Lucknow: Union Home Minister and BJP’s chief election strategist Amit Shah is keeping his rivals in good humour this election season in Uttar Pradesh, in case there is need for a post-poll partnership. At least that’s what appeared to be the message from Shah’s praise for the likes of RLD chief Jayant Chaudhary and BSP chief Mayawati.
But there is more to it.
Shah’s public recognition of these political rivals is a calculated move to split a largely bipolar fight in UP — between arch rivals BJP and SP — into a multipolar one to benefit the BJP, say party insiders.
This was considered especially important for the sixth (3 March) and seventh (7 March) phases of the UP assembly elections because as many as 111 of eastern UP’s 164 seats are up for voting in the two phases.
Eastern UP is crucial to BJP’s victory plans in the state as the party had won the 2017 state polls handsomely after winning a landslide in the region. Of the 111 seats up for election in the final two phases, the BJP had won 84 in 2017.
Here, Dalits are the highest in number, followed by the Yadavs, Muslims, Brahmins, Kurmis, Rajputs and Banias. The SP has strongholds in Azamgarh, Jaunpur and Mau, while Sant Kabir Nagar is a BSP stronghold.
To win in eastern UP, the BJP believes, Shah has to ensure that the BSP stays in the fight and cuts votes meant for the SP. In 2017, Mayawati’s party won 11 of its 19 seats from the eastern region and drew a 21 per cent voteshare from across UP. In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the BSP-SP alliance defeated the BJP in Jaunpur, Azamgarh, Ghazipur, Ghosi and Ambedkar Nagar.
A party insider said: “Shah is aiming to energise the BSP cadre for the remaining two phases of the UP polls in which the BJP and SP are locked in a direct fight.”
Words of praise
In a TV interview last week, Shah said “it is not true that Mayawati’s relevance is over” — countering many political pundits who have dismissed the former UP chief minister’s BSP as a force in the state.
“I believe the BSP will get votes. I just don’t know how much of it will convert into seats, but it will get votes. I don’t know if this would be of advantage to the BJP… it is seat-specific,” he said.
A surprised Mayawati reciprocated the praise by saying: “Ye unka badappan hai ki unhone sach ko sweekar kiya (it is his wisdom that he has accepted the truth).”
Ahead of polls in western UP in the initial phases, Shah had apparently “reached out” to Chaudhary of the RLD (an SP ally) at a rally, saying “Jayant babu is the right man on the wrong side… Jayant thinks (SP chief) Akhilesh Yadav will listen to him… Jayant babu, you are mistaken. Someone who does not listen to his father and uncle, why would he listen to you? If at all an SP government is formed, you would be sidelined on the third day and (SP MP) Azam Khan will be released from jail and take your place.”
Many wondered about Shah’s motives and plans with these utterances, while some argued that it was his way of handing out an olive branch to rivals in case of a hung assembly.
But a BJP leader said “this poll messaging was not for post-poll arithmetic but for midway calculation”.
“Shah does not need to build a ‘mahaul (atmosphere)’ to please Mayawati for post-poll support. Such alliances do not take place through TV interviews. If the BJP would need Mayawati’s help (in government formation), she is just a phone call away from the top leadership. With some political give-and-take behind the scenes, her support would be ensured,” the leader added.
The BJP had earlier supported Mayawati in becoming CM for the first time after the infamous guesthouse episode of 1995. Also, BJP veteran Lalji Tandon, who was one of the architects of the BJP-BSP alliance, was known as Behenji’s rakhi brother.
“There are two portions to Shah’s praise for Mayawati. One, where he says the BJP may benefit on ‘specific seats’ because of BSP’s choice of candidate. Second, Shah hinted the BSP is getting Jatav votes and Muslim ones in order to cut into SP’s Muslim vote base,” the leader said.
The poll arithmetic
For the sixth and seventh phases, the BJP has given tickets to 24 Dalit and ST candidates, while the BSP has given tickets to 26 such candidates, and the SP to 25. The BSP has also fielded 16 Muslim candidates and the SP, 11. Even the Congress has given 17 Muslim candidates tickets for these phases.
