the fact that despite commanding 73 out of 80 Lok Sabha seats in 2014, the BJP felt the need to ally with a second party, one that did not even have a single MLA.

In 2017, the BJP and its two allies won 325 out of the 403 seats, registering a brute majority.

The SBSP contested eight and won four but more importantly mobilised votes to the BJP in Purvanchal. The alliance provided beneficial for Mr. Rajbhar personally as he went on to become an MLA for the first time.

Though a small player in the larger landscape, over the last few years, the SBSP chief has emerged as a leader who speaks unabashedly for OBC interests, leveraging his rustic style rooted in the Purvanchal.

Uncertain ally

However, his political affiliation has hardly been predictable, making him a risky bargain for any potential ally. Mr. Rajbhar’s political journey traces the shift of caste mobilisation in U.P., from the BSP’s Kanshiram to the BJP and Mr. Modi, and now Mr. Akhilesh Yadav despite his three consecutive defeats. But given the tall order in front of the SP to wrest the State from the BJP, he would be a prized addition if the alliance goes through smoothly.

An MLA from Ghazipur’s Zahoorabad seat, Mr. Rajbhar was born in Varanasi in 1962 to a Bhar family. He earned a living working on the family farm and driving autos when he got involved in the movement of BSP founder Kanshiram, who was then running the DS4, recalls his son Arun Rajbhar.

After the BSP was formed, in 1996, Mr. Rajbhar was made the Varanasi district president and contested the Assembly election from Kolasla. Though he stood third, he lost to the winner by less than 6,000 votes. However, Mr. Rajbhar fell out with Kanshiram’s protege Mayawati. He quit the party accusing Ms Mayawati of trying to neglect history of OBC communities, in particular the Bhars. Ms Mayawati as CM had changed the name of Bhadohi district, linked to the Bhar rulers, to Sant Kabir Nagar.

“As Mayawati became prominent she only promoted one caste (Jatav) and neglected the history of others,” said Arun.

Mr. Rajbhar then joined the Apna Dal of Kurmi leader Sone Lal Patel, another leader who had worked with Kanshiram. Today, Sone Lal’s daughter Anupriya Patel is a minister in the Narendra Modi Council of Ministers. Mr. Rajbhar was appointed the State president of the Apna Dal’s Yuva Morcha but in 2001 left the party after Sone Lal would not let him contest from Kolasla.

Groomed in politics of caste icons, Mr. Rajbhar then selected Suheldev as his symbol and formed the SBSP in 2002. The yellow colour of the party flag came from the colour of Suheldev’s attire, says Arun, who is also SBSP general secretary.

The SBSP, however, found little electoral success despite contesting elections regularly. In 2012, the party contested 52 seats and secured over four lakh votes but failed to open its score. Mr. Rajbhar again stood third. Then in 2014 Lok Sabha, SBSP became a part of the Ekta Manch that included the Quami Ekta Manch of jailed MLA Mukhtar Ansari. This time Mr. Rajbhar stood fourth but received a decent 66,084 votes in Salempur seat, almost 25,000 more than the fifth placed Congress candidate.

Saffron ties

After the BJP formed a majority government in 2017 in alliance with SBSP and Apna Dal, Mr. Rajbhar was rewarded with a cabinet berth as Minister of Backward Classes Welfare. But once again, the bonhomie did not last and he began targeting his own government and bureaucracy. Soon he was at loggerheads with the BJP on the issue of implementing the recommendations of a social justice committee calling for sub-categorisation of the 27% OBC quota.

As per the report, which recommended division of the quota into three categories, the Rajbhars would be in the most backward class, consisting of the most deprived castes, who are backward in all respects, mostly employed either in lower levels of services or having zero representation and having limited political drawing power. A previous demand of the SBSP had been inclusion of the 17 most backward castes into the SC category.

The relationship between the two parties worsened after the BJP denied Mr. Rajbhar a ticket in the 2019 Lok Sabha election on his own party symbol and instead asked him to contest from Ghosi as a BJP candidate. A snubbed Mr. Rajbhar then accused the BJP of betraying OBCs and openly rebelled, fielding over 40 candidates against the party and even supported the Congress and SP-BSP candidates on some seats.

During the peak of the election, he was caught on camera in Ghazipur abusing the BJP and exhorting his workers to “thrash” the BJP workers if they attempted to spread any misinformation against his party. Despite the provocation, the BJP did not take any disciplinary action against him, perhaps to avoid any negative reaction from his community.

The SBSP chief’s rebellion did not prove enough to prevent the BJP from comprehensively defeating the SP-BSP-RLD alliance. On May 20, 2019 a day after the last day of polling, the finally axe fell on Rajbhar, who was promptly sacked from the cabinet Yogi Adityanath.

Following his departure, BJP's alternate Rajbhar face, Anil Rajbhar, was allocated the Backward Class Welfare Ministry in a strategic move to counter possible repercussions.

Mr. Rajbhar then went on to form the Bhagidhari Sankalp Morcha — a loose alliance of several smaller outfits, mainly OBCs, — led by sidelined political leaders including former minister Babu Singh Kushwaha. Asaduddin Owaisi’s AIMIM later became a part of the Morcha.

Local dominance

Arun Rajbhar claims Rajbhars form 18-20% of Purvanchal’s population and can impact 126 seats, by acting as a mobilizer or a spoiler. Before joining hands with Mr Akhilesh Yadav last week, Mr. Rajbhar had recently met the BJP’s State president and had openly stated that if the BJP fulfilled his demands he could still ally with the saffron party if the alliance with SP or BSP did not materialise.

The jury is still out on whether Mr Rajbhar will prove an asset or nuisance for a desperate Akhilesh Yadav.

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Printable version | Dec 6, 2021 9:53:24 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/om-prakash-rajbhar-changes-track-again/article37151398.ece

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