UP elections 2017: Why Akhilesh Yadav's caste card flummoxed his opponents

Even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi are seen battling it out over demonetisation and corruption in the battleground state of Uttar Pradesh, state chief minister Akhilesh Yadav has, like a bolt from the blue, played the caste card and in the process, befuddled his adversaries.

In a move that is bound to put both the BJP and the BSP in a fix ahead of the crucial elections, the state government hurriedly cleared a proposal today to place as many as 17 Other Backward Class (OBC) sub-castes on the list of Scheduled Castes (SC). It’s significant that these castes that include Kahar, Kashyap, Kewat, Majhi, Machhua, Mallah, Nishad, Kumhar and Prajapati, Bind, Bhar, Rajbhar, Batham, Gaur and  Dheemar matter a lot politically because of their numerical strength. Together, they make a huge votebank.

 UP elections 2017: Why Akhilesh Yadavs caste card flummoxed his opponents

File image of Akhilesh Yadav. AP

Historically speaking, most of the people belonging to these castes have preferred to align with the socialist stream almost ever since Independence — Praja Socialist Party, Samyukta Socialist Party, Janata Party, Janata Dal, Lok Dal and Samajwadi Party. But with the rise of Kanshi Ram and Mayawati, who espoused the cause of extremely backward classes in Uttar Pradesh politics, a section of these people joined the BSP bandwagon. Now, they are a divided lot. While some of them have drifted towards the BJP, most others continue to be divided between the SP and the BSP.

What’s even more significant is that Mulayam Singh Yadav has been pushing for inclusion of these castes in the SC category with a view to achieving 'backward consolidation' in the SP’s favour ever since 2005. But the Centre had, in its wisdom, turned down his proposal — not once but thrice. In retaliation, Mulayam had even organised massive Samajik Nyaya Adhikar Yatras across the state in 2007, 2009 and in the run-up to the elections in 2012.

Mulayam’s move did pay political dividends in the previous Assembly elections. The party could win 224 seats as against BSP’s 80. What was remarkable about this election was that the difference in the vote shares of these two parties was less than three-and-a-half percent.

You can now understand why, under Mulayam’s overbearing guidance, Akhilesh has taken a U-turn at the eleventh hour. Just take a look at the following two statements to see through the chief minister’s change of heart:

“It’s true that equations of caste and religion do work. But instead of focusing on these equations, political parties should seek vote on development issues… People should elect those who talk about development”

– Akhilesh Yadav on the last day of Monsoon Session of UP Legislature on 1 September, 2016.

Even on 21 December this year, he had told reporters:

“The days of caste politics are over. And now, only two Ds — development and demonetisation matter... Nobody talks about old issues such as intra-party friction or cabinet reshuffle… People will vote for us for our work in the past five years… The spate of problems that the people are facing because of demonetisation will also make us win… The long queues that you see in front of banks/ATMs will soon turn into queues of voters for the Samajwadi Party.”

It's now clear that Akhilesh continues to receive coaching from his father on 'how to win voters and influence politics'. The father’s message to the son is clear: Win the coming elections first; other lofty things can wait. The son has begun to obey his father’s advice, maybe reluctantly.

Be that as it may in the changed scenario, both the BJP and the BSP are facing a dilemma: If they support the government’s move, it’s the SP that would stand to gain. And if they don’t, they might lose the sympathy of the 17 castes in question. That’s perhaps why there is a routine, almost muted opposition to Akhilesh’s caste card.

What may, however, cause some comfort to the Opposition is that the BJP controls the Centre. And chances are that the UP government’s proposal, which will be sent to the Union government for ratification, shall never be accepted.

But the all-important question remains unanswered: What happens if elections take place before the proposal is rejected by the Centre?

It’s timing that matters — especially in politics.

Updated Date: Dec 23, 2016 08:34:42 IST