Saharanpur/Muzaffarnagar/Shamli: How the caste arithmetic of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Samajwadi Party (SP) plays out in Uttar Pradesh will be seen in the first two phases of the assembly polls when the state’s western region votes on 10 and 14 February.
While western UP is dominated by Muslims and Dalits, the BJP strategy here has been centred on the OBCs, who are known to influence the poll outcome in this region.
The SP has spent the last few years wooing the non-Yadav OBCs, but voters ThePrint spoke to said they may still not support the party because of its poor record on law and order and ensuring that government schemes reach beneficiaries.
On both issues, the incumbent Yogi Adityanath-led BJP government has trumped over the previous Akhilesh Yadav-led regime, say voters.
When it comes to the BJP’s OBC vote-base, unemployment and inflation have aggrieved voters, but they are still willing to place their bets on the party.
Yet, the BJP may be fearful in the wake of several of its big-ticket OBC leaders quitting last month to join the SP and the likelihood of the OBC voters swinging towards Akhilesh, along with the Jats who may lean towards the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), which is in alliance with the SP.
The importance of OBCs, who constitute an estimated 40 per cent of the population in UP, can be ascertained from the fact that all four parties looking to win the state — the SP, BSP, BJP and Congress, have OBC state presidents.
Data from Centre for the Study of Developing Societies showed that 61 per cent of non-dominant OBC backed the BJP in 2014, and this rose to 72 per cent in the 2019 general election.
BJP’s OBC outreach
UP’s Saharanpur district is a Dalit bastion — which also has a 50 per cent Muslim population — from where BSP chief Mayawati and Bhim Army chief Chandrashekhar Azad have tried their luck.
Mayawati became CM twice after winning elections from Saharanpur Rural in 1996 and 2002, while her mentor, BSP founder Kanshi Ram, also fought elections from this district. Seven constituencies come under Saharanpur, which will go to the polls in the first two phases.
The BJP is keen to win Dalit votes here, but the district is also a test case to understand how the party’s OBC outreach is working on the ground.
The BJP has already made inroads into this region by winning four seats in 2017, with the division of Muslim votes playing a key role. This time, the BJP is trying to make inroads into the three other constituencies of Saharanpur as well.
In Saharanpur Rural, the BJP is aiming for Dalit-OBC consolidation. The seat also has 1.37 lakh Muslim voters, according to party estimates. Here, the party has fielded BSP turncoat Jagmohan Singh against the Congress’ Masood Akhtar.
In this constituency, there are, by BJP estimates, 95,000 Jatavs, besides 15,000 Sainis, and 12,000 Kashyaps (Sainis and Kashyaps are OBCs). The Thakur Bhumihars and Vaishyas number nearly 25,000. The BJP is hoping for division of Muslim vote between the SP and Congress and consolidation of the OBC and upper caste vote, along with a chunk of Jatav voters, who have long been BSP loyalists.
While some Jatavs remain committed to Mayawati, others are seeing an alternative in the BJP.
Mohanlal from the Jatav community told ThePrint they would vote for Mayawati whether she wins or loses, as she has “given us homes and this time she will give us employment”.
But Satpal, a small vendor from the Jatav community, said he would vote for BJP as “ration is free and is given by the BJP”.
Another significant seat is Nakur, which has a Muslim population of 1.2 lakh and 50,000 Dalits. The BJP here is banking on the support of 40,000 Gujjars, 35,000 Sainis, 25,000 Kashyaps, 12,000 Brahmins, 9,000 Thakurs and 8,000 Vaishyas (community strength numbers based on party estimates). The party has fielded a Gujjar for the polls.
Nakur MLA Dharam Singh Saini — a former minister and prominent OBC leader who quit the BJP making allegations of neglect of the backward classes — is now contesting from the seat on an SP ticket.
With support from the SP, he is hoping to draw Muslim and Saini votes along with the Jats, but there is a catch. Despite Saini’s presence, not all Saini voters are enthusiastic about voting for him and the SP.
