How Mandir Triumphed Over Mandal
Although there was much analysis of the BJP’s massive victory in the UP, where it won 255 seats and 41.3% of the vote, the improved performance of the Samajwadi party attracted less attention. . The SP won 111 seats and 32% of the vote, compared to 47 seats and 21.8% of the vote in the 2017 parliamentary elections. In 2012, when it formed the government, it had 29% of the vote. If the Congress and the BSP had performed better, the gap between the BJP and the SP would have been narrower than in a clearly bipolar situation. In the end, the PS under Akhilesh Yadav failed to overthrow the government of Yogi Adityanath despite poor governance, a declining economy and anger on the ground against the BJP.
During the campaign, sensing an opportunity, Akhilesh Yadav aggressively pointed out the governance failures of the Adityanath government and formulated strategies that helped improve the SP tally. Taking advantage of the farmers’ protest, which helped shift the electoral discourse from purely communal rhetoric to economic issues, Akhilesh formed the SP-RLD alliance to mount a strong campaign in western UP, making it a major theater of battle. The Jats, Yadavs and Muslims were thought to vote for the alliance, following reports of improved relations between the Jats and the Muslims, which had broken down following the Muzaffarnagar riots in 2013.
With the existential crisis facing the BSP and the perceived collapse of the subaltern social coalition of the backward lows – as some leaders such as Swami Prasad Maurya moved to the SP – Akhilesh has struggled to shed the image of a Muslim-Yadav party by creating an anti-BJP front of small OBC and Dalit parties: the Rashtriya Lok Dal led by Jayant Chaudhary in the west of the UP, the Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj party of Om Prakash Rajbhar in the Eastern UP, Mahan Dal of Keshav Dev Maurya in Central UP, Apna Dal (K) in Eastern UP, and Janwadi Party of Sanjay Chauhan (Socialist). He also formed the Baba Saheb Vahini to attract Dalit votes. By positioning himself as the leader of the pichhade or backward, he shifted the electoral discourse to a battle between hindutva and social justice.
These strategies have shaken the western stronghold of the BJP’s UP. SP-RLD candidates defeated BJP leaders such as Suresh Rana, Sangeet Som and Umesh Malik, who had been active in the Muzaffarnagar riots. The RLD won Shamli and three seats dominated by Jat in Muzaffarnagar district – Purqazi (SC), Budhana and Meerapur. The SP-RLD alliance enjoyed Muslim support; 36 Muslim candidates were victorious, up from 24 in 2017. The peasant movement was mainly concentrated in four Jat-dominated districts: Muzaffarnagar, Shamli, Baghpat and Meerut. Of the 19 seats in these constituencies, the BJP won six, all predominantly urban; in Baghpat, the BJP beat the RLD by a narrow margin.
CSDS data indicates strong competition between the BJP and SP for votes from Kurmi, Koeri, Maurya, Kushwaha, Saini and other politically ambitious and upwardly mobile OBCs, with other parties receiving virtually none. Coming from the Kewat, Kashyap, Mallah and Nishad communities, the SP obtained a higher percentage of votes than the BJP. A similar competition for Dalit votes is visible, with the BJP and SP receiving a higher percentage of votes not only from smaller Dalit groups, but also from Jatavs.
Whichever party won, there was a challenge to Hindutva by the forces of Mandal. However, historical and immediate weaknesses did not allow the SP to defeat the BJP. In the early 1990s, the Mandal and Ram Mandir projects were launched and although the BJP won a majority in 1991, it lost in 1993 to the SP-BSP combination. But by then the Rath Yatra had taken place and the basis of the Hindu project was laid, especially among the OBCs. The destruction of the Babri Masjid led to a decline of the BJP in UP. But the SP under Mulayam Singh failed to mobilize the rear, as it favored family concerns and Yadavs and ignored inferior OBCs, leading to it being seen as a Yadav-Muslim party. Akhilesh succeeded to some extent in 2012 in broadening the base of the party by gaining support from all castes. But under Modi’s leadership, using an increased community program combined with generous welfarism, Hindutva forces managed to win the support of large sections of OBCs and Dalits. In fact, in 2022, there was little need for community rhetoric. The election was held on a Hindutva model built in 2014; today there is much greater acceptance of the BJP’s cultural agenda among OBCs and Dalits.
Despite these enormous challenges, the SP only started its 2022 election campaign in October 2021, which was too late to take advantage of the palpable anger on the ground and the discontent of OBCs and Dalits. PS leaders were not visible during the Covid-19 pandemic, nor active in the peasant movement. Moreover, efforts to mobilize farmers outside western UP were made far too late, only after the Lakhimpur Kheri incident on October 3, 2021.
The triumph of Hindutva over the forces of Mandal indicates that the BJP is moving towards realizing its ambition to create a Hindu nation, while the parties’ radical promise of social justice, due to the failures of their leaders, seems gradually weaken. Defeating the BJP in the upcoming election contest looks like a Herculean task for the UP opposition.
The author is a former Professor, Center for Policy Studies, JNU, New Delhi