news analysis

Will the crisis in the Samajwadi Party force Amit Shah to rethink his strategy in UP?

The BJP chief was banking on a split in Muslim vote, which appears unlikely now.

The war in the Samajwadi Party may be over for now but the tussle for supremacy between Akhilesh Yadav and his uncle Shivpal Yadav has most likely weakened the party’s prospects in the upcoming Assembly polls, and the ripples of this fight are likely to be felt on the electoral calculations of the major players in Uttar Pradesh.

Muslims account for nearly 18% of the population in the state, and the crucial Muslim vote generally goes to the political formation best suited to defeat the Bharatiya Janata Party. With the Samajwadi Party emerging as a chaotic house months ahead of the Assembly elections, questions are being raised whether it can retain its hold on Muslims. It does not help that there is a growing perception among Muslims that the Samajwadi Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party have entered into some sort of a pre-poll deal.

The loss of confidence in the crisis-ridden Samajwadi Party as a winning force may therefore take Muslims en masse to the next party most likely to stop the BJP from coming to power in the state. With the Congress hardly a major player, that outfit is increasingly looking like Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party.

If this shift happens, it is likely to upset the calculations of BJP chief Amit Shah who was banking on a split within Muslims – with a large chunk staying with the Samajwadi Party, and a smaller number with Mayawati – which would have benefited the BJP’s prospects in the state.

The ‘winnability’ factor

Muslims are crucial for the Samajwadi Party, which has the Yadav caste as its core. In the early 1990s, in the aftermath of the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, the mass backing of the minority community to the party resulted in the formation of the M-Y (Muslim-Yadav) combination. This gave birth to a social revolution that became a formidable force in the state, and remained so for 25 years.

In the current scenario, the community seems poised to move over to Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party especially as the leader seems to have consolidated her Dalit vote base in the state.

Dalits constitute nearly 22% of Uttar Pradesh’s population. Out of this nearly two-thirds, or 14% of the state’s population, consist of the Jatav caste, the core vote base of the Bahujan Samaj Party. Together, Muslims and Dalits account for nearly 40% of the state’s population – a figure much higher than what has been required to secure an absolute majority in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly in the last two elections. While in 2007, Mayawati achieved this feat by securing a little over 30% of the vote, in 2012 the Samajwadi Party won 224 seats out of 403 by getting 29.13% of the vote.

Thus, if Mayawati succeeds in bringing Dalits and Muslims together, the new alliance may bring her the support base needed to form the government in Uttar Pradesh.

Mayawati is leaving no stone unturned to ensure that Muslims join her in a big way. She has already staged massive rallies at Agra, Azamgarh, Saharanpur and Allahabad. In all of them her message has remained the same: she is not just looking at reviving 2007 when the Bahujan Samaj Party got an absolute majority for the first time in the state, but at creating a new social alliance of Dalits and Muslims that would act as the new core of the state politics.

What of the BJP strategy?

Shah’s strategy so far was to push Yadavs towards the Samajwadi Party so that Muslims would be confused over the party’s winnability factor, and hence fail to consolidate behind either Mulayam Singh Yadav or Mayawati, which would benefit the BJP.

This is why the BJP’s strategy regarding Yadavs in Uttar Pradesh was a total reversal of the one followed in Bihar, where the BJP suffered a humiliating loss. In the neighbouring state, where elections were held in 2015, the BJP tried to woo Yadavs. In Uttar Pradesh, however, the party declared “one family” (that of Mulayam Singh Yadav) and “one caste” (the Yadavs) responsible for all the corruption and lawlessness in the state.

The calculation was this: force the maximum polarisation of Yadavs in favour of the Samajwadi Party so that a large number of Muslims, despite their anger against the state government, will still vote for Yadav’s party thinking that only it could stop the BJP.

This, as Shah’s calculation went, would not only prevent a Muslim-Dalit consolidation, but would also secure the reverse polarisation of non-Yadav Other Backward Classes and upper castes in favour of the saffron party.

It was expected that this strategy would put the BJP neck-and-neck with the Samajwadi Party for power in the elections, leaving the Bahujan Samaj Party stranded with its Jatav core vote, and Congress isolated with its thin presence in the state.

According to a BJP leader, Amit Shah started working on this strategy soon after the party received a severe drubbing in the Bihar Assembly elections last year.

Said the BJP leader, who was privy to a conversation that took place at the party headquarters in Delhi: “The first indication of the party’s changed approach towards Yadav voters of UP came in December last year when Amit Shah snubbed Ramchandra Yadav [a BJP legislator from Uttar Pradesh], who had gone to seek permission to expand the party’s base among Yadavs.”

The leader added: “Shah’s response was shocking. He told Ramchandra Yadav that the party would not give much space to the members of this caste because that might erode the BJP’s core vote base.”

Ramchandra Yadav, who is a BJP MLA from Rudauli, wanted to induct a group of district-level Yadav leaders into the party. “Shah denied him permission,” the BJP leader said.

The strategy of forcing Yadavs to consolidate behind the Samajwadi Party to confuse Muslims appeared to be working well in the beginning, but its weaknesses became evident as soon as Mayawati began her rallies and the Congress pitched for Brahmin votes.

Yet, it is the crisis in the Samajwadi Party that seems to have ended the confusion among Muslims, which may deal a blow to Shah’s electoral strategy. The swelling of the vote base of the Bahujan Samaj Party and a rejuvenation of the Congress in the state, however small, may considerably weaken the BJP’s ability to keep even its upper caste vote base intact.

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