On Wednesday afternoon, two helicopters landed one after another on a sprawling dusty field in Haldharpur in eastern Uttar Pradesh’s Mau district. The occasion was the 19th foundation anniversary of the Suheldev Bhartiya Samaj Party, a small regional outfit that won a presence in the state assembly for the first time in 2017.

While the party’s chief Om Prakash Rajbhar was onboard the first chopper, the second ferried in former Uttar Pradesh chief minister and the national president of the Samajwadi Party, Akhilesh Yadav, from Lucknow.

Yadav’s presence meant this was no ordinary anniversary celebration. Christened as a mahapanchayat or congregation of Dalit, backward, and minority communities, it was a show of strength by two parties that came together barely a week ago for the upcoming Assembly elections in the state scheduled for early next year.

“I refuse to bow down and polish the BJP’s shoes,” Rajbhar said to the gathering, a sea of the Suheldev Bhartiya Samaj Party’s yellow scarves punctuated by the Samajwadi Party’s signature red caps. “Today, I am sounding the bugle for Akhilesh ji to be the next chief minister of Uttar Pradesh.”

Friends turn foes

The Suheldev Bhartiya Samaj Party had contested the 2017 assembly elections in alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party. It had won four seats. The saffron party had by itself clocked nearly 40% of the total votes cast, winning more than three-fourth of the seats in the house.

Many had attributed this spectacular victory to the “Modi wave”, a phrase used widely by the Indian media to describe the electoral impact of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity, which is believed to have single-handedly propelled the BJP to a series of spectacular victories between 2014 and 2019.

But Arun Rajbhar, the national general secretary of the Suheldev Bhartiya Samaj Party, dismissed this view. In a conversation that took place in Lucknow, days before the outfit made its new partnership with the Samajwadi Party public, he asked: “If the wave was so strong, why bother with all the social engineering in UP and the caste-based alliances?”

Arun Rajbhar’s dismissal of the Modi wave may well be coloured by the party’s fallout with the BJP in 2019. But many political scientists and observers agree that the 2017 election result in Uttar Pradesh reflected more than just Modi’s popularity.

Arun Rajbhar dismissed the thesis that the 'Modi wave' won BJP the 2017 elections.

A winning arithmetic

In the run-up to the 2017 elections, the BJP had knitted together a string of alliances with the state’s smaller political parties representing the non-dominant OBCs or Other Backward Classes, as many of India’s middle castes are officially categorised.

The Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party was one such party. It claims to represent the interests of the Rajbhar community, believed to be present in sizable numbers in over 120 of the state’s 403 constituencies, largely in eastern Uttar Pradesh.

The BJP’s pitch to these groups was that the incumbent government run by the Samajwadi Party catered only to the interests of the dominant OBC group of Yadavs.

Post-poll survey data suggests that non-dominant OBC voters bought the pitch. The communities voted in large numbers for the BJP and were instrumental in its stunning victory – they are, after all, the largest caste grouping in the state.

These smaller parties, for their part, may not have won too many seats by themselves, but there is little doubt that they played a role in galvanising their respective communities’ votes in the BJP’s favour.

Renewed importance

With less than six months to go for the 2022 assembly elections, the BJP is facing some turbulence on the ground. In the western part of the state, landholding Jat farmers have been staging protests against the Modi government’s contentious farm laws. Across the state, there is evidence of growing rural distress. Even opinion polls suggest the prime minister’s popularity is not as strong as five years ago.

This has made the continued support of smaller outfits representing non-dominant OBC groups all the more important for the saffron party.

But some argue that these outfits may not gravitate as readily towards the BJP this time because of a perception that it has failed to keep some of the pre-poll promises it had made to them.

Even BJP’s allies concede that there is some resentment against the government. Ashish Patel, the national working president of the Apna Dal (Sonelal), which represents the influential Kurmi caste and is the BJP’s biggest ally in the state, listed the two main grievances: the allegedly inadequate selection of OBC teachers in a recent recruitment drive, and the delay in the implementation of a report recommending the sub-categorisation of the OBC quota.

