The challenges before Akhilesh Yadav

He is better placed than before, but has to confront uncomfortable questions and the baggage of past rule

November 17, 2021 12:15 am | Updated 12:15 am IST

Kushinagar: Samajwadi Party President Akhilesh Yadav during the 'Samajwadi Vijay Yatra' in Kushinagar, Sunday, Nov. 14, 2021. (PTI Photo)(PTI11_14_2021_000046B)

Kushinagar: Samajwadi Party President Akhilesh Yadav during the 'Samajwadi Vijay Yatra' in Kushinagar, Sunday, Nov. 14, 2021. (PTI Photo)(PTI11_14_2021_000046B)

Positioned as the main challenger to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Uttar Pradesh, Samajwadi Party (SP) chief Akhilesh Yadav plans to fight the 2022 Assembly election with the support of smaller Other Backward Classes (OBC)-based parties without forming a ‘grand alliance’. Considering his unprofitable adventures with the Congress and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in 2017 and 2019, respectively; the prospects of a personality-centred clash with Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath; and the cumbersome process of seat-sharing, this may have been the most pragmatic choice for him. It also ensures that the campaign is centred around his leadership.

A strong social alliance needed

But to challenge the BJP’s seemingly insurmountable vote share of over 40% (2019), Mr. Yadav has to build a broader social alliance. He has bolstered his party with leaders and legislators, former and present, primarily from the BSP. Most of the new entrants are OBCs and Dalits who hold considerable sway over their communities or regions.

Mr. Yadav looks set to seal an alliance with the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) in western U.P. and Om Prakash Rajbhar’s party in Purvanchal apart from roping in two smaller parties. Though smaller parties may not be in a position to win many or any seats on their own, past examples have shown that with their loyal base supplementing the votes gained by a larger party, such transactions tend to be mutually beneficial. This perhaps explains Mr. Yadav’s reluctance to ally with the Congress, which has no loyal community base in U.P.

Even if Mr. Yadav keeps his flock together till the election, it is pertinent to ask whether he enjoys the same credibility that the BJP has managed to create for itself, to translate the arithmetic into votes. Apart from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s appeal, the BJP has tried to attract the scattered backward castes through three Rs: Ram (symbolic of the party’s Hindutva ideology and promotion of backward caste icons through that lens); Ration (tangible and timely welfare schemes); and Representation, even though often nominal. Shared anti-Muslim sentiments and antagonism towards dominant OBC castes like the Yadavs have allowed the BJP to successfully bring together disparate groups.

Mr. Yadav cannot be expected to have an ideological framework to challenge Hindutva. He also cannot afford to antagonise the dominant ‘upper castes’. Therefore, his best bet is to bypass the BJP’s Hindutva strategy through an alternative narrative that aligns caste mobilisation with economic well-being while fulfilling local political aspirations.

Mr. Adityanath’s saffron robes shield him from allegations of ‘Thakur appeasement.’ But as a chief ministerial face, he remains untested, as he was planted as head of government after the BJP secured a majority. Moreover, it is reasonable to wonder how long the BJP’s social arithmetic can stay intact against agrarian discontent, inflation, unemployment, inherent contradictions in its caste mobilisation, competing aspirations of jatis and the tendency of voters in U.P. to vote against the incumbent.

Successive setbacks have forced Mr. Yadav to embrace his backward roots without the need to complement it with his ‘forward’ work. He has raised concerns about the dilution of reservation through privatisation, promised a caste census if voted to power, and erected memorials and statues to honour BC leaders and icons. He has exuded confidence that a “revolution of the backwards” would take place in 2022 and tried to reach out to Dalits by eulogising B.R. Ambedkar in his rallies.

But despite being better placed than before, Mr. Yadav still has to confront some uncomfortable questions and the baggage of past rule. His first task would be to mobilise the core vote base of Muslims and Yadavs (M-Y) in a watertight formula and accommodate his uncle Shivpal, a potential spoiler. All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen leader Asaduddin Owaisi’s attempts at dismantling the ‘M-Y’ equation might not succeed, but may compel Mr. Yadav to address the Muslim question, which the BJP would prefer. Though the alliance with the RLD in west U.P. looks promising in the context of the ongoing farmer protest against the BJP, the question is whether the Jats and other Hindu communities will rally behind Mr. Yadav, in whose tenure deadly communal violence broke out in Muzaffarnagar in 2013.

In recent years, especially after the growth of jati-oriented backward leadership, non-Yadav OBCs have been politically trained to rally against the Yadavs. They have been made to believe that the community is cornering most of the 27% OBC quota and jobs, are disproportionately favoured in recruitment, and utilise this capital to dominate lower-placed castes whenever the SP is in power.

In 2018, a committee set up by the Adityanath government recommended division of the 27% OBC quota into three groups. The committee clubbed together Yadavs, Jats and Kurmis in the first category of Pichda, reducing their share to 7%. Implementing this would have jeopardised the BJP’s successful strategy of pitting the non-Yadav OBCs against the Yadavs. The SP cannot openly support this either, since the report bolsters the popular narrative of the BJP’s that Yadavs dominate and also because its core community would stand to lose. The report is still in cold storage. Interestingly, it is Mr. Rajbhar, who had a successful stint with the BJP in 2017 when the party ran an aggressive anti-Yadav campaign, who is demanding implementation of the report. How the support base of Mr. Rajbhar and Mr. Yadav will deal with this contradiction of interests remains to be seen.

The BJP’s campaign

Then, there is the possibility of Hindu mobilisation in favour of the BJP. From the euphoria over the Ram Mandir to laws and police action directly and indirectly punishing Muslims, the BJP has much to show to its Hindutva constituency. When Mr. Yadav referred to Muhammad Ali Jinnah at a rally recently, the BJP accused him of Muslim appeasement. It sounds implausible that Mr. Yadav, who has strategically distanced himself from Muslim symbolism, would try to woo Muslims through Jinnah. However, such moments provide an opportunity for the BJP to convert the campaign into a communal one.

In its campaign, the BJP has tried to reignite memories of the firing on ‘karsevaks’ in 1990 under the rule of Mr. Yadav’s father, Mulayam Singh; and recall the string of communal incidents, controversies over attempts to withdraw cases against Muslim terror-accused persons, the ‘goondaism’, and favouring of Yadavs in recruitment under Mr. Yadav in his first tenure.

Meanwhile, the SP has tried to project a fresh outlook through slogans like “ nayi hawa hai, nayi sapa hain (A new wind, a new SP)”. This is an admission that it did need an image correction. But are the voters, especially the OBCs, convinced that that this is a new SP? Even if Mr. Yadav does everything right, will these communities continue to punish him for the perceptions and propaganda built around his social base? Mr. Yadav will need to present a model promising how Akhilesh 2.0 will be different and more inclusive.

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