Caste, Cows and the Countryside

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Does BJP need to fear Akhilesh Yadav’s alliance with Mayawati in UP?

AMIDST THE VOCAL shawl-clad men huddled on a charpoy in a courtyard, Shripal Yadav stands out with his white beard, unreadable eyes and stoic silence. “He is a poor farmer. Ask him if his loan was waived,” someone in the group of Yadavs at Naya Gaon village of western Uttar Pradesh says, alluding to a pre-poll promise made by the BJP.

Shripal nods. His Rs 1 lakh loan was indeed pardoned, and he says it as dispassionately as he expresses his allegiance to the Samajwadi Party (SP).

The land he owns had originally belonged to Kayasthas, an upper -caste community. When Chaudhary Charan Singh became a minister in UP in 1952, he initiated the abolition of zamindari under the Land Reforms Act, giving ownership of land to tenants belonging mostly to middle and lower castes. Shripal’s father was a beneficiary of the law, acquiring the land he tilled. “Netaji [Mulayam Singh Yadav] is Chaudhary Charan Singh’s follower,” says 65-year-old Shripal, who remained unruffled by the Modi wave of 2014, BJP’s promises in the run- up to UP’s 2017 Assembly elections, the Yadav family feud or negotiations in smoke-filled rooms that brought the SP and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) together to fight this year’s General Election. Mulayam Singh Yadav, founder of the SP, once loomed large in the village, where over a third of all voters are Yadavs.

Woh zameeni neta thhe (he was a grassroots leader),” the Yadav farmers say, recalling how when he was Chief Minister he had visited a nearby college and insisted on having lunch at the house of a teacher, Rampal, who had studied for a BEd degree with him. During the Kargil War of 1999, the body of the son of a villager, a Thakur, was brought home. Residents of Naya Gaon believe this was because of a policy formulated by Mulayam Singh Yadav when he was Defence Minister in the United Front regime of the mid-1990s.

The Yadav affinity for Yadav leaders was interrupted by the BJP campaign for the 2014 Lok Sabha and 2017 Assembly elections. Naya Gaon’s Yadavs admit there was a split in their vote in the hope of change promised by the BJP. “We were hopeful the farmers’ condition will improve. We grow mostly vegetables. It’s being eaten up by cows. They break fences and get in. The youth have to keep an eye on them till late night,” says villager Chandrapal Singh. He claims that the region’s Yadavs are now with former Chief Minister and SP leader Akhilesh Yadav and will back the SP-BSP alliance candidates now, notwithstanding the hostile past between the two parties, the differences between Mulayam Singh Yadav and his son, Shivpal Yadav’s Pragatisheel Samajwadi Party (Lohia) jumping into the fray, or Priyanka Gandhi’s plunge into politics in a bid to energise a moribund Congress in the state. In Singh’s assessment, “Had Priyanka Gandhi come five years ago, it may have had some impact. People saw glimpses of Indira Gandhi in her. But now it’s too late here.”

While the feud in the Yadav family did hurt the party, these Yadavs seem to have moved on, accepting Akhilesh Yadav as the future of the SP for giving it a ‘younger, cleaner image’. Some dismiss the Akhilesh-Mulayam discord as a case of ‘dikhaawa’ (drama) by the father to prop up his son, others describe it as routine household bickering, and there are those who see it as a positive progression from the old order to the au courant. For Akhilesh, who has never led his party to victory, 2019 will be a true test of his leadership.

“Akhilesh has emerged as the main negotiator between SP and BSP. Mulayam’s absence may turn out to be an advantage for SP. Had he been at the helm, such an alliance would not have been possible, given the bad blood of the past. The alliance narrative is far stronger than the feud,” says Gilles Verniers, an assistant professor of Political Science at Ashoka University who as co-director of the Trivedi Centre for Political Data spearheads several research projects and data gathering efforts on contemporary Indian politics. While Mulayam and the SP were seen as one by people, they differentiated between Akhilesh and the party, which also liberates the younger Yadav of the legacy of his father’s party to an extent.

Verniers, however, adds that on the ground, campaign coordination between the SP and the BSP is an open question in an alliance whose success depends on mutual vote transferability.

AK Verma, director, Centre for the Study of Society and Politics, Kanpur, says there’s a big question mark on vote transferability given the bitter split of the SP and BSP in 1995 and the animosity between the two. “Mulayam Singh Yadav’s socialist movement got diluted because of casteist politics. His mentor Ram Manohar Lohia was dead against casteism. Akhilesh is less casteist. But the SP was founded on the premise of anti-Congressism and he joined hands with Congress. Maybe he learnt his lesson from it,” he says. Verma was referring to 2017, when the SP aligned with the Congress before that year’s Assembly election.

AT NAYA GAON, YADAV farmers appreciate the work done by the Akhilesh government, putting behind memories of deterioration in law and order in the state during his tenure as Chief Minister. One of the villagers, a government servant who does not want to be named, narrates his meeting with Akhilesh Yadav at a wedding in Lucknow recently. When the leader asked him if people felt corruption had been contained, the villager cited an example of the poor sand miners he meets along a rivulet on his way to work, telling him that the ‘dakshina’ (contribution, a euphemism for a bribe) to be paid at the nearby police chowki had gone because the cops said there was GST now. Akhilesh, the villager recalls, just laughed.

While the feud in the Yadav family did hurt the party, some Yadavs in the state seem to have moved on, accepting Akhilesh Yadav as the future of the Samajwadi Party for giving it a ‘younger, cleaner image’

Between ‘Gujjar Chowk’ and ‘Jat Chowk’, around 25 Yadav- dominated villages fall in the Sikandrabad segment of Bulandshahr district. When a group of villagers met the Sub-Divisional Magistrate (SDM) in January seeking a ‘Yadav Chowk’, he turned down the application saying it would widen divisions between communities, says Vinay Kumar Yadav of Naya Gaon. “We suggested that signboards of other communities also be removed, but he refused to do that.”

