Chasing the OBC rainbow in Uttar Pradesh: Akhilesh Yadav and Yogi Adityanath go neck and neck

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Chasing the OBC rainbow in Uttar Pradesh: Akhilesh Yadav and Yogi Adityanath go neck and neck
© Provided by Firstpost Chasing the OBC rainbow in Uttar Pradesh: Akhilesh Yadav and Yogi Adityanath go neck and neck

The Uttar Pradesh elections have forever been won and lost by the power of polarisation and caste segregation. It’s 2022 and very little has changed with the two main contenders in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections gunning for the same vote-bank. They are desperate to show their connect with and garner support from the Other Backward Classes (OBCs).

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So who are they? Which way would they swing? Why are they a crucial component?

French political scientist and Indologist Christophe Jaffrelot wrote: “When India achieved Independence, Nehru gave them a new name, though hardly more satisfactory, ‘other backward classes’, implying classes other than the untouchables and the tribes. But the key word here is ‘classes’: even if he was not the first to use it, Nehru was clearly intending to distance himself from an approach in terms of caste.”

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Caste polarisation in Uttar Pradesh has become a force that feeds on itself, gaining strength from the hostility it generates, finding sustenance on both sides of the political spectrum.

A major chunk of the OBC block usually went with the Samajwadi Party (SP) as a result of the social engineering and identity politics cultivated by the party’s wily patriarch Mulayam Singh Yadav. He introduced the catchphrase “social justice” and worked on this vote-bank assiduously with the Mandal Commission report being implemented in the early 1990s.

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Jaffrelot explains: “Mandal enabled the OBCs to win political power. They started to make this achievement in the 1990s because they ran into such resistance from the upper castes that it galvanized them. The old vertical, clientelistic brand of politics inherited from the Congress system simply broke down.”

Accounting for over half the state’s population (54.5 percent), the OBCs today define the destiny of the state. All state party chiefs are OBCs. The state presidents of the leading four parties are from the OBCs.

The BJP has the highest number of OBC MLAs in UP with 102, followed by the SP with 12, the BSP and Apna Dal with five each, while the Congress has one. Surveys by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) have shown that the BJP secured an increase in OBC votes by 12-14 per between 2009 and 2014 Lok Sabha elections. They maintained the sway over the OBC voters through 2017 Uttar Pradesh Assembly polls and 2019 Lok Sabha elections, polling close to 45 percent of the votes of the caste category.

In 2017, despite losing to the BJP, the SP still polled 66 percent of Yadav votes. But in the non-Yadav OBC caste category, the BJP secured about 60 percent votes. It was the ‘committed’ upper caste voters and the switch of non-Yadav OBC voters that brought the BJP to power in Uttar Pradesh after 14 years.

We must not forget that the Congress’s social engineering gradually metamorphosed into the OBC-Muslim constituency of the SP and the Dalit vote-bank of Mayawati.

It took a certain Narendra Modi, who was billed by his own party as the “tallest OBC leader in India” to hack away non-Yadav OBC voters from the SP and non-Jatav Dalit votes from the BSP during the 2014 Lok Sabha election. Thereafter the BJP enjoyed the spoils in the two elections of 2017 Assembly and 2019 Lok Sabha polls in Uttar Pradesh.

The BJP’s propensity for OBC leaders reflects in some of their prominent names: Narendra Modi, Kalyan Singh, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Uma Bharti, the late Gopinath Munde and Sushil Kumar Modi.

Mulayam, on the other hand, passed on the baton to his son Akhilesh Yadav who has moved on rather adroitly from the defeat at the hands of the BJP in the 2017 Assembly polls.

He has been giving tickets judiciously, say the Lucknow watchers. Having been accused of “parivarwaad” (dynasty politics), he has very carefully distanced himself from his family. He is rarely seen in the company of Muslim leaders in public. This is to avoid the tag of “minority appeasement” or rather erase the tag of “Maulana Mulayam” from the past. He has also adopted a “soft Hindutva” approach so as not to alienate the upper caste voters. Yet, his dependence on the OBC vote-bank is undeniable.

