A walk that could herald change
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Takeaways from the Bharat Jodo Yatra in Uttar Pradesh

February 01, 2023 12:15 am | Updated 07:51 am IST

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi with Uttar Pradesh party chief Brijlal Khabri during the party’s Bharat Jodo Yatra, at Ailum village, Shamli district, Uttar Pradesh. Photo: Twitter/@INCIndia via ANI

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi with Uttar Pradesh party chief Brijlal Khabri during the party’s Bharat Jodo Yatra, at Ailum village, Shamli district, Uttar Pradesh. Photo: Twitter/@INCIndia via ANI

After spurning the Congress’s invite to participate in the Bharat Jodo Yatra, Samajwadi Party (SP) president Akhilesh Yadav attended the Bharat Rashtra Samithi’s recent show of strength in Telangana indicating that his party is keen on an opposition front without the Congress.

Mr. Yadav’s attendance in Khammam district in Telangana came after he said, in response to a question on his participation in the Uttar Pradesh leg of yatra, that the BJP and the Congress are the same, while the SP’s ideology is different. Many people felt that it was immature of Mr. Yadav to have shut the door on a yatra that was aimed at uniting people and parties against the BJP. His subsequent letter to Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, in which Mr. Yadav wrote that he hoped that the yatra would achieve its goal, sounded more like an afterthought and only created ambivalence about the party’s next move.

Recently, on a visit to Uttarakhand, the SP president laid out his terms for an alliance. If someone asks him for seats in Uttar Pradesh, he said, he would seek constituencies in Uttarakhand and Madhya Pradesh. This ‘someone’ could only be the Congress.

More than ideology, what seems to be playing on Mr. Yadav’s mind is the past. He has not forgotten the 2017 Assembly elections when he joined hands with Mr. Gandhi; the result was disastrous. Moreover, regional parties that emerged out of Mandal politics in the cow belt continue to carry an anti-Congress sentiment and believe that the Grand Old Party will self-resurrect at their cost.

However, the shift in stance can create more fissures in the SP’s alliance with the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) in the State. After the alliance lost Om Prakash Rajbhar to the BJP, it appears that the RLD, which is in an alliance with the Congress in Rajasthan, is negotiating with the national party in U.P. and Haryana too. During the U.P. leg of the yatra, RLD president Chaudhary Jayant Singh chose to be on vacation, but his presence could be felt in the massive show of support by the RLD cadre for Mr. Gandhi. By keeping his options open, Mr. Singh wants to bargain hard for seats with the SP, which he could not do in the Assembly polls.

With the Congress, the RLD could revive its old demand of reservation for Jats in central government jobs in U.P. It could use this as an antidote to the BJP’s communal card in the sugar cane belt. A Jat-Muslim-Gurjar combination could then be a decisive factor during elections. It was during the last leg of the Manmohan Singh government that the Jats of U.P. were given reservation, but it was stuck down by the Supreme Court after the BJP emerged victorious in 2014.

After the U.P. Assembly polls last year, a section of Muslims felt that they had supported the SP, which tactically remained silent on the community’s issues, and would now like to vote for the Congress during the Lok Sabha polls provided it shows some fighting spirit. At that time, Mr. Gandhi was taking on the Modi government online. Now, he is on the ground talking about opening shops of love and peace in a market of hate. If the Muslim votes shift to the Congress, it could become a headache for the SP.

The Congress kept reminding journalists during the yatra that it is not in U.P. to undercut its ideological partners, but only to focus on pan-Indian issues such as communal discord, unemployment and inflation. Yet, Mr. Gandhi chose to hold a big rally in Panipat, Haryana, which shares its boundaries and demographic profile with West U.P., and discuss reservation for the Other Backward Classes (OBC), which his father did not support in Parliament. With select groups, he talked about the Minimum Support Price and the impact of the Agniveer scheme. It was not just the larger-than-life cut-outs of Mr. Gandhi chewing sugar cane that attracted attention but also the banners that advertised the OBC Morcha of the party.

With Yogendra Yadav and Rakesh Tikait joining the yatra in Haryana, the event appeared like a mobile version of the farmers’ protests on the Delhi border against the farm laws in 2020-21. And when former State Congress president and grassroots leader Ajay Kumar Lallu said that the ripples of the yatra would be felt in eastern U.P. as well, the political ambition of the yatra could no longer be denied.

However, for now, the yatra can be considered as just one political step in a State which has the highest number of Lok Sabha seats.

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