As the villagers discuss the current political scenario, octogenarian Rampal Yadav, who suffers from memory loss, sits up on his charpoy with a blanket wrapped around him. Asked who he supported in the last election, he cites the name of DP Yadav. Politics has stood still for Rampal since then. Incidentally, after Yadav, a tainted politician, joined hands with Mulayam in 1989 and won from Bulandshahr thrice (till 1993), the SP has not won the seat. The last time the SP won the Sikandrabad seat was in 1996. The BSP won both those seats in 2007 and 2012.

In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, when the BJP swept UP with 71 seats and a 42.3 per cent vote share, 27 per cent Yadavs voted for the saffron party and 53 per cent for the SP, according to the National Election Survey (NES) conducted by CSDS. On the other hand, 68 per cent Jatavs stuck to BSP and only 18 per cent voted BJP.

A narrow brick road divides the Jatav dwellings, where several villagers, mostly farm labour, have gathered in a house with peeling green walls. The room echoes with woes over the current cow menace. The BSP alliance with the SP will not deter them from voting for ‘Behenji’ Mayawati’s candidate.

Around 5 km away, in Mohana village, where nearly 70 per cent of the voters are Yadavs, the mood is not as homogeneous as in Naya Gaon. As the village fair winds up, two Yadav youths covered with red Chinese blankets say the Modi wave has not ebbed and that Akhilesh’s alliance with Mayawati will further hurt the SP. “The Yadavs didn’t get anything during SP rule, while several villagers have been inducted into the police under the Yogi Adityanath government. The SP had indulged in Muslim appeasement,” says Saurab Yadav.

The village is abuzz with activity on a cloudy winter afternoon: a young girl rides a bike with an older woman on pillion, some villagers have the remaining bits of snacks at the fair, people move in and out of a pandal where a feast is being served to celebrate an engagement ceremony. “Akhilesh had started doing better work after the pressure on him reduced. He has picked up the ropes,” says Pramod Yadav, a teacher. Suraj Pal Yadav, a 65-year-old farmer, expresses the view that any kind of development should begin from the grassroots, upset that it was not happening. Some say there is a feeling among certain sections that it should be ‘Modi for PM and Akhilesh for CM’. Pritam Yadav says his heart was with Mulayam, who had created awareness about Ahirs, a pastoral caste group.

Rajinder Yadav, a poor farmer, says there were a lot of expectations from the BJP, which had raised hopes of a better life, but its schemes were not reaching the poor. Cynical about leaders of political parties, he says his vote in the Lok Sabha election will depend on the candidate. “Mulayam was good, but casteist politics crept in. Akhilesh did good work but law and order, corruption were issues, which is why he lost.”

Down the street in a Jatav colony, Dilawar says his community would not hesitate to back any candidate of the SP-BSP alliance. Around 3 km away, in another village, Oledha, sugarcane farmers from the Yadav community complain that timely payments for their crop had not been made. “We are not going by caste factors. We had voted for Modi as we saw him as a thinking man,” says Birendra Singh.

UNLIKE THE SP, which has suffered an erosion in the Yadav vote, the BSP has managed to consolidate the Jatav vote even in the worst of times for it electorally. Together the two parties’ core vote-bases—Yadavs and Jatavs—account for over 20 per cent of the state’s population. “The BSP’s electoral base is larger. Among Yadavs, there’s a class differentiation in voting pattern. Some rich Yadavs tilt towards the BJP. The key really is if the SP will be able to mobilise voters in favour of the BSP,” says Verniers. In the BSP’s case, candidates have often been outsourced as the party’s founder Kanshi Ram had realised in the late 1990s the need to co-opt leaders of other parties.

The 2014 General Election witnessed a large shift in Dalit voting patterns, with the BJP’s share among the community increasing by 12 percentage points, according to NES data. Of the 84 seats reserved for scheduled castes, the BJP, which had reached out to Dalit leaders and parties, won 40, 28 more than it did in 2009. The BSP failed to get a single seat. Of the non-Jatav Scheduled Caste vote, the BSP got 30 per cent and the BJP 45 per cent. The BJP wrested 61 per cent of the non-Yadav OBC vote and 53 per cent of the Kurmi-Koeri vote in an election that reduced the SP to just the few seats contested by the party’s ruling family.

A person close to the Yadav family says the fragmented anti-BJP vote and the outcome of the 2014 General Election forced both the SP and BSP to realise that there was a need for them to get together for political survival. It was not an overnight decision, but was taken following several rounds of deliberation.

Political scientists are of the view that with Priyanka Gandhi campaigning, the Congress could perforate the SP-BSP alliance’s vote. Congress vote share had dropped to 7.5 per cent in UP in 2014 from 18.3 per cent in 2009. “Shivpal Yadav’s supporters may look at the Congress. Politics has moved beyond identity. In a triangular contest, the BJP gains,” says Verma. He also points out that both the SP and BSP will have to deny tickets to nearly half their candidates who may have been preparing to fight elections. With an alliance in place, other such challenges still await Akhilesh and Mayawati.

Leaving the villages of Gautam Budh Nagar Lok Sabha constituency bordering the capital, one wonders if politics in the state will move beyond caste and religion. Maybe, in time. And then, politicians would have to recalibrate their approach. On the highway, at a few shops serving hot tea and noodles, youth of the Prajapati community, a backward caste disenchanted with Mayawati’s focus on Jatavs, pledge their support to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The youth look at an elderly man for his endorsement. “Yes, Modi,” he says without looking up. The youth nod.