“For so many years, Dharam Singh was in power under BJP, but now to get Muslim votes, he has jumped to the SP. We will still vote for the flower (BJP’s lotus symbol). (CM) Yogi is doing good work, law and order have improved and criminals have fled,” Jaipal Singh Saini from Nakur told ThePrint.
Dharam Singh Saini, a former minister in the Yogi Adityanath cabinet, told ThePrint that the “law and order issue is a narrative built by the BJP”.
“The BJP has ignored OBCs for five years in sharing power and other benefits. Not only Muslims, all castes will vote for Akhilesh Yadav this time,” he added. “The BJP is silent on Hathras and other big incidents that happened under its rule.”
Division and polarisation
Behat, which has more than 1.5 lakh Muslim voters, is another seat the BJP is eyeing as the party has not won from here in the last 30 years. This time, it has fielded freshly-inducted Naresh Saini, who won the seat on a Congress ticket in the previous election.
The BJP’s strategy rests on division of Muslim votes, and polarisation of OBCs such as Sainis, Kashyaps and Khamboj. Umar Ali, son-in-law of Delhi’s Shahi Imam, is the SP candidate here.
“The last time, in 2017, we got Saini votes all over the state but not on this seat. This time, we have a strong Saini candidate. With OBC and upper caste polarisation, we have chances to win the seat this time,” Mahendra Saini, BJP’s district president, told ThePrint.
BJP candidate Naresh Saini said that “all the people who want better governance are voting in the name of Yogi”.
To neutralise the Muslim and even Jat combination, a chunk of OBC votes is what the BJP wants to grab to win in western UP seats such as Saharanpur, Moradabad, Muzaffarnagar and Shamli, where the religious minority makes up around 30 per cent of voters.
Security is a particularly promising idea for the non-dominant OBC castes, who were allegedly victimised during the SP regime. Thus, BJP leaders from Amit Shah to CM Adityanath have been harping on the party’s “good record” on law and order, as well as Yogi’s “bulldozer baba” image, and PM Narendra Modi’s farmer-centric schemes.
Robin, a Dalit from Shomli village in Behat who works with the railways, told ThePrint: “Rozgaari nahi mili yae mudda hai but suraksha is big issue. Pehle cow khul jaate thae raat mein, ab koi bakri bhi nahi lae jata hai (Unemployment is an issue but security is assured. Earlier, cows used to get stolen at night but now no one even dares steal a goat).”
Mohit Saini, a shopkeeper from the same village, said: “Under the SP, theft was the norm, but now law and order is tight. My father is getting Rs 6,000 under a farmer scheme while I am getting Rs 500 under Shramik scheme. Yet, the best thing is that Yogi has given us is safety.”
The BJP has also made efforts to represent the non-dominant castes. In Baseda village, which has a significant OBC Jogi population, some people await BJP’s Naresh Saini. They are followers of Gorakhpur Math, which is headed by Yogi Adityanath.
A voter from the community asked: “Why will we vote for any other party? We are safe, although inflation is high and unemployment is an issue. No government can provide full employment, why blame only Modi?”
“Earlier, only Yadavs or Muslims could register FIRs, but now anyone can register FIRs without fear,” said resident Kamal Prajapati.
According to Balbir Gujjar, a resident of Gujjar village Nagala Rathi, his community supports the BJP. “The common man needs roads, water, electricity and security. The power situation has improved and also law and order. There is discontent on the Mihir Bhoj issue, and some people may not vote for the BJP this time. But most of us will,” he said.
Another key caste that makes up the OBC block is Kashyaps. They are demanding the status of “Dalits”. To woo this section, the BJP has tied up with the Nishad Party.
Dinesh Raj from the Kashyap community said: “Although our demand for listing us in the Dalit category has not been met, we will vote for the BJP. However, many in our village may vote for the SP too.”
The Nishad Party had earlier briefly joined hands with the SP too.
(Edited by Nida Fatima Siddiqui)