It has been a long-running demand among communities considered “more backward” within the OBC umbrella that reservations in jobs and educational institutions should be sub-categorised, or divided into sub-quotas that reflect the social status of the constituent communities. The report, submitted by a retired Allahabad High Court judge in October 2018, had endorsed this demand, but the government has not accepted its recommendations so far.

This has evoked strong censure from some OBC leaders in Uttar Pradesh. “We had zero expectation from the SP because we knew they had a personal stake in not letting this happen,” said Baburam Pal of the Rashtra Uday Party, whose primary support base is the Pal community, traditionally linked to animal rearing. He was alluding to the notion that sub-categorisation may be detrimental to the interests of dominant groups within the OBC umbrella such as the Yadavs, who form the core of the Samajwadi Party, as it may reveal the community’s disproportionate share in reservations.

In contrast, the BJP, seen to primarily represent the interests of the upper castes, was believed to have less of a stake in stalling the exercise. “We backed the BJP because we thought they would not have anything to lose personally, but we were clearly wrong,” Pal said.

In recent months, there has also been a political storm over the demand for a caste census to enumerate the population size of each caste group. Marginalised communities believe the exercise will help strengthen their case for special benefits. Although Rajnath Singh, then Union home minister, had promised a caste census in 2018, the BJP has been reluctant to conduct it. The Centre told the Supreme Court last month that a caste census would involve operational difficulties too difficult to surmount and inevitably throw up inaccurate results.

In Uttar Pradesh, however, the BJP remains defensive about the caste census. “I am personally all for it,” said Narendra Kashyap, who heads the OBC cell in the party’s state unit. “But the situation is not conducive for it right now, it will cause afda-tafdi (commotion).”

Baburam Pal heads the Rashtra Uday Party whose primary support base is the state’s Pal community, traditionally linked to animal rearing.

Opportunity for Samajwadi Party

The BJP’s primary opposition in the upcoming elections, the Samajwadi Party, is hoping to take advantage of the dissatisfaction among OBC groups. It has been courting the smaller OBC outfits, desperately trying to shed its image of a Yadav-centric party. “UP’s politics is no longer triangular,” said a senior leader of the party who is a close aide of Akhilesh Yadav. “So we can’t be just a Muslim-Yadav party anymore.”

So far, the party has successfully brought to its fold a coalition of OBC-centric parties led by the Suheldev Bhartiya Samaj Party. The coalition has parties with bases across almost all major non-dominant OBCs: Kushwaha, Bind, Pal, Prajapati, Chauhan, among others.

The coalition’s name spells out its agenda: Bhagidari Sankalp Morcha, or the platform with a pledge for a rightful share of power – something the constituents of this coalition claim the BJP failed to deliver.

“We joined hands with the BJP not to dislodge any other party from power. We did so because we wanted to be in the government to fight for our hissedari (share),” said Arun Rajbhar. “They said we would get respect that we did not get under SP (Samajwadi Party) and BSP (Bahujan Samaj Party) where there was ek-tarfa (one-sided) loot of everything by certain communities. But this siyasat ka dhoka (political betrayal) that the BJP has done with us won’t go down well with the public.”

A common charge the parties and leaders representing the non-dominant OBC groups level against the BJP is that it tried to co-opt them instead of sharing power. “They projected a Maurya as the CM candidate to get our votes but ultimately got a Thakur to become CM when he was not even an MLA,” said Ramdhani Bind of the Bharatiya Samaj Party, in a conversation in Lucknow in the second week of October. He was referring to the run-up to the 2017 Assembly elections when Keshav Prasad Maurya, an OBC, was widely seen to be the front-runner for the chief minister’s post in the event of a BJP victory. However, Maurya ended up being one of the three deputies to Adityanath, the upper-caste Thakur who had not even contested the elections.

“The BJP took votes on the basis of jati-samikaran (caste equations), but did not end us giving the hissedari (share of power) we deserve,” said Bind, whose party claims to represent the eponymous fishing community. He is also the convenor of another newly-formed non-dominant OBC parties’ forum called the Hissedari Morcha.

