New Delhi/Lucknow: On 16 February, Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid the foundation stone for a museum and tourist complex in Bahraich, dedicated to Maharaja Suheldev of Shravasti, a medieval Hindu hero of the region.
Modi said ‘New India’ is rectifying the wrongs of history writers who haven’t done justice to figures like Suheldev, who defeated the invading army of Ghazi Saiyyad Salar Masud, a nephew of Mahmud of Ghazni, in the 11th century.
Speaking virtually, the PM said besides a 40-foot bronze statue of the king, the tourism complex will include a museum, a park for children, an auditorium, a tourist home, car parking, cafeteria, and shops for local craftspeople to sell their products.
He added that the medical college in Bahraich that has been renamed after Suheldev is being expanded so that the lives of the people of the city and its adjoining areas become easier.
Modi’s speech was part of the BJP’s larger outreach to the Rajbhars, a significant OBC community in Uttar Pradesh who call themselves the descendants of Suheldev and other Bhar rulers. Yogi Adityanath’s UP government celebrated Suheldev’s birth anniversary in all district headquarters on the same day PM Modi launched the museum and tourist circuit virtually.
ThePrint explains why the BJP is wooing the Rajbhars ahead of the UP assembly elections due next year.
Significance of Rajbhars
Suheldev’s birth anniversary celebration is not just a cultural matter for the BJP, as the Rajbhar community accounts for 3 per cent of the population, and on 49 assembly seats it makes up 12 to 18 per cent of voters.
The outreach began even before the 2017 assembly elections — in 2016, then-BJP president Amit Shah visited Bahraich to inaugurate a statue of Suheldev and urged the Rajbhars to give his party a chance to bring development to the region, and restore the prestige of the former royal.
The Rajbhars’ most significant leader, Om Prakash Rajbhar of the Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party, allied with the BJP for the 2017 assembly polls, and became a minister in the Yogi Adityanath government when the national party romped to victory. The SBSP won four of the eight seats it contested.
But the alliance split before the 2019 general elections because the BJP refused to give in to the SBSP’s demand to contest three seats.
Since they went their separate ways, the BJP has intensified its Rajbhar push, making Anil Rajbhar a minister in the Yogi government and putting him in charge of Ballia and Bahraich districts, which have sizeable Rajbhar presence. It has also made another community leader, Sakaldeep Rajbhar, a Rajya Sabha MP.
The SBSP, meanwhile, has now joined hands with Asaduddin Owaisi’s AIMIM and Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party to form the Bhagidari Sankalp Morcha.
BJP’s cultural politics
The chief reason for the BJP’s electoral success in UP has been non-Jatav Dalit-OBC consolidation in its favour, and the formula it used to achieve this is cultural nationalism-plus-development, which Amit Shah has been credited with.
This has been clear in the way the party has created tourism circuits in the name of marginalised communities and their heroes, such as Suheldev in eastern UP, Sant Ravidas in Varanasi, and the Maurya community in Sant Kabir Nagar. These circuits are meant to ensure that people from these regions would gain employment and development in the long run.
Prof. Badri Narayan, director of the GB Pant Social Science Institute in Prayagraj, said: “It is BJP’s community memory project to awaken social pride in these marginalised communities.”
He added: “Although it was (BSP founder) Kanshiram’s idea to honour marginalised communities like Maurya, Bheel and Rajbhar, his party only restricted itself to statue-making. The BJP has taken it to next level by linking the honouring of heroes with employment through the tourism circuit.”
This, Prof. Narayan explained, will ensure a long association in people’s minds between the BJP, their icons, and development.
UP BJP vice-president Vijay Pathak told ThePrint: “We are not doing politics in the name of Rajbhars, which a few parties are doing… We are working for members of the Rajbhar community to get their due, to restore their pride and bring them the benefits of development. That’s why the medical college and tourist circuit are being developed in the name of Maharaja Suheldev.”
BSP, AIMIM, AAP all eying Rajbhars too
However, the BJP is hardly the only party that’s trying to woo the Rajbhars.
BSP supremo Mayawati last year replaced Munquad Ali as the party’s state president and appointed Bhim Rajbhar to try and combine the party’s traditional Dalit vote bank with the Rajbhars.
Meanwhile, O.P. Rajbhar, whose SBSP has influence in Ghazipur, Mau, Ballia, Chandolia, Varanasi and Mirzapur, is hoping that the tie-up with AIMIM and AAP will combine his vote-bank with the 22 per cent Muslims to make an electoral difference.
Arun Rajbhar, O.P. Rajbhar’s son and general secretary of the SBSP, told ThePrint: “Despite all its best efforts, BJP will not get votes from Rajbhars because they know its reality. We are making one alliance to consolidate minorities, Dalits and OBCs, and talks are going with all small parties.”
In the 2017 assembly polls, the SBSP contested eight seats, registering around 34 per cent of the vote share. But next year, the alliance is aiming to field candidates in around 120 seats spread across 20 districts.
(This report has been updated to correct the population of Rajbhars in UP and add voter-strength percentages in their constituencies of influence. The error is regretted.)