There is an interplay of three sociopolitical narratives in Uttar Pradesh. The first is the ‘80 versus 20’ formulation given by Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath , which is a coded call for communal polarisation. The second is the re-emergence of the ‘85 vs 15’ narrative , the Kanshi Ram-era social justice project of uniting the Bahujans (Dalits, Other Backward Classes and Scheduled Castes) against the dominant ‘upper castes’. The BJP rebel, Swami Prasad Maurya , who defected to the Samajwadi Party (SP) along with a dozen-odd legislators, mostly OBC, has provided an impetus and credible face to this strategy, which was already taking shape through SP president Akhilesh Yadav’s success in roping in OBC leaders and parties into an anti-BJP front. Since the dilution of the Bahujan project by Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati , which coincided with the rise of the BJP to power in 2014, the ‘85 vs 15’ formulation had lost its sting. Amid this theoretical tension, the BJP offered a more practical formula (narrative 3), which combines the elements of both to polarise various Hindu communities against Muslims, Yadavs and Jatavs (Dalits), who together constitute about 40% of the population. BJP leader Keshav Prasad Maurya has explained this strategy thus: “ Sau mein 60 hamara, 40 mein batwara hain and batware mein bhi hamara hain (We have 60% votes, the remaining 40% are divided and even there we have a share).”
It is in this context that we must view the well-orchestrated exodus of OBC legislators from the BJP. These exits reek of opportunism, but they also indicate suffocation with the centralised bureaucracy-dominated BJP government, inherent contradictions between the BJP’s OBC project and aspirations of some of those who came on board and, to some extent, the acceptance of Mr. Yadav as a more accommodative alternative to Mr. Adityanath. The allegations levelled by these leaders while quitting the BJP, which they helped come to power at the cost of the interests of the ‘Bahujan’ five years ago, reflects the diminishing value of their transactional relationship with the BJP’s ‘60 vs 40’ game plan.
No doubt, the BJP has tried to woo the OBCs through welfare schemes, representation, and Hindutva. But for all its hype, the Yogi Cabinet still had more upper caste Ministers (27) than OBCs (23). The constant pressure on these OBC leaders in the backdrop of the unrest against dilution of reservation policies for students and recruitment for jobs as well as the over-shadowing of the BJP’s OBC face, Keshav Prasad Maurya, by Mr. Adityanath, an upper caste by birth, added fuel to the theory that the OBCs were not getting their due despite bringing the BJP to power. OBC leader Om Prakash Rajbhar, now an SP ally, was the first to rebel, just before the 2019 Lok Sabha election. Along with the Apna Dal (Sonelal), Mr. Rajbhar contested the 2017 election together with the BJP, playing a role in securing a brute majority for the alliance. But he soon fell out with it, accusing the BJP of ignoring OBC interests and merely using their leaders for votes.
The BJP’s electoral success was built on the polarisation of votes against Yadavs and Muslims. Apart from projecting Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s OBC credentials and targeted welfare schemes, the BJP had also poached numerous OBC leaders from the Opposition to boost its anti-Yadav narrative.
With the recent additions from the BJP, Mr. Yadav’s social coalition looks formidable. But will the voters be swayed by these defections? Will the non-Yadav OBC communities transfer their votes to the SP, which, they were made to believe by their own leaders, panders only to Yadavs while in power? And does Mr. Yadav have a definite campaign strategy to bring these communities under his fold while he also tries to woo Brahmins? He has been hesitant in vocally pushing the anti-Thakur narrative and, despite gradually embracing his backward roots, prefers to refer to himself as a “progressive backward.” Will this ambivalence prove to be an impediment or a blessing?
The mass defections have unsettled the BJP and provided a huge psychological boost for Mr. Yadav. But given the social divisions, the strong position of the incumbent, and with two OBC parties still with the BJP, the situation could still remain dynamic. The cumulative impact of the SP’s new-found love for social justice politics can be gauged only after the BJP offers its response. If the SP is serious about challenging the BJP’s narrative through the ‘85 vs 15’ slogan, it must translate the rhetoric into tangible incentives and welfare goals through an assertive, credible and inclusive programme.