As Uttar Pradesh heads for crucial assembly elections early next year, an intense political struggle between the ruling BJP and its arch-rival Samajwadi Party has already begun. Firmly seated on a formidable alliance of Yadav OBC and the minority Muslims, SP chief Akhilesh Yadav hopes to build a momentum that can oust the Bharatiya Janata Party from power. It was probably this concern for the minority vote bank that stopped Akhilesh and his father Mulayam Singh from going out and paying tributes to BJP stalwart and former chief minister Kalyan Singh who died last month.
The Samajwadi Party’s strategic absence at Kalyan Singh’s residence, located just half a kilometre away from Akhilesh Yadav’s bungalow, was a move that didn’t go unnoticed. Over the next few days, the BJP tried to make an issue of it, but the SP’s silence didn’t let the fire spread. However, on August 30, the BJP made a brilliant move. A move that caught the SP’s top leadership off guard and put it in a catch-22 situation.
The surprise step came with BJP state president Swatantra Dev Singh calling on SP patriarch Mulayam Singh Yadav at his residence in Lucknow, a visit about which, sources say, Akhilesh Yadav was not kept in the loop. Faced with old age and poor health, Mulayam Singh of late has been more or less missing from decision-making within the party. His movements too have been restricted and in the political arena, it is Akhilesh who has been more sought after by most politicians than his father.
The decision to reach out to Mulayam Singh with the given intent of inviting the SP leaders for the condolence meet in memory of Kalyan Singh was a well-calculated political move. Sources say Akhilesh would have never agreed to such a meeting. What was discussed and what Mulayam said has not been made public, but the tweet put forward later that evening by the BJP state president set the ball rolling.
Swatantra Dev Singh in his tweet said, “Today I met Former Chief Minister and SP Stalwart Mulayam Singh ji and sought his blessings.” Clearly, a message was sent, that when it comes to political courtesy, the BJP is not shy of reaching out to its arch-rivals and communities that are generally perceived to be against it. A larger message was for the dominant Yadav sub-caste among the OBCs: “You may or may not support us but we have respect for someone you hold in high esteem."
Though Mulayam Singh Yadav didn’t attend the condolence meet held the next day despite the invite, the BJP was successful in setting a larger narrative. By calling on MSY, it tried to hit two birds with one stone. First, a message to the Yadavs among the OBCs that the party holds the SP patriarch in high esteem. And second, send a message to non-Yadav OBCs (Lodis in this case) about how the SP leadership has chosen to ignore the legacy of Kalyan Singh.
For the BJP, in its efforts towards larger backward class consolidation in Uttar Pradesh, the Yadav versus non-Yadav OBC ploy has been a defining strategy for long. Since 2013, the saffron party has gradually worked to build a strong perception about the dominance of the Yadavs among the OBC block and how this has adversely impacted the interests of the most backward castes. The “haves and have-nots" debate among the OBCs has been largely set by the BJP.
The non-Yadav consolidation thus achieved has played a crucial role in the BJP’s spectacular victories in the 2014 and 2019 general elections and also in the 2017 UP assembly polls. OBCs are estimated to constitute more than 40 per cent of the state’s population and the Yadavs at around 8 per cent are considered to be the biggest chunk of it.
For the BJP, the challenge this time is to keep this consolidation intact, even as it is increasingly threatened by rising identity politics among the most backward castes. The party is already battling the exit of its former ally Om Prakash Rajbhar of the Bharatiya Samaj Party and a sense of annoyance among the MBCs over what they perceive as underrepresentation in government despite playing the most crucial role in the BJP’s rise to power in 2017.
The meeting with Mulayam Singh goes on to address both concerns. One, it is a Yadav outreach, and second, it is a message to the non-Yadav OBCs, about the fact that the Samajwadi Party in its eagerness to appease the Muslims is even ready to dishonour the legacy of OBC leader, Hindutva and Ram temple movement icon, Kalyan Singh.
The SP, however, remains unfazed by the BJP’S move. The party fired a salvo by claiming that Swatantra Dev Singh came to meet Mulayam because he is uncomfortable in the BJP, an argument that will surely have no takers. SP spokesperson and legislator Udaiveer Singh said, “The BJP president came to meet Neta ji (Mulayam) with mala fide intent. The party that never honoured Kalyan Singh during his lifetime is today shedding crocodile tears in his name. If Kalyan Singh was so respected by Modi and Yogi ji, why was he not invited for the Ram temple foundation laying in Ayodhya? No doubt the BJP is playing politics on death as it has done in the name of former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee."
The BJP on the other hand claims that Akhilesh and Mulayam Singh’s absence from the condolence meeting has exposed their mindset. Party spokesperson Rakesh Tripathi said, “Politics should not be played on death. Kalyan Singh was not just a BJP leader, he was a former CM who had worked for all. In disrespecting him, SP has shown its true colours of minority appeasement politics, an act for which the people of the state will not forgive the Samajwadi Party.”
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