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Shifting Sands: 2024 Election Is A Warning Bell For BJP In Uttar Pradesh

Verdict 2024 is a warning bell for the BJP as the subaltern communities in UP are now rapidly shifting towards the SP and the Congress

Photo: Vikram Sharma
Photo: Vikram Sharma
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Uttar Pradesh’s geographical size, immense demographic wealth and political significance make it a power-packed state. With 80 Lok Sabha seats and 403 Assembly seats, each party puts in a lot of effort to have a political edge. Policy decisions made at the Centre are often discussed in the power corridors of UP.

Over the past 30 years, there has been a four-way contest—between the Congress, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the Samajwadi Party (SP), and the BJP—to conquer UP. The BSP, the SP and the BJP have been trying to strengthen their hold in the state for years, right from when Mayawati was the chief minister in 2007 and when Akhilesh Yadav was ruling the state in 2012. In 2017, Yogi Adityanath became the chief minister of the state, and the BJP benefitted from it.

While the BJP managed to create the myth of ‘invincible Modi’ in the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the bubble burst in the recent 2024 elections. Rahul Gandhi and Akhilesh Yadav from the INDIA bloc stopped the BJP from reaching the magical number of 272 seats on its own. PM Modi himself won the Varanasi seat by a much smaller margin this time as compared to the 2019 elections.

What changed in UP in this election?

Since 2010, I have been researching on various communities in UP as part of my study on political and social formation in North India, not just during elections, but even otherwise. Students of social studies are not always in ‘election mode’. They quietly keep an eye on changing patterns of social realities, without asking any questions. This brings experience and depth, unlike exit polls that have immediacy—direct questions like who you voted for, why, and which community you belong to are asked. Thus, these polls can never capture the societal changes that happen very gradually.

Engaging with Communities

The changes occurring in UP over the years stopped the BJP from achieving the magic number of 400 paar. This became possible because Yadav and Gandhi managed to take their campaigns to even the most remote villages.

After the Lok Sabha elections, while doing fieldwork in a village in Banda district, along the Yamuna, I found that the majority of the villagers were from the Nishad community—a caste group listed under OBCs in UP and a politically sought-after community. An old woman said she was looking for the ‘panja’ symbol in the machine but could not find it. She then asked her son and voted for the ‘cycle’. The Congress was not contesting here. When I visited the same village in 2021, the situation was different. There was no mention of the Congress at that time. But this time, people were aware that the Akhilesh-Rahul combine was contesting against Modi.

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The Nishad community is heavily dependent on rivers as they ferry tourists in the ghats of Varanasi and Prayagraj. In February 2021, during a drive against illegal sand mining in the Yamuna River, the UP police damaged boats plied by the Nishads and cases were filed against many. There was an uproar, and the incident angered the Nishad community across UP. During that time, I was doing fieldwork in a village called Banswar, about eight km from Prayagraj. After the incident, Priyanka Gandhi, Akhilesh Yadav and Nishad Party head Sanjay Nishad paid a visit.

Among the 66 Scheduled Castes in UP, only four or five castes that have the numbers have gained socially, politically and electorally. The rest have been left behind.

For a long time, the BJP has considered the Nishad community as its natural ally. In their election rallies in 2014, 2019, and 2024, PM Modi tried to woo the community. Over the past year, the BJP has made significant efforts to include this community in its electoral structure. It, for instance, developed the Shringverpur Dham, one of the most important tourist attractions near Prayagraj. The Nishad Party also played a supportive role in this. Sanjay Nishad was made a cabinet minister in the UP government.

But when I visited the village during the 2024 elections, people were not only talking about ‘Akhilesh-Rahul’ but were also quite angry with Sanjay Nishad. His son Praveen Nishad, who was contesting on a BJP ticket, lost the elections from the Sant Kabir Nagar Lok Sabha seat. In fact, SP’s Ram Bhuwal Nishad defeated BJP’s Maneka Gandhi from another important constituency. The BJP managed to win some seats where Nishad population is dense, but it seems mostly it was the SP and the Congress that successfully managed to woo the community.

A large number of people from the Nishad community live in the Faizabad and Ambedkar Nagar Lok Sabha constituencies, along the Saryu river. At one point in time, the Ambedkar Nagar Lok Sabha seat was very important for Mayawati. She used to be the MP from there. Even now, she has a deep connection with the Nishad community, but SP’s victory in the Ayodhya and Ambedkar Nagar Lok Sabha seats has sent a significant political message, to both, the BSP and the BJP.

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In 10 villages spread across Kanpur Dehat resides the Sapera community. I have been visiting these villages regularly since 2018. Undoubtedly, the state and central government schemes have helped these communities. Factors like government housing, electricity, water, and most importantly, the availability of food grains, have reduced their hardships.

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In 2021, an elderly snake charmer told me that for the first time in his life, he was getting enough food. Most of the snake charmers agreed. In the 2022 Assembly elections, these villages overwhelmingly voted for the BJP, but before the Lok Sabha elections this time, when I went back, I saw a breakdown of electoral faith among the same people. Their issues had moved beyond ration. They were saying that the government should do “something more”. There are hardly any degree-holding youths in these villages, and those who have degrees, don’t have jobs.

Advantage SP and Congress

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Scholars have often pointed out that the Dalit consolidation in UP, which made Mayawati the chief minister four times, has serious flaws. In his book Fractured Tales: Invisibles in Indian Democracy, Badri Narayan showed that among the 66 Scheduled Castes in Uttar Pradesh, only four or five castes that have the numbers have gained socially, politically and electorally. The rest have been left behind. In the 2017 and 2022 Assembly elections and the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP successfully brought these castes into its fold by creating ‘beneficiary voters’ with the help of various government schemes it announced. It appears that the SP-Congress alliance in UP has disrupted this beneficiary group.

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During their election campaign, Gandhi and Yadav managed to convince people that the Constitution made by Babasaheb Ambedkar was in danger and that if the BJP came to power, it would change it. I believe, since 2015, there has been a clear sense among the deprived sections, Dalits, nomadic, and Denotified communities in Uttar Pradesh that their lives have changed because of the Constitution and Ambedkar. In this election, when Gandhi started waving the red booklet of the Constitution in every speech, it became a talking point. And it worked.

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This election is a warning bell for the BJP. The party came to life in UP and has politically grown there. In the 2027 Assembly elections, it will be very difficult for the BJP to stand firm on the shaky ground. Due to Mayawati’s consistently poor electoral performance and lacklustre policies, the Dalit community in UP is rapidly shifting towards the SP and Congress. It’s visible on the ground now.

(Views expressed are personal)

(This appeared in the print as 'Shifting Sands')

Rama Shanker Singh is a historian and academic fellow at Dr BR Ambedkar University, Delhi

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