As India’s general elections move towards the second phase of polling, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party has got a jolt by its own ally at the most crucial battleground: Uttar Pradesh, where 80 of the 543 parliamentary seats lie.
Yesterday, the chief of the Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party, Om Prakash Rajbhar, who holds a cabinet berth in the Yogi Adityanath-led BJP government, announced he would contest Lok Sabha elections separately and released a list of 39 candidates in the state. The includes contestants against PM Modi in Varanasi, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh in Lucknow and BJP state chief Mahendra Nath Pandey in Chandauli.
Rajbhar told mediapersons in Lucknow: “The BJP has got into power in the state piggybacking our party. Still, they are not ready to give us a single seat while Apna Dal (S) was given two seats. For our existence, we decided to contest on 39 seats.” He gave no indication to quit the cabinet or break the alliance in the state.
The development comes after a furious Rajbhar walked into the chief minister’s home in Lucknow at 3 am on Sunday with his resignation letter and demanded to see him. He was told that the chief minister was sleeping.
Rajbhar, a dissenting minister for quite some time who had allied with the BJP in the 2017 Assembly elections, had been calling out the BJP government for a while now. The 17-year-old party has a strong base among other backward classes (OBCs), especially the Rajbhar community of eastern Uttar Pradesh.
The spectre of losing a vital ally in UP, especially when arch-rivals Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party have joined hands, the Congress fielding its “trump card” and general secretary of Eastern UP, Priyanka Gandhi, the BJP foresaw the adverse impact it could suffer if the SBSP goes solo. A senior BJP leader says: “Rajbhar can influence the poll outcome on at least 10 parliamentary seats in eastern UP such as Ghazipur, Balia, Deoria, Ghosi, Salempur, and Chandauli. Without Rajbhar, our extensive outreach for OBCs—of which his community is the crucial part—may not work as efficiently as it worked in 2017 when we won a whopping 320 out of 403 seats.”
Rajbhar originally sought 31 seats for his party. To pacify him, Yogi appointed nine of Rajbhar’s aides as deputy chairman of various commissions with cabinet minister rank a day before the model code of conduct for elections came into force.
Sudhir Mishra, the editor of the Lucknow and Noida editions of a leading Hindi daily, feels that Rajbhar is “creating a scene” to pressure the BJP. “This seems to be Rajbhar’s last-ditch effort to force the BJP to cough up at least one seat. If this doesn’t work, his party may be a spoiler on half a dozen seats.”
Mishra adds, “Non-Yadav and non-Jatav Dalits are crucial for the BJP’s successes as they had supported the party in the 2014 polls. The SP relies on Yadav, but other OBCs such as Rajbhar, Shakya, Saini, Kushwaha, etc.—which have 10,000-20,000 votes on each seat in eastern UP—had largely gone with the BJP last time due to its alliance with the SBSP and Apna Dal. Since a faction of Apna Dal (K) is now with the Congress, the SBSP’s departure from the NDA may trouble the BJP on all seats surrounding Varanasi.”
Meanwhile, the Akhil Bhartiya Rajbhar Sangathan has condemned Rajbhar’s “blackmailing” tactic and threatened to field its own candidates against the SBSP.
The BJP also responded. Naveen Srivastava, BJP spokesperson, says, “We have still not announced candidate for the Ghosi constituency as we want the SBSP candidate to contest from our ticket. Rajbhar wants that candidate should contest from the SBSP ticket. The negotiations will be held further.”
Ghosi seat will go to polls on May 19. This means that both the outfits still have 20 days for negotiations. OP Rajbhar himself seeks to contest the seat.
20,000 to one lakh voters on 10 seats
The Rajbhars community itself makes up only three per cent of UP’s population but has a presence in nearly 125 Assembly seats—and almost 10 Lok Sabha seats—in eastern UP where they constitute 20 per cent of the population. The community has over 20,000 to 1 lakh votes on each of these seats, BJP leaders say.
The alliance with Rajbhar’s party was considered one of the major reasons behind the BJP’s enormous success in the 2017 Assembly elections in which the SP, which survived on the OBC vote bank, was defeated badly.
The SBSP had contested eight seats and won four to enter the UP Assembly for the first time.
Rajbhar, the angry young man
Fifty-six-year-old Rajbhar is legislator from Zahurabad, an underdeveloped constituency in Ghazipur district. He has been seeking sub-categorization of 27 per cent OBC quota for a long time, and had threatened to put up candidates on all 80 seats if the BJP didn’t do so.
“The BJP’s relation with Rajbhar in Uttar Pradesh is almost similar to what it had with Uddhav Thackeray in Maharashtra,” says Shiv Sharan Geharwar, a political analyst, pointing out the ups and downs between the two allies.
The Yogi government was only four months old when, in July 2017, Rajbhar threatened to stage a dharna on the campus of the collectorate in Ghazipur in protest against the then district magistrate who, he alleged, was not listening to people’s problems. He called off the dharna after Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath met and heard him.
Last year, he threatened to boycott the Rajya Sabha elections in UP. It took the intervention of BJP president Amit Shah, who invited him to a meeting in Delhi, to change Rajbhar’s mind.
Rajbhar had handed over his resignation from the ministerial post two months ago. Accusing BJP of neglecting the OBC community, he offered to surrender his backward class portfolio (He is also in charge of the empowerment of persons with disabilities department). Yogi rejected his offer. A staunch critic of the Yogi government, Rajbhar has not only alleged that Yogi was misleading the country on the Ram Temple issue but also claimed that corruption and crime had gone up during Yogi’s regime.
Two small parties of Nishad (OBCs) also recently joined hands with the BJP, following which Rajbhar was reportedly feeling deserted.
From BSP to Apna Dal to own outfit
Rajbhar started his career with the BSP, working with founder Kanshi Ram and going on to become BSP district president in Varanasi. Soon after Mayawati became chief minister, Rajbhar staged a18-day dharna alleging the government was ignoring the interests of the most backward communities and working for only one section of Dalits.
He eventually left the BSP and joined the Apna Dal and became state president of the youth wing. He left Apna Dal too when he was denied an election ticket.
Rajbhar launched the SBSP in 2002. Over a series of elections, it lost every seat it contested.