Will Akhilesh’s Emphasis on Constitution to Counter BJP Help SP Woo Dalit Voters in Uttar Pradesh?

The outcome of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections will determine whether the BSP can ever recover and also show whether Akhilesh Yadav is suitable to lead the Bahujans in the future.
Will Akhilesh’s Emphasis on Constitution to Counter BJP Help SP Woo Dalit Voters in Uttar Pradesh?

Lucknow: Samajwadi Party (SP) chief Akhilesh Yadav has characterised the ongoing general elections as a battle between those who want to change the Constitution (Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party) and those who want to protect it (SP-led INDIA alliance in Uttar Pradesh). Though this poll pitch is visibly against the incumbents, political observers see it as an attempt to woo Dalit voters — a strong support base of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP).

They say that the voters of the BSP, which is running alone, have been directly urged by this emphasis on the Constitution to support the Opposition bloc and “save reservations”. To put it plainly, the SP is courting the Dalits in the state with the intention of forming a stronger coalition to take on the BJP and its quartet of OBC partners, three of whom hold significant sway in Eastern UP where the next two rounds of voting are scheduled to be held on May 25 and June 1.

They argue that the Dalits, who make up 21.5% of Uttar Pradesh’s population, are extremely sensitive to debates on the Constitution because the rights granted to them — particularly reservations and protection against atrocities — are inextricably related to their daily socioeconomic and political lives. The Constitution has also been immortalized in their thought process, thanks to Dr BR Ambedkar.

They say the BSP is still seen as the front-runner for the votes of Jatavs, the largest Scheduled Castes community in the state, despite the fact that its support base has significantly decreased since 2012, when it was voted out of power following the achievement of a historic mandate in 2007.

The Jatavs, who go by several surnames throughout eastern Uttar Pradesh, are thought to make up between 12-13% of the state’s population. The community is seen as vulnerable, thus both the BJP and the SP have been making a lot of effort to eat into it.

A number of minor Dalit groups, such as the Bhim Army in Saharanpur and the Ambedkar Jan Morcha in Gorakhpur, have broken away from the BSP as a result of alleged nepotism, growing discontent with Mayawati’s style of functioning, the purported dilution of Ambedkarite ideology and her “incapacity” to win over other communities.

By using its symbolism over Dr Ambedkar, welfare programs for the underprivileged (such as the Labharthi Card) and elevating its leaders to the position of minister, say the observers, the BJP has been attempting to win over the community.

At present, Uttar Pradesh’s Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s Cabinet has two Dalits among the 22 ministers. Anil Kumar of the Rashtriya Lok Dal and Baby Rani Maurya of the BJP both belong to the Jatav community. Asim Arun, a former police-officer-turned-politician and minister of state with independent charge, is a third Jatav minister. Between 2017 and 2022, the BJP did not have as many Jatav ministers.

In an attempt to draw in the numerically crucial non-Yadav OBC votes and loosen the hold of Jatav voters on the BSP, they say, Akhilesh is raising the rhetoric over the Constitution. On the other hand, even though the BJP has been in power since 2014, Mayawati gives the saffron party some breathing room with her sharper criticisms of the SP and the Congress on the issue of Dalits, even though she still calls out the government for being “casteist” and making reservations ineffective because of increased job privatization.

They are of the view that the BJP is not the antagonist in Mayawati’s screenplay; rather, it is the Congress, which is the original villain. “It is typical for Mayawati to criticize the BJP with broad and direct allegations. However, her attacks on the Congress and the SP are laden with particular accusations meant to cast doubt on these parties among Dalits,” they opine.

They say this strategy has made sure that the current BJP is exonerated of its mistakes. During a rally in Jaunpur, Mayawati recounted how Ambedkar quit his position as law minister in Jawaharlal Nehru’s government due to disagreements with the Congress over OBC quotas and appropriately executing the reservations granted to SCs and STs, among other issues.

Additionally, the BSP has tried to dissuade Dalits from supporting the SP. She attempted to remind voters that the SP government had opposed reservation in promotion for SCs and STs when it was in power, even as she claimed that these groups’ advancement had become “ineffective” under the BJP government.

Mayawati played up the societal hostility that exists among certain Dalits towards the Yadav-based SP as a result of decades of competitive politics and competing interests when she told a gathering at Basti, “I believe you will not forgive such a party.”

The Jatavs and Yadavs are numerically largest communities in the state after Muslims. It raises the likelihood of their interaction and potential conflict.

“Mayawati has adhered to a predetermined script in all of her electoral speeches, criticizing the current BJP government while pointing fingers at the previous Congress government at the Centre.

She records at the outset of her speech that the Congress ruled the majority of states as well as the Centre after independence and that it was driven out of power because of its wrong policies and wrong ways of working. She then explains how this helped the BJP win an election, but that the saffron party will not win the center so easily this time because of its “pro-capitalist, parochial, casteist, communal and spiteful policies and manner of functioning”. She then attacks the BJP by saying that “natakbazi, jumle baazi and guarantees” will not help the BJP.

A historic event in Uttar Pradesh politics occurred during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections when Mayawati personally campaigned in Mainpuri for her longtime adversary and arch-rival late Mulayam Singh Yadav. The Dalit leader praised Mulayam as the “real and true leader” of the backward castes, putting aside her previous animosity against the Yadav patriarch from Saifai, with her son Akhilesh on the dais.

Mayawati positioned her head on Dimple Yadav’s head in a blessing gesture during a campaign rally for Mulayam’s daughter-in-law in Kannauj. Dimple then bowed and touched her feet. However, as events transpired, the camaraderie between the two parties’ leadership would not last long.

The BSP ended its partnership with the SP shortly after the results of the 2019 elections were announced, citing, among other reasons, that the Yadavs, who make up the majority of the SP’s voting base, lacked the “missionary” zeal that her supporters from the Jatav caste had.

The routes taken by the SP and the BSP have further diverged since then. Even though Mayawati chose to contest alone in both the 2022 Assembly election and the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, she has formally maintained a neutral stance. “However, the incumbent BJP has benefited from her seemingly nonaligned positions and her unspoken but implicit support, either by ensuring that the saffron party wins Rajya Sabha seats or advancing a positive narrative,” say the observers.

Akhilesh has attempted to cast doubt on the BJP’s intentions towards the Constitution among the Dalits and OBCs, but Mayawati has concentrated on making sure that her supporters stay loyal to the party despite a plethora of promises and welfare programs, like free rations promoted by the ruling party. Recalling his initiatives to rename schemes and districts after Dalit icons during the SP's rule, she has attempted to portray Akhilesh Yadav as anti-Dalit.

On the other hand, Akhilesh has often pleaded with the ‘Bahujan Samaj’ not to squander their votes by supporting the BSP candidates, arguing that that BSP is a lost cause. He urges that they should unite behind the SP-Congress candidates and mount a united front against the BJP.

The SP chief is hoping to capitalize on the “rising disillusionment and confusion among the core BSP voters following Mayawati’s abrupt downgrading of her nephew Akash Anand, who had made biting accusations on the BJP government”.

In contrast to 2019, when Mayawati assumed a more senior role within the Opposition alliance, Akhilesh is spearheading the campaign against Modi, both strategically and practically. Mayawati also benefited from the coalition agreement that gave her some of the more advantageous seats. This time, the BSP was relegated to a supporting role in a campaign that was mostly between the two parties.

The outcome of the 2024 election will determine not only the extent of the BJP’s power in Uttar Pradesh but also whether the BSP can ever recover. It will also show whether Akhilesh is suitable to lead the Bahujans in the future and change the SP into a contemporary BSP.

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