The race for the Dalit vote in U.P.

Parties are competing to fill the space formed as a result of the BSP’s downslide

Updated - January 11, 2023 12:19 pm IST

Published - January 11, 2023 01:25 am IST

Azad Samaj Party chief Chandrashekhar Azad actively campaigned for the SP’s alliance with the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) in the recently held bypolls, and called for a broader unity against the BJP. File

Azad Samaj Party chief Chandrashekhar Azad actively campaigned for the SP’s alliance with the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) in the recently held bypolls, and called for a broader unity against the BJP. File | Photo Credit: ANI

In the last week of December, the Allahabad High Court quashed the reservation for the Other Backward Classes (OBC) in urban local bodies — a decision which the Supreme Court has now stayed. In the interim, the Samajwadi Party (SP), the principal Opposition party, claimed that the next goal of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government was to end the constitutionally guaranteed reservation of Dalits. It called for OBC-Dalit unity against the saffron party.

The SP is tapping into what was traditionally the Bahujan Samaj Party’s Dalit-centric vote bank. The latter polled only a 12.8% vote share in the 2022 Vidhan Sabha election, its lowest in three decades.

In fact, all the major political parties in Uttar Pradesh are competing to win over the electorally significant but marginalised Dalit voter community that comprises roughly 20% of the State’s electorate. The recent actions, and statements by the BJP, the SP, and the Indian National Congress (INC), point towards this.

SP raises red flag

“Today the reservation of backward classes has been snatched; tomorrow the quota of the Dalits will also be taken away. There is a plot to end the rights and provisions guaranteed by the architect of the Constitution, B. R. Ambedkar,” Akhilesh Yadav, president of the SP, said.

After the 2022 Assembly polls, the SP has been focusing on Dalit and OBC issues equally. Another step is the SP’s likely alliance for the 2024 Lok Sabha polls, with the Chandrashekhar Azad-led Azad Samaj Party (ASP) that enjoys substantial support among the Dalit population in western Uttar Pradesh. Mr. Azad actively campaigned for the SP’s alliance with the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) in the recently held bypolls, and called for a broader unity against the BJP.

In the last two Assembly and last parliamentary elections, the BJP has polled a roughly 10% higher vote share than the principal challenger in the State. So, despite garnering a roughly 32% vote share in the 2022 Assembly polls, the SP-led alliance is aware that it needs the support of the communities traditionally opposed to it.

Out of the 80 parliamentary constituencies in the State, 17 are reserved for Scheduled Castes (SCs). In the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, the SP is likely to allot a few seats reserved for the SCs, to the ASP. In the previous parliamentary polls, the SP left most of the reserved seats for the BSP to contest in the alliance. However, the BSP won only two.

“We are calling for the unity of the marginalised groups. Both the OBCs and Dalits are suffering from the oppression of the BJP. Our leader is fighting for the rights of both,” Ameeque Jamei, national spokesperson of the SP, told The Hindu.

On its part, the ruling BJP is pushing for more representation of these marginalised groups. Out of the 52 Ministers who took oath in the Yogi 2.0 Cabinet, nine belong to the SC community. Also, three Dalit parliamentarians from Uttar Pradesh were inducted into the 2021 Union Cabinet expansion. They are Kaushal Kishore, SPS Baghel, and Bhanu Pratap Singh Verma. The party has promoted both Mr. Kishore, belonging to the Pasi (a Dalit) community, and Mr. Baghel to broaden the Hindutva narrative among the Dalits in Uttar Pradesh. The BJP won 14 out of the 17 reserved seats in the 2019 general election, while its ally the Apna Dal won one seat.

Latest manoeuvres

In his recent tour of the State, B. L. Santhosh, the BJP’s National General Secretary (Organisation) also asked party members to focus on groups that are not voting for the party in large numbers, hinting at Dalit and Pasmanda (a Muslim community) groups.

The Congress, traditionally considered an upper caste-centric party, has also appointed a Dalit State president, Brijlal Khabri, after over two decades, signalling a shift to a Dalit-Muslim-centric approach, in the run-up to the 2024 elections. The hope is that Mr. Khabri, who quit the BSP in 2016, and is a two-term parliamentarian, may turn a section of the Dalit electorate to vote for the Congress. The State chiefs of other major parties are either from OBC or economically backward class (EBC) groups.

In a renewed bid to project the BSP as the original and only Dalit party, four-time former Chief Minister and party president Mayawati continued to attack the other three main parties as being anti-Dalit.

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