Amar Singh’s troubles are a sign that a caste group long used to power is now finding itself short of options.
Nearly everyone in Guvar village agrees that the Samajwadi Party (SP) is the sole political outfit worthy of their vote. But it is proving hard for them to come to terms with the possibility that the party may never return to power in their state.
“Reason? Muslims, what else?” replies Samarath Singh Yadav, the sarpanch of the Yadav-dominated village in Kanpur Dehat district of Uttar Pradesh, as he instructs other villagers to maintain silence. “Muslims take both their religion and politics seriously,” he goes on, “Mulayam Singh Yadav has annoyed them, and so they have dumped him. Without Muslims, he has no chance.” Samarath, however, falls silent on whether he would continue to support the SP even if Mulayam’s party fails to remain in the reckoning of UP politics. It’s an inner conflict that troubles many voters who identify themselves with the Yadav caste, which was on the ascendant all through the 1990s, until recently.
Ramsnehi Yadav, a resident of nearby Goriratan-Bangar village, explains the predicament—after nearly two decades, many of the region’s Yadavs feel left at a loose end, with a sudden loss of political heft backing them. Muslim voters drifting away from the SP, as recent electoral results suggest, would mean that regaining this power would be tough. But the SP is still their party. “Other parties do not count Yadavs, whether it is the Congress or BSP (Bahujan Samaj Party). That’s why thinking of any other party is impossible. It’s a question of dignity,” he says.
CRACKS IN THE FORMULA
To the extent that Yadavs represent a vote base, it is in flux not just in UP but across a much wider region. Specifically, in neighbouring Bihar as well. If in UP they have by and large backed Mulayam Singh Yadav’s SP, in Bihar they have rallied in support of Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), which also relied heavily on the additional support of Muslim voters. With intense political fragmentation, most electoral fights have been three- or four-cornered ones, which meant that winning just about a third of the votes was enough to win Assembly seats. Together, Yadav and Muslim voters could deliver that. But alone, Yadav voters would not be able to. They account for only a tenth of the two states’ electorate. Hence, the worry of marginalisation.
There has been a fallout at the top level of the SP already, in the shape of a leadership crisis. The recent resignation of Amar Singh as SP general secretary can be traced to a bitter duel he has had with another general secretary, Ramgopal Yadav, a relative of Mulayam.With word out that Muslim support for Mulayam cannot be taken for granted any further, even plenty of Yadav voters have started looking farther afield for other options. For the first time after two decades, their vote could be up for grabs. “A community that once tastes political power always opts for bigger alternatives,” says Ashok Yadav, an independent MLA from Yadav-dominated Shikohabad in Ferozabad district. He admits, however, that “at the moment, Yadavs do not really have a clear-cut view of an alternative”.
The crumbling of Mandal politics—that guided the political destiny of North India for two decades by building a social coalition based on the bedrock of Muslim-Yadav unity—has meant political dethronement of Yadavs. A visible shift of Muslims away from Mandal forces—primarily the SP in UP and RJD in Bihar—has left Yadavs in the lurch. With the prospect of Muslims no longer voting in tandem, Yadavs, who account for merely around 10 per cent of the population in the two states, are faced with a situation where on their own they can make SP or RJD candidates win only in a handful of constituencies. In most other constituencies, they would simply be wasting their votes if they continue with their old political line as Mulayam and Lalu have only shown depletion in their base with no sign of any other social group getting attracted to them. It is this situation that has left the erstwhile wielders of political power in the cow-belt at the crossroads.
Sure, there is the question of political dignity, which still weighs heavily on the minds of many Yadav voters. Yet, in many areas—and this includes Ferozabad-Etawah-Mainpuri which is considered the Yadav belt in UP—this question has started getting obscured by the eruption of intra-caste differences, stoked by a combination of grievances of those who gained little in material terms from the Yadav dominance of politics, and those who prospered from patronage but have no clue how to retain their newfound privileges. Says Kailash Yadav, principal of Gyanasthali Senior Secondary School at Etawah, “Mulayam and most top Yadav leaders of his party belong to the Kamaria subcaste of Yadavs. It is this subcaste that received most of the benefits from Mulayam’s rise to power. The other subcaste of Yadavs, Ghosi, got nothing— despite the fact that Ghosis, who account for nearly two-thirds of the Yadav population in central districts of UP (the SP bastion), have been supporting the party wholeheartedly for two decades.”
Ghosis, who have traditionally been relatively better off among Yadavs, claim to have led Yadav caste assertion in the state. It was Ghosi leaders, they say, who led the caste’s social awakening in the early 20th century, giving them the consciousness that has helped their emergence on the political stage. The first Yadav upsurge, they point out, began as early as 1912 when a Yadav Mahasabha was organised at Brahmawar-Lajpur village in Shikohabad at the behest of Ghosi social leaders. “Choudhary Amir Singh of this village presided over the Mahasabha… [which] resolved that the Ahirs (another term for Yadavs) have Kshatriya lineage. It formed a committee of four members with a specific objective to establish an educational institution for Ahirs. It was because of the work of this committee that an Ahir Kshatriya School was set up at Shikohabad in 1916, which was later promoted into Ahir Kshatriya Degree College. All these early Yadav leaders were Ghosis,” says 89-year-old Narottam Singh Yadav, a retired school teacher of Brahmawar-Lajpur village. Though born later, in 1921, he says that he remembers his father telling him “how the leaders had emphasised the necessity of education to break the upper-caste supremacy”. As a mark of protest, local Ahirs even began wearing the sacred thread that was supposed to be the sole privilege of Brahmins.
