Akhilesh Yadav, the Samajwadi Party (SP) president, formally launched his election campaign on Tuesday via a “Vijay Rath” yatra that first rolled on the streets of Kanpur to massive crowds. Big turnouts and gusty cheers are beguiling for a politician but Akhilesh, a seasoned politico by now, might recall that his motorcade similarly attracted throngs during a joint campaign he ran with Rahul Gandhi before the 2017 assembly polls. The SP-Congress alliance was underpinned on the slogan, “UP ke launde” (UP’s boys), to drive home the supposed demographic advantage contained in the power of youth. The slogan fell flat as the BJP not only retained but augmented the political capital it had accumulated in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections fought under the leadership of an older Narendra Modi. So before the SP and Akhilesh’s cheerleaders declare victory after the “yatra’s” first lap, it’s useful to list the challenges the party faces in confronting the BJP. Among the tests they are expected to be put through are crafting a pre-poll narrative to match the UP government’s myriad claims of its record in office, handling the Hindutva strand in the discourse, the Priyanka Gandhi Vadra “factor” and enlarging the SP’s rather limited caste support base.
Top BJP sources said their electioneering will revolve around the chief minister Yogi Adityanath’s law and order “management” and not “vikas” or development. The idea, they said, was to juxtapose this issue with the SP’s own record of law and order during Mulayam Singh Yadav and Akhilesh’s tenure and let voters judge which was more “credible” and “effective.” The BJP’s point was under the SP, a “certain caste” (read the Yadavs) and a “certain community” was given the carte blanche to do what they wanted if they had to settle political and non-political scores with their adversaries.
Adityanath’s regime was marked by police “encounters” which his detractors alleged were targeted specifically against the minorities and some backward castes to “show them their place”. However, BJP sources claimed the encounters had the “net effect” of “silencing” the known and potential troublemakers and scaling down the incidence of crime. Law and order management or mismanagement is always a claim hard to defend because while some sections benefit from the state’s intervention, others lose out. The Lakhimpur Kheri episode brought out the selective aspect of the issue after the high-handedness displayed by the son of a central minister on the protesting farmers. It remains to see how the SP and its ally, the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) interpret and depict the Lakhimpur Kheri killings in their discourse and portray them as a reflection of the BJP’s “anti-farmer” attitude.
The other challenge before the SP is confronting Hindutva, which is at the root of the BJP’s success. So far, Akhilesh pursued the “me too” line, exhibiting an enthusiasm to match, if not outdo, the BJP on religiosity. Gone were the days when the SP assiduously and openly courted Muslims with a rainbow of promises that stopped short of assuring them of reservations in educational institutions and jobs. Indeed, when Azam Khan, SP veteran who pulls in the Muslim votes in the places where the community’s votes count, was arraigned by the Adityanath government for financial malfeasance and land grab and jailed, Khan’s grouse was Akhilesh had not pulled his weight behind him. The SP’s apprehension was that had their leader actively protested on Khan’s behalf, it would have opened him to the BJP’s familiar accusation of being “anti-Hindu”. The SP awaits its test when tickets are distributed. Party sources maintained that Muslim candidates would not be fielded in the same numbers as in the past.
Asaduddin Owaisi, the president of the AIMIM, is as serious about breaching the “secular” fortress in UP as he was about shaking Bihar’s Mahagatbandhan. While Owaisi had limited success in Bihar, his ability to breach the Opposition in UP will depend on how Muslims vote: take the strategic route and vote for the party or combine best placed to defeat the BJP or give Owaisi a chance.
The SP’s nuanced change towards the minorities goes hand-in-hand with an exercise to court the Brahmins. UP’s Opposition made a play for the Brahmin votes once they spotted the slips in the BJP’s Brahmin base that largely stood with the party since 1989. Brahmins may not be big in number but they command an influence that’s disproportionate to their strength and sometimes mould electoral choices. The community is wedded to Hindutva and, therefore, even a hint of “minority-appeasement” could alienate Brahmins from the SP.
Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, the Congress general secretary in-charge of UP, is engaged with the state episodically. When it comes to a disaster, Priyanka is the first to hit the hot spot with the accompanying optics. Recall the Sonbhadra killing of tribals and the Hathras rape and death of a Dalit girl and the images that come to mind are those of Priyanka commiserating with the bereaved families. Lakhimpur Kheri was not an exception. The Adityanath dispensation was determined from the word go to stall the Opposition’s visits until a semblance of normality was brought about. Priyanka defied the orders, went ahead, and was detained near the epicenter. She finally reached the place with Rahul Gandhi and met the families of the deceased. Akhilesh couldn’t make it. However, while Priyanka might have nicked the optics, the visuals were not commensurate with Congress’s ground strength. The Congress has steadily lost significant state leaders, the latest being Rajaram Pal, former Akbarpur MP. Interestingly, Pal crossed over to the SP on the day that Priyanka sat on a silent protest against the Lakhimpur Kheri tragedy in Lucknow. Indeed, Congress has lost many of its representatives to the SP.
But Akhilesh has probably figured out that the induction of defectors won’t give the SP the political heft it needs to make it an even match against the BJP. He is reaching out to the more backward castes (MBCs) and the extremely backward castes (EBCs) to transcend his Muslim-Yadav core base. The historical antagonism between the Yadavs, a prosperous backward caste, and the MBCs and the EBCs who lie at the bottom of the social heap make Akhilesh’s task onerous.
Akhilesh and his estranged uncle Shivpal Singh Yadav have shown no sign of reuniting after a bitter fallout in 2019. Shivpal floated his own party which seriously damaged the SP in its family borough in west-central UP, in the districts of Etawah, Mainpuri, and Etah. Shivpal is a strong organizational hand who was trusted by Mulayam Singh Yadav, the family patriarch, to raise the SP organization brick by brick after its launch in 1992. If Shivpal fights on his own, which appears most likely, he will dent the SP again on its turf to the advantage of the BJP.
Radhika Ramaseshan is a consulting editor with Business Standard and a columnist. The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author.