Samajwadi Party president Akhilesh Yadav is attempting a major course correction in his politicking and that is creating news. He is speaking the language of social justice and caste oppression and giving more space to OBC leaders in the party structure. He is also attacking the BJP on the grounds of caste and calling it a party that ignores the interests of the downtrodden and socially oppressed.
In the run-up to the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, this shift is important. as SP is the biggest opposition party in Uttar Pradesh, which chooses 80 Lok Sabha MPs, the highest of any state. Any big shift in the electoral matrix in UP may change the political landscape of the country.
Akhilesh’s moves may thus sound exciting to some analysts, but I would like to argue they are half-hearted and not likely to succeed.
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Signs of change
Before moving on to why the changes are unlikely to succeed, these are some of the glaring signs that indicate the party’s change in strategy:
- The Samajwadi Party has recently reconstituted the party structure and announced a list of new office bearers. Akhilesh Yadav remains the president and his long-time confidant Kiranmoy Nanda continues to be the vice president. Ramgopal Yadav has once again been appointed as secretary general.
The next tier of leadership is formed by 15 general secretaries, interestingly none of the party general secretaries are from the so-called upper caste. Very few secretaries too are from this social group. Leaders from the OBCs and SCs communities dominate the list.
- Samajwadi party leader and MLC Swami Prasad Maurya was recently in the news for branding some lines of the epic poem Ramcharitmanas as casteist. He demanded that these lines, which are humiliating to the OBC and SC communities, be banned. He was booked, in the same week, by the UP police under relevant sections including sections 295-A (deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings) and 504 (Intentional insult with intent to provoke breach of the peace) of the IPC. Many in the party, including Shivpal Yadav, distanced themselves from Maurya’s statement, but Akhilesh Yadav actually supported him and even made him one of the general secretaries! Maurya has also received support from party office bearers and spokespersons. He continues to express similar views.
- Akhilesh Yadav and the SP are using a language that is new to their lexicon. Last month, Akhilesh said that the BJP considers him Shudra and thus humiliates him based on his social background. This comes even though no important BJP leader has used the ‘S word’ to refer to him. Akhilesh Yadav is also attacking the BJP for not conducting a caste-based census and arguing that without caste data, the goals of social justice cannot be achieved.Additionally, both he and the party celebrated birthdays and other events related to Bahujan icons, this is reflected on their social media as well.
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Will it translate to votes?
The moot question is will this fetch him and the party backward caste and scheduled caste votes? While it is too early to guess about the 2024 Lok Sabha election, we know for sure that social justice slogans and programmes have the potential to garner votes.
The last three decades of political events, especially the elections, are testimony to the fact that the caste has the potential to subvert communal politics.
Regional parties ruled for many years in the state of Bihar and UP because of the emergence and assertions of the OBC community.
A major disruption came in 2014 when Narendra Modi-led BJP changed the caste arithmetic of the Hindi heartland and penetrated into the OBC strongholds. BJP achieved this through a multi-pronged strategy.
The party projected Narendra Modi as an OBC leader and gave him complete authority over the party. Its strong Hindutva pitch has also blurred the caste fragmentations and has taken part of the OBC votes from the kitty of traditional OBC parties. The BJP also gave space to leaders from castes that were not getting sufficient space in the regional parties.
After coming to power, the Modi government accorded constitutional status to the Backward Classes Commission and implemented the OBC quota in all-India quota seats in medical admissions. The BJP government at the Centre also implemented the OBC quota in Navodaya Vidyalaya and Sainik Schools.
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Contrasting the approaches of two young leaders
In response to the scene set by the BJP, two important young leaders of north India, Akhilesh Yadav and Rashtriya Janata Dal’s Tejashwi Yadav charted different trajectories and achieved different results.
Tejashwi upped the ante against the BJP on the social justice plank and achieved good results. In both assembly elections, in the post-Modi era, RJD emerged as the single largest party in the assembly.
This was no mean achievement for the young leader, especially as the party patriarch and his father Lalu Prasad Yadav had to spend most of his time in jail and hospitals. In the 2020 assembly elections, Lalu Yadav was not allowed to campaign. Still, RJD emerged as the single largest party with his alliance missing the majority mark by only a few seats.
RJD continues to harp on caste assertions and focuses on reservation. Its consistency in raising issues of caste oppression and rights is commendable. Tejashwi’s commitment to secularism is also beyond any doubt. His actions and utterances show continuum and consistency. He also follows this while in power.
This cannot be said about SP and Akhilesh Yadav. Since Modi came to power in 2014, the SP has not won any elections. The party managed to win only 47 seats in 2017, the lowest since its inception in 1992. In 2022, the party improved its position and got 111 of the 403 seats in the house.
While not winning elections hurts, it’s not unusual for a party to perform badly in one or two of them. It has happened to the BJP so many times during the last three decades. The SP’s bigger problem is that it has lost the plot and notably so when Akhilesh Yadav was in power.
The biggest mistake the party made was to oppose the reservation in promotion for the SC/ST bill in the Lok Sabha in 2013. In fact, one of the party members tore a copy of the bill in the House.
This alienated the SCs community from the SP. It may continue to hurt the party.
The party perhaps thought that the upper caste will flock to it for tearing the bill, but that never happened. The BJP was on the rise, and the upper caste embraced it.
The SP also faltered in its response to the scrapping of the three-tier reservation policy of the UPPSC in 2013. The move harmed the interests of the SC, ST and OBC communities and these social groups felt alienated as the SP government was busy cajoling the upper caste.
Akhilesh Yadav was also mostly seen in the company of upper-caste leaders.
This didn’t change even after the SP lost the electoral battle in 2017. He ignored the political reality that the upper caste has shifted to the BJP and continued his effort to woo them.
In 2017, SP gave 65 tickets to the upper caste (Brahmin, Thakur, Vaishya). Five years later it gave 71 tickets to them. (Source: field work by Arvind Kumar).
Giving a large number of seats to the upper caste candidates reduced the party and Akhilesh’s capacity to attract the backward classes. As many as 89 seats in the UP assembly are reserved for SCs/STs and unlike the BJP, the SP has to give tickets to the Muslims also, because SP gets the Muslim votes as well. This is fine, but giving tickets, that too in large numbers to social groups, who have stopped voting for SP damages the prospects of the party.
Legacy will also not help the SP in its endeavour to transform it into a party of social justice. Interestingly, Mulayam Singh Yadav, its founder, sided with Chandra Shekhar and dumped VP Singh post the Mandal-Mandir conundrum and remained proud of the decision.
While it is trying, the SP lacks the language of social justice. It has to go through a process of catharsis to undergo that transformation. Not an easy task for Akhilesh Yadav.
Dilip Mandal is the former managing editor of India Today Hindi Magazine, and has authored books on media and sociology. He tweets @Profdilipmandal. Views are personal.
(Edited by Theres Sudeep)