According to a BJP source, in the first two phases in western UP, the BJP “faced tough competition and the fight was almost bipolar between the SP and the BJP due to Jat anger, RLD-SP alliance and Muslim polarisation towards SP”.
“However, the BSP fielding more than 28 Muslim candidates cost the SP in many seats, and the BJP will benefit because of this. In eastern UP, to maintain its lead of the initial phases, the BJP is hoping for a good showing by the BSP by cutting into the SP’s Muslim votes in its stronghold districts,” the source added.
One eastern UP leader said the BSP going solo for the polls was best for the BJP but the party has to give “khaad pani (nutrients) to the BSP so that it remains in the fight”. “We know the BSP can never become a challenger for the BJP,” the BJP leader added.
For the 403 assembly seats in UP, the BSP has fielded 88 Muslim candidates compared to the SP’s 61. On 28 seats in western UP, the BSP Muslim candidate was pitted against an SP Muslim candidate, and this is expected to have divided Muslim votes. On another 44 seats, the BSP has fielded Muslim candidates against non-Muslims nominated by the SP.
Another UP BJP leader told ThePrint: “Shah saheb praised two leaders ahead of and during the UP polls — one before western UP’s first two phases when he praised Jayant Chaudhary and said the doors are open for him. This was meant to confuse Jat voters and reduce their animosity towards the BJP. The second statement of praise for Mayawati came after the fourth phase to split anti-incumbency and Muslim votes of the SP, and also soften up the Jatavs.”
‘Softening’ BSP’s vote base
The BJP’s winning strategy so far has been to consolidate non-Yadav OBCs like Patels, Mauryas, Nishads and Lodhs, and non-Jatav Dalits like Pasis, Nais, Dhobis, Valmikis and Sonkars.
In eastern UP, the sects of Nathpanth and Ravidasis, and Kabirpanth have a large following among Dalits. In UP, half of the Jatav community are either Kabir panthis or Ravidasias. Kabir is venerated by the Kushwahas and Kurmis.
In 2018, PM Narendra Modi visited Maghar near Varanasi where Kabir breathed his last. The BJP is also building a convention centre at Varanasi in Kabir’s name and, on Guru Ravidas Jayanti last month, UP CM Yogi Adityanath and other BJP leaders visited his birth place.
Social scientist Badri Narayan pointed out in his writings that “the RSS has made inroads into the Pasi community by celebrating their heroes Baldeo and Daldeo”, and “co-opted Ravidas supachya rishi from the Jatav community, and Dina Badri from Musahar community to reach into BSP’s stronghold”.
According to him, the “BJP is trying for the consolidation of Dalits and some sympathetic Jatav voters on weak BSP seats” this poll season.
A BJP leader said: “By fielding (from Agra) Baby Rani Maurya from the Jatav community, the party has a message for the community — that they can trust the BJP. The BJP has also not attacked Mayawati like Akhilesh has, in order to keep the Jatavs in good humour. By praising Mayawati, BJP wants sympathetic Jatav Dalit votes to defeat the common political enemy — the SP.”
Lalji Nirmal, chairman of the UP Scheduled Castes Finance and Development Corporation, told ThePrint that the “Dalits don’t see the SP as a friend due to their past mistakes and atrocities towards the community, but they have no reservation towards the BJP”.
“They know it was Modi who inaugurated the Ambedkar House museum in London. It is also the BJP which has promised to give them gram samaj land on lease,” he said.
BJP’s Rajya Sabha MP Kanta Kardam added: “It does have an impact when senior leaders like Shah praise their leader. They feel sympathetic towards the BJP. Already, their reservations towards the party have come down.
“Earlier, Dalit women wasted time and effort in carrying water from distant wells, now a water pipeline has been drawn under Nal Se Jal scheme and they are getting money under the PM Awas Yojana. Dalit girls are also going to schools and colleges without fearing other castes. All this is cementing their faith in the BJP.”
(Edited by Nida Fatima Siddiqui)