The OBC-centric parties that are allied to the Samajwadi Party insist that people from their communities are willing to give the party another choice. “The BJP poisoned our minds with hate against the Yadavs, saying that they took what was our share,” said Sanjay Chauhan, who heads the Janwadi Party, a partner of the Samajwadi Party. “But what did the BJP do to rectify that? People have realised it was all politics.”

Chauhan insisted that the Samajwadi Party under Akhilesh Yadav was no longer the “caste-centric” party it used to be. “They are willing to give space to other communities,” he said. “Now, the BJP’s social engineering has become weak because it could not do what it promised.”

Sanjay Chauhan, who heads the Janwadi Party, insisted that the Samajwadi Party under Akhilesh Yadav was no longer the “caste-centric” party it used to be

The BJP as the most viable choice

For all the rhetoric around OBC resentment in the state, many believe the BJP continues to hold the upper hand among non-Yadav groups.

Political scientist Rahul Verma said he did not see any “signs of a massive caste realignment” in Uttar Pradesh. “Ahead of an election, everyone is trying to get the best bargaining chip at this time and for smaller parties, the challenge is not just to get seats [to contest] but also to get some money,” he said. “Also, more seats mean more chances of winning at least something and in case the BJP doesn’t get a clear majority, they can play a role and possibly get a ministry too.”

Indeed, Ramdhani Bind of the Bharatiya Samaj Party, who strongly criticised the BJP as recently as early October, announced on Wednesday that he was joining hands with the BJP. “Rajbhar sahab did not take us along with him, so what were we to do?” he said, explaining his decision. “We also have to do our politics.”

Sanjay Nishad who heads the Nirbal Indian Shoshit Hamara Aam Dal – which shortens to Nishad, an OBC fishing community that the party claims to represent – offered another explanation for the continued support to the BJP.

“Most of these communities are not politically organised and do not have leaders of their own who can mobilise voters,” said Nishad, an ally of the BJP. “On the other hand, the BJP may not have made neetis (policies) to empower the backwards OBCs, but they have cultivated netas (leaders) among them and that is good enough for now. How many OBC leaders has Akhilesh ji projected?”

Anger against the Samajwadi Party’s purported Yadav-centric politics, Nishad said, remained as potent as ever among the non-dominant OBC communities. “More than anything, people still think they should keep the Samajwadi Party at bay,” he said. “Inko aane nahi dena hain – they should not be allowed to return.”

Echoing a similar view, Satendra Kumar, a sociologist who teaches at Allahabad University’s GB Pant Social Science Institute, said it will be difficult for the Samajwadi Party to win over the trust of non-Yadav OBC groups. “How will they give confidence to people that they will overcome the dominance of a particular caste that makes life hell at the local level?” he asked, alluding to the widespread complaint of Yadav hegemony during the Samajwadi Party’s rule. “People are scared that if they come to power again the same thing will happen all over again, that the dominant group [Yadavs] will beat them up and oppress them.”

Even Chauhan of the Janwadi Party, a partner of the Samajwadi Party, conceded that other politically-organised influential castes within the OBCs such as the Kurmis and Koeris continued to share an acute unease with the Samajwadi Party.

As Verma, the political scientist, explained: “There is this perception among such groups that although they are at the same position in the social order as the Yadavs, they talk at them when the Samajwadi Party is in power.”

Ramdhani Bind (right) entered an alliance with the BJP on Wednesday despite expressing reservations about the party as recently as early October.

The Hindu card

Another advantage that the BJP continues to hold in an electorate polarised on religious grounds, political observers say, is its image as a party that best represents the interests of the Hindu community, regardless of caste. In contrast, the Samajwadi Party is seen as a party that depends on the votes of Muslims.

As Nishad said, “Things may not be looking great for people right now in terms of jobs and all that, but there are always other things such as Ram Mandir, etc.”

Another OBC leader aligned to the BJP hinted that the Hindu card would come to the BJP’s rescue. “Amit Shah-ji is a master strategist,” he said, referring to the Union home minister. “He will do something at the right time, we are sure.”

But Pal of the Rashtra Uday Party said the BJP’s Hindu card had run its course when it came to electoral politics. “We tested that also, but we got nothing out of it.” he said. “It is all about bhagidari now, we will go with whoever gives us that.”