Caste calculus: The arithmetic behind BJP’s alliance with seven small caste-based parties ahead of UP elections

By: |
November 24, 2021 2:09 PM

The obvious question is whether BJP’s move to rope in these smaller parties can counter the Akhilesh-Rajbhar alliance, which is eyeing to eat into BJP’s electoral base in Purvanchal.

The obvious question is whether BJP’s move to rope in these smaller parties can counter the Akhilesh-Rajbhar alliance, which is eyeing to eat into BJP’s electoral base in Purvanchal.

The onset of election season in Uttar Pradesh has set off a flurry of political activity – most prominent among them being pre-poll tie-ups in a state which has seen shifting alliances in recent years. A growing realisation of the importance of the OBC or Other Backward Classes votes has now resulted in stakeholders from across the spectrum vying for the support of this increasingly important “vote bank”. Leading in these efforts are rivals BJP and the Samajwadi Party. While the latter has forged an alliance with BJP’s former ally Om Prakash Rajbhar-led Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party (SBSP), the BJP has roped in seven small OBC-specific parties as a counter. Notably, the SBSP as well these seven parties that have aligned with the BJP, have their electoral base amongst most backward communities in the Purvanchal region of UP.

For the Samajwadi Party, the alliance with the SBSP brought along with it some other smaller parties too, which are part of the former’s Bhagidari Sankalp Morcha. The SP has already forged an alliance with the Mahan Dal Party, which is another party that addresses the Backward Classes, and is headed by Keshav Dev Maurya.

On the other hand, the seven small parties, which the BJP has tied up with, are part of the Hissedari Morcha which was founded earlier this year with an aim to give communities a bigger voice, with representation from various OBC groups, including Bind, Gadariya, Kumhaar, Dhivar, Kashyap and Rajbhar. These seven parties are: Bharatiya Suheldev Janata Party, Shoshit Samaj Party, Manavhit Party, Bharat Manav Samaj Party, Musahar Andolan Manch, Manavhit Party, Prithvi Raj Janshakti Party and Bhartiya Samta Samaj Party.

The obvious question here is whether BJP’s move to rope in these smaller parties can counter the Akhilesh-Rajbhar alliance, which is eyeing to eat into BJP’s electoral base in Purvanchal, the region which is said to be the path to Lucknow. While the OBC community accounts for around 50 per cent of the state’s electorate, the Rajbhar caste of the community is an estimated 3-4 per cent of UP’s population. This may be a small proportion, but the fact that the community is concentrated in eastern UP — which means a higher proportion of the population in that region — gives it the potential to sway several seats in the upcoming elections.

While the Samajwadi Party eyes tapping the OBC community in the Purvanchal region following its alliance with the SBSP, the BJP aims at countering this with its alliances with these seven small parties, some of which were earlier with Rajbhar’s Bhagidari Sankalp Morcha. In the 2017 assembly polls, the SBSP had contested eight seats, out of which it won four. Rajbhar himself won the Zahoorabad seat in Ghazipur, becoming an MLA for the first time, and was appointed Minister for Backward Classes Welfare.

Does BJP have an edge over SP-SBSP alliance?

Sanjay Kumar, Co-Director of Lokniti, says that the BJP stands to benefit from alliances with smaller caste-based parties as they may “give (the BJP) an additional 1.5-2 per cent additional votes which will be very useful in winning these elections.” Along with these seven parties, the BJP already has in its fleet Apna Dal (Balihar), Pragatisheel Samaj Party, Nishad Party and the Anupriya Patel of the Apna Dal.

Moreover, political experts are of the view that the Rajbhar-led SBSP winning on four seats in the 2017 assembly polls was majorly a result of the ‘Modi Wave’ which had led the BJP bagging 325 out of the 403 seats in the state assembly. They believe that Rajbhar, after parting ways with the BJP, will not be able to repeat the same performance for the Samajwadi Party.

Moreover, a splintered opposition is more likely to end up helping the BJP overcome the anti-incumbency factor, than favouring the SP, BSP and the Congress who have all decided to contest alone.

The OBC factor for BJP in Purvanchal

Over the last two decades, the saffron party has managed to move beyond a perception that it is a party of the upper castes. In the 2017 Assembly polls of UP, the BJP not only managed to retain over 60 per cent of its traditional upper caste votes, it also secured 58 per cent of the EBC voters from Lodi, Kushwaha, Kurmi, Koeri and other castes. The data shows the BJP garnered the support of 57 per cent Kurmi voters, 63 per cent Lodh voters and an overall 56 per cent OBCs.

Also, since these seven parties that the BJP has brounght in its fold are concentrated in Purvanchal, the move to rope them in explains the electoral importance of the region, which has 164 Assembly segments (around 33 per cent of the total seats in UP) spread across 28 districts. In the 2017 elections, the BJP bagged a landslide victory by bagging 115 of 164 seats, whereas the Samajwadi Party got 17, BSP 14, Congress two and Others 16.

The region, which includes the home constituencies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, has also turned into a  prestige issue for the BJP as it eyes damage repair for the possible losses in western UP in wake of the farmers’ protest and the recent Lakhimpur Kheri incident.

Smaller parties key to success?

Significantly, the strategy of bigger parties to approach smaller caste-based parties is a major turnaround from the time when smaller parties used to flock to bigger parties. Narender Kumar, Professor, Political Science at Jawaharlal Nehru University, argues how Uttar Pradesh witnessed localisation of politics post the twin 1990s issues of Mandal and Mandir.

“In the 1970s and even in 1980s, the BJP was believed to focus on catering to the so-called upper castes. But in the 90s, they realised that being popular only among these communities (upper class) won’t work for us and we will now have to give representation to the lower castes as well,” Kumar told FinancialExpress.com.

The jury is still out on whether the BJP can weather the anti-incumbency factor and the Opposition’s onslaught with the help of these alliances. It is also unclear if the Samajwadi Party, the BJP’s biggest opponent can overturn these attempts by BJP and make a significant dent in the final poll outcome. With the withdrawal of farm laws, the BJP could have offset a large part of a splintered Opposition’s strategy to corner the BJP and damage its prospects in the Western UP region. Can a divided Opposition take on Yogi Adityanath and the BJP’s election machinery on the anti-incumbency factor and the state government’s Covid response? That is the bigger question to ask, answers to which only lie in the people’s mandate.

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