The Samajwadi Party’s victory in Phulpur and Gorakhpur parliamentary bye-elections will convince its leader, Akhilesh Yadav, that he had been right in adopting the persona of a backward caste leader rather than fashioning his politics to appeal to upper castes as well. For this turn in Yadav’s politics, and that of Uttar Pradesh, the Bharatiya Janata Party and, implicitly, its upper-caste supporters are responsible.

When he was Uttar Pradesh chief minister from 2012 to 2017, the Samajwadi Party politician tried his best to redefine the image of himself as a Yadav caste leader. He adopted development as his political mantra, refrained from appealing to caste identity and broke away from the control of party elders thought to be partial to people who were corrupt. For all this, Yadav won great praise. But when it came to the 2017 Assembly election, the upper castes did not vote for him.

This seems to have embittered Yadav. He expressed this disappointment in his speeches after the Bahujan Samaj Party declared support for the Samajwadi Party in the two by-elections. His articulation was subtle, attacking not the upper castes but the BJP, the principal recipient of their votes. Yet, at the same time, it was clear that his attempt to sharpen the edge of backward class politics will hurt the upper castes the most, intensifying the power politics of Uttar Pradesh into a struggle for ascendancy between various caste groups.

These ideas were presented most forcefully in his speech in Phulpur, in which Yadav contested the very meaning of backward and forward. In the Hindi heartland, upper castes are popularly referred to as forward castes and the Other Backward Classes benefiting from reservation as backward castes.

Yadav challenged this categorisation by asking a question that is as old as the Indian civilisation: should an individual be judged by his actions or his caste? He listed the development programmes his government had successfully completed – the Agra-Lucknow Expressway, 18 lakh laptops distributed to students, and a new pension scheme. Then, he delivered the punch: “I never thought I was a backward. But I must thank the BJP for telling me that I am a backward, not forward, but no matter how backward we are, our work is forward.”

It is an argument that was in sync with the lived experience of members of the backward castes. Regardless of the progress they make, Yadav implied, the upper castes will always look upon them as backward.

New kind of politics

Any doubts on this score were dispelled when Yadav pointed to how the language of the BJP’s leaders had changed as soon as the Bahujan Samaj Party declared its support for his party on March 4. He criticised Adityanath’s remark that the two Opposition parties joining hands was like an alliance between a snake and a mongoose: “He [Adityanath] was backward before he became chief minister, he remains backward even now.”

Yadav challenged the BJP’s definition of caste politics. Why it is that when upper castes are favoured, it is not considered casteism? “I never asked for votes on the basis of caste or religion but...on the issue of development,” he said. But even then, he added, the BJP accused of him of working to ensure the domination of his Yadav caste over the state administration.

All this, he claimed, was done to divide members of the backward castes. He provided an example: “The prime minister came here and pointed out that the police stations are under Yadavs,” Yadav said, referring to Phulpur. “They should tell us who is running the police station today.” He was obviously pointing to the change in the social composition of the state’s administrative machinery after Adityanath became chief minister. It was his way of asking how there was no talk of a particular caste dominating the administration now?

But it was not enough to blame the BJP for dividing the backward castes. Yadav had to demonstrate this willingness to accommodate non-Yadav, non-upper caste social groups. He did this partly through his choice of candidates for the bye-elections.

In Gorakhpur, he fielded Pravin Nishad, son of Sanjay Nishad, founder of the Nirbal Indian Shoshit Hamara Aam Dal or Nishad Party. For Phulpur, he chose Nagendra Patel, a Kurmi. It was Yadav showing his intent to unify the backward castes, and seek an alliance with the Bahujan Samaj Party and its Dalit support base.

Stronger opposition

The alliance of the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party rattled the BJP, as was evident from Adityanath’s snake and mongoose analogy and the party’s constant invoking of the 1995 incident of Samajwadi Party MLAs storming a guest house to attack Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati. Akhilesh Yadav sent a firm message that his politics is different from that of this father, Mulayam Singh Yadav, whose men were responsible for the incident. Said Akhilesh Yadav: “Tell me, have I ever called Mayawati other than bua [aunt]?”

Sudhir Panwar, a professor at Lucknow University, said that Yadav’s campaign messaging had a clear message. “He will accommodate backward castes other than Yadavs, unite with BSP, try to rope in Jats, harp on agrarian distress and renew the fight for social justice that regional forces have abandoned,” Panwar said.

Indeed, Yadav has already outlined the new narrative he plans to build around social justice and backward caste politics. After puncturing the theory he had Yadavised the administration, he spoke about how Aadhaar, the 12-digit biometric-based identity number, was being linked to land registration and cell phone SIM cards. Then he demanded, “Link us to Aadhaar and tell us the percentage of each [caste] in the society. We don’t want to fight. But if you want to strengthen the nation and the society, then follow what the Constitution says: give each [group] its due according to their population.”

This demand was actually Yadav’s response to the BJP’s plan to sub-categorise the 27% reservation for the Other Backward Classes, likely in April. According to this proposal, the 27% reservation is expected to be redistributed after splitting the Other Backward Classes into three groups – extremely backward, more backward and backward. It is likely that castes such as the Yadavs and the Kurmis would get only a slim share of the reservation pie under this plan.

Akhilesh Yadav, however, wants the reservation pie divided on the basis of each caste’s population. Though this line questions the Supreme Court’s ruling that reservation should not exceed 50% of all government jobs and seats in educational institutes, it enables Yadav to push back against the ruling party’s attempt to divide the Other Backward Classes, seemingly to weaken the parties championing social justice. Pegging reservation to population would hurt the BJP’s upper caste supporters, as the unreserved pool shrinks even further. It is as if Yadav is telling the BJP: “If you weaken us, we will harm the interest of groups that support you.”

In other words, Yadav has abandoned hope of winning over upper castes who have treated him, as he said in his Phulpur speech, as a backward caste leader who is not worthy of their votes.