The Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh is traditionally known for its leanings towards the Other Backward Classes (OBC), where it has a strong support base. An essentially Yadav-dominated political outfit, it has nevertheless worked tirelessly to bring practically anything and everything carrying the 'Most backward Class' tag under its umbrella. So while it has cultivated leadership in OBC castes such as kumhar (potters), Gaderiya (shepherds) and Nishad (boatmen and fishermen, a formidable MBC caste, by the way), it also yielded prime space for quite a while to Beni Prasad Verma, a Kurmi leader who continues to wield a great deal of influence in central UP.
In its apparent zeal to include the 'have-nots' in its brand of politics, the Samajwadi Party has even given sufficient space to the Muslims in its structure. In this Lok Sabha election, the outfit has taken a major step ahead, forging a 'Gathbandhan' or alliance with erstwhile arch rival Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party, to build what some pundits believe could be a lethal combination -- SP's own OBC base coupled with BSP's strong scheduled caste electorate. The solitary objective of this union, of course, is to take the Bhartiya Janata Party head on and dislodge it from power in India's largest and most influential state in terms of electoral strength.
And if the Samajwadi vision document is anything to go by, Akhilesh Yadav seems to have got his basic math right. The man is attempting to revive the mission set forth by late Bahujan leader Kanshiram, of bringing all OBCs and SCs under one umbrella. In order to be successful in this initiative, he would have to mobilising a staggering 85 per cent of the electorate in Uttar Pradesh. If he can do this, he would end up garnering the electoral force of a staggering 85 per cent of the voting population in Uttar Pradesh. What Akhilesh is essentially trying to do is to create an 85-versus-15 kind of situation, in which the number 15 represents the upper castes and rich and dominant voters. This strategy may help the Samajwadi leader in bringing the SP and BSP cadres together, as Akhilesh and Mayawati put up a united front to sell the story to their respective caste bases that they have remained have-nots solely because their interests are being stifled by the rich and powerful, who are with the BJP.
Yet, there are some challenges for Samajwadi and the gathbandhan in uniting an entire cluster of OBCs and transforming them into one solid, cohesive vote bank.
The speed bumps
The first major hurdle comes from several non-Yadav OBCs who are convinced that the Yadavs have skimmed the cream off OBC reservations and are the prime beneficiaries of state-led development projects. This notion has been fomenting resentment among the non-Yadav MBCs against dominant OBC castes such as the Yadavs and Kurmis. The disgruntled set of OBCs includes the Nishads, Binds, Kahar (potters), Kalwars, Bharbhujas, Rajbhars, Lohars (iron smith), Lonia, Mali(gardeners), Sonars (goldsmiths) and Baris.
Their angst could create a roadblock in unifying the entire OBC cluster, rendering Akhilesh's arithmetic redundant. In its recently released vison document, the Samajwadi Party promised it would introduce an Ahir regiment in the Army if it came to power. This promise, much appreciated by the Yadavs, has created doubts and jealousies among many other OBC and MBC castes.
The second challenge is the BJP strategy to widen this gulf between marginal MBC communities and the Yadavs. The Samajwadi's promise to the Ahir's may provide the fodder the saffron set-up is looking for to draw such MBC communities into its fold. The Bharatiya Janata Party has, in fact, already begun working on these castes, and has formed the Samajik Nyay Samiti (Public Justice Committee) to review the reservation pie chart and explore the possibility of ramping up their share in it.
The increasing gulf between some MBC and a few OBC castes also provides space for the Congress to mobilise the politically marginalised communities and revive itself in Uttar Pradesh in the near future.
Third challenge before Akhilesh and the Gathbandhan is the ability to provide political space to those OBC and MBC communities that have not yet acquired space in the politics of the Samajwadi Party. The growing aspiration among these politically left out communities is growing and they want the ‘lal batti’ for the leaders of their own caste. Everybody's uncle knows what an uphill task it is to try and accommodate every aspiration without disturbing the political balance. Those who acquired space in Panchayats now want space in the assembly and the ministries. The number of assembly seats and ministerial berths is a constant. The test of Akhilesh's poll strategy lies in his ability to accommodate the clamour for power on the part of various social communities within the framework of this constant.
The fourth challenge for the Samajwadi Party and Gathbandhan is to reduce the mutual jealousies amd disrust among the various subsets of the OBC universe, which has largely been a product of the competition for appropriate share in development projects, state resources and in power.
The BJP has, through its alliance with the Anupriya Patel-led faction of the Apna Dal, has already begun to make inroads into the Kurmi bastion. The Congress, in the other hand, has tied up with Apna Dal's Krishna Patel faction in its bid to achieve the same goal.
In such a scenario, only time will tell how effectively the gathbandhan and the Samajwadi Party will be able to unite OBC communities in their favour and bring them closer to SC communities in coming 2019 election.
Badri Narayan is the Director of the G B Pant Social Science Institute in Allahabad. He tweets @poetbadri