Akhilesh is claiming he would form the government alone with a big caste consortium on its side under the banner of ‘Samajik Nyaay’ (Social Justice). Many non-Yadav OBC leaders from both the BJP and the BSP have made a beeline for the SP. Akhilesh knows he has to offer an umbrella of wider social acceptance and not just bank on the traditional M-Y (Muslim-Yadav) combine. He clearly wants to project himself as the best choice for an OBC-led combine.

What did the BJP do right in the 2017 Assembly polls? And what is it trying to do now? The BJP went into the UP elections in 2017 with a clear pitch to consolidate the non-Yadav OBCs and non-Jatav SCs in its favour. It gave all these communities benefits of various schemes launched by the Centre, from toilets to LPG cylinders.

A canny BJP provided an outlet for the frustrations of a section of OBCs which felt Yadavs and Jatavs cornered all appeasement schemes in SP and BSP regimes, along with Muslims. Non-Yadav OBCs were also unhappy over the open show of muscle might (goonda raj) by the Yadavs during the SP rule.

After Yadavs, Mauryas at 6-7 percent and Kurmis at 5 percent were the biggest non-Yadav OBC vote-banks in UP. Lodhs have 3 percent population. BJP targeted an over 60 percent vote-bank — 10 percent Brahmin vote, 12 percent Thakur and Vaishya voters, 33 percent non-Yadav OBC vote, and 7-10 percent non-Jatav Dalit vote. It managed to get 40 percent of the vote in 2017. Jats, who are 2 percent of OBCs, also voted to some extent for the BJP. In 2019, the BJP built upon this formula to corner a higher 50 percent vote share.

The BJP rode to power in Uttar Pradesh in 2017 with a whopping 40 percent vote share and 312 seats.

Available estimates say the state is roughly made up of 25-27 percent general castes (including 10 percent Brahmins and 7 percent Thakurs), 39-40 percent OBCs (including 7-9 percent Yadavs and 4 percent Nishads), around 20 percent SCs and STs (including 10 percent Jatavs), and 16-19 percent Muslim population.

There are five main voting groups in UP — Upper Castes, Muslims, non-Yadav OBCs, Yadavs and Jatavs. Governments in UP in the past have been formed with just 30 per cent vote share. SP did so in 2012 with its Muslim-Yadav combination and BSP did it in 2007 with its Muslim-Jatav combination.

Akhilesh now says the caste bank of the BJP has splintered. This, he says, reflects in the beeline of such leaders towards the SP now, including three sitting OBC ministers. He also says the election is now bipolar, with BSP and Congress on the sidelines.

Lucknow poll experts say whichever party crosses 35 percent vote share this time will be able to form the government. They do give credit to the SP for doing a better job than most to attract and consolidate the OBC vote. But the BJP counters by saying the inconsequential leaders have exited the party.

However, the exit of OBC leader Swami Prasad Maurya can’t be taken lightly. He and Dara Singh Chauhan resigned from the Yogi government saying the Dalits, backward classes, unemployed youths, the farmers and the small and medium traders were being neglected. Akhilesh welcomed them in his fold.

The SP looks sure of retaining 20 percent Muslim voters in Uttar Pradesh particularly after Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s statement that the polls were a fight between 80 percent versus 20 percent.

How effective can Swami Prasad Maurya be? He said when he sided with Mayawati, she came to power in Uttar Pradesh in 2007; and when he switched to the BJP, the party ended its “exile” in 2017. He is considered a “big face” in Uttar Pradesh’s OBC politics. But his support base is largely confined to eastern Uttar Pradesh. Still, he is said to have influence in about 50-60 Assembly constituencies.

Clearly, in a two-horse race the BJP and SP are straining at the reins. The BJP has the advantage of announcing more sops than anyone else. The SP has a traditional hold over a major chunk of the OBC base, but it has to do much more. Question is, which of the two will be able to leverage this intense polarisation better.

The author is CEO, nnis. Views expressed are personal.

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