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The results of Uttar Pradesh bypolls have surprised many political pundits. In less than one year, there has been a massive turnaround in the caste and demographic equations. Initial reports suggest that Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) has successfully managed to transfer their vote to the Samajwadi Party.
The Muslim vote in both the constituencies – Gorakhpur and Phulpur – consolidated behind the Samajwadi Party.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had swept the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and done an encore in 2017 during the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections, leaving the Opposition destroyed and left without any ideas.
So what really happened in Gorakhpur and Phulpur in just about one year?
Demand for a ‘Mahagathbandhan’
On 9 March last year, The Quint published a crowd-sourced survey conducted by Crowdnewsing, a civic-tech startup, in Uttar Pradesh on the state’s Muslim community. The one major finding of the survey was that there was utter confusion in the community on which party to vote for.
Fifty-five percent of the respondents voted for the SP-Congress alliance and 36 percent said they voted for the BSP. This lead to a complete split in the Muslim vote, and as a result, the BJP sailed through even in seats which had traditionally alluded the saffron party.
But more significantly, the survey, that was conducted in 10 districts of Uttar Pradesh covering all seven phases, also threw up a wishlist of the Muslim community.
Around 93 percent of the 2,600 respondents expressed the need for a Mahagathbandhan which would include the SP, BSP as well as the Congress.
“These tall leaders should drop their personal egos and come together in the interest of those who are being oppressed,” said Azeem, one of the respondents in Azamgarh.
Among the issues that mattered the most before the elections last year, development of infrastructure, roads, water and electricity topped the agenda at 44 percent. Surprisingly, only 23 percent of the respondents voted to ‘prevent riots and communal violence.’
Even job creation was the top priority for Muslims of Uttar Pradesh at 19 percent.
On ground, these factors seems to have changed. Yogi Adityanath government’s decision to regulate meat shops across the state, frequent cases of fake encounters, organised mob attacks and the rhetoric around contentious issues like Ayodhya dispute and Triple Talaq seem to have polarised the Muslim community even further.
Perhaps in anticipation of the current state of affairs, the desperate cry for unity of Opposition saw a reflection in the survey that was subsequently carried by a number of leading national publications.
The findings were significant. When we spoke to some of the election managers handling the SP-Congress alliance last year, we were told that efforts were made to reach out to the BSP ahead of the Assembly polls, but Mayawati decided to go alone. Even an unofficial seat coordination would have helped.
Sources inside the BSP camp suggested that Mayawati was rather confident of a good showing in the 2017 polls. But with BJP sweeping away the elections, the Opposition was left with no choice but to find a way to consolidate the non-BJP voter.
Unity of the Oppressed
Mayawati’s BSP won zero seats in 2014 and fared poorly in 2017, so it comes as no surprise that she chose to support the SP. Even during the Babri Masjid mobilisation in the early 1990s, the SP and BSP had come together under the leadership of Mulayam Singh Yadav and Kanshi Ram. But the two parties eventually parted ways in 1995, following the humiliation of Mayawati and BSP workers at the hands of the SP cadre, in an incident that’s infamously called the “Guest House kaand.”
Ever since the split, the rivalry between the SP and BSP was seen more as a clash of egos between Mayawati and Mulayam Singh Yadav. Add to that the bitter reality of caste-based violence against the Dalit community, where the oppressors were invariably from other backward groups which enjoyed political patronage of the Samajwadi Party during its rule.
So how do you explain the transferring of votes from the BSP to the SP?
This could be attributed to two things:
- Selection of candidates, particularly in Gorakhpur
- Fear factor among Dalits
In Gorakhpur, the SP fielded Pravin Nishad, son of Sanjay Nishad who was the founder of the Nishad Party which secured over 5.40 lakh votes in the 72 seats it contested in the 2017 polls.
Interestingly, the Nishad community is part of the most backward caste group and has been a critical voting segment in Gorakhpur with over 3 lakh members. According to news reports, Pravin Nishad’s campaign described the Nishad, Dalit and Muslim combination as the solidarity of the 85 percent.
The last few months have seen a spike in cases of atrocities against Dalits, with chilling videos doing the rounds on WhatsApp, including the incident in Unnao where a Dalit woman was burnt alive. Experts have been pointing towards drastically changing ground realities in Uttar Pradesh over the last one year.
“Ever since Yogi Adityanath has come to power in the state, there is a meteoric rise in attacks against the Dalit community. And this time, instead of other backward groups, the attacks are being committed by the upper caste. Not only have the number of cases almost doubled, but the impunity with which some members of the Rajput community are committing these atrocities and capturing it on camera, it has shocked the Dalit community," said Arun Khote, who runs Dalit Media Watch, a Lucknow-based organisation that monitors caste-based violence.
Hence, Mayawati ending up going with the SP was only a reflection of what her own support base wanted. Perfect example of democracy working bottoms-up.
The Way Forward for Opposition Unity
Even though the Opposition is failing to throw up personalities that can take on the larger-than-life stature of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a new emerging trend can be seen. From the bypolls in Rajasthan to now in Uttar Pradesh, from student elections to local body polls, the BJP is struggling to deal with questions of joblessness, rural distress, widespread corruption in the banking sector, demonetisation, Aadhaar and implementation of the GST.
The message from the electorate is clear – the top down approach of personalities must make way for a bottoms-up approach where the issues are at the centre of the public discourse. And with PM Modi being unable to leash violent elements within his party, the desperation of Dalits and Muslims will only add to his woes.
(Bilal Zaidi is the Director at Centre For Art and Free Expression. He can be reached at @bilalzaidi84. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)