This revolutionary fervour, in Narottam’s telling, is what laid the ground for the Lohia brand of politics that was to come in the 1960s and 1970s, a subaltern assertion on which Mulayam and his fellow Samajwadis rose to political prominence. And yet, it is on this very turf that the SP has faltered. Narottam credits Mulayam for taking up the Yadav cause and for some development work, but attacks the SP’s politics for destroying the education system that had once formed the basis for the Yadav upsurge a century ago. “Although Mulayam did a lot for us and the area, we are not happy with him. He ruined the education and spread corruption. Not all Yadavs are with him now,” he says.
OLD NEMESIS CALLED ALIENATION
Mulayam cannot dismiss what he owes the Ahir Kshatriya Degree College, renamed Adarsh Krishna Degree College in 1967 (by the then CM Charan Singh). “At the height of the Sangh Parivar’s Ram Janmabhoomi agitation, Mulayam Singh Yadav held a public meeting in the ground of this college in 1991 and assured Muslims that ‘Babri Masjid par koi parinda parr nahin maar payega’ (Nobody will be able to touch the Babri Masjid).” It was this statement that changed UP politics and turned Muslims in his favour,” says Dr RP Pande, former principal of this college.
Shikohabad MLA Ashok Yadav, whose grandfather was a key figure in establishing the Ahir Kshatriya School, observes: “Mulayam Singh Yadav and Kalyan Singh (the former BJP leader) were products of the Ayodhya episode. UP’s agenda has changed now, and both have become redundant.”
Indeed, the SP’s shocking loss in the recent bypolls held on Mulayam Singh Yadav’s home turf, particularly in the Ferozabad Lok Sabha constituency as well as the Assembly seats of Bharthana, Bidhuna and Etawah City, suggests that Yadav voters have started getting restive about their future.
“Ghosis always treated Mulayam as their own, but Mulayam did nothing for us,” says Shiv Prasad Yadav, the Ghosi leader who wrested the Bharthana Assembly seat that was vacated by Mulayam Singh Yadav after he became a Lok Sabha member. Of all the Yadav-dominated seats lost by the SP in recent bypolls, this one has its own significance. For it was here that intra-caste differences among Yadavs saw their first expression in the state.
Even before the polling, it was clear that Shiv Prasad Yadav, contesting on a BSP ticket, had the majority backing of Ghosis in the constituency, as against the SP’s Kamaria vote base. The election, in fact, had become such a prestige issue for Ghosis across the entire region that independent MLA Ashok Yadav, a well-regarded local Ghosi leader, held a series of public meetings in support of the BSP candidate in Bharthana.
Shiv Prasad Yadav’s victory has deepened the divide between the two Yadav subcastes in all nearby areas. “Mulayam harmed us the most. He never allowed any Ghosi leader to grow beyond a point. We have, therefore, decided to support and elect the leaders from our own subcaste,” says the new Bharthana MLA.
That is more than just a small piece of bad news for the SP, which is so low on self-confidence at the moment that it seems desperate to retain influence among voters who were once loyal to the party. Winning back Muslim support could be a saving grace. As of now, this looks highly improbable, and could require a big blunder on part of the Congress, which is back in the fray.
But there is another big party in contest, the BSP, led by UP Chief Minister Mayawati. On its part, the BSP is also trying to capitalise on the new feuds that have broken out among the state’s Yadavs. It is no coincidence that of the total 14 party legislators who owe allegiance to this caste, as many as 11 are Ghosi Yadavs. And yet, there is a limit to which the BSP can gain from Mulayam’s crumbling Yadav vote base. This is because there has been an underlying standoff between Yadav and Dalit politics in the state which does not look like abating anytime soon. As political observers put it, Yadav voters may be only too glad to see Mayawati lose power in UP.
“Most Yadavs in UP see BSP as the party that has stripped them of political power,” observes Pande, “In a few constituencies, the BSP’s Yadav candidates may succeed in mustering caste votes because of personal preferences, but in most others, Yadav voters are likely to vote in vengeance to get Mayawati out of power. Wherever the SP candidates are not in a position to win, the Yadavs, by and large, are likely to vote tactically to defeat the BSP candidates.”
Of the remaining parties, the BJP is unlikely to get too many Yadav votes, adds Pande, “Because this caste’s two decades of political unity with Muslims under the leadership of Mulayam has secularised them so thoroughly that only a miracle can turn them over to the Sangh Parivar.”
In Pande’s reckoning, it is the Congress that has most to gain in UP now. This might sound strange. In all these years, the party has had a patchy record in attracting Yadav favour, and none of the party’s Yadav leaders—Chandrajit Yadav, Shyamlal Yadav, Balram Singh Yadav, Ram Naresh Yadav and Laxmikant Yadav—could ever get beyond their own local spheres of influence. Certainly, they were not seen as ‘Yadav leaders’ in the sense of identity politics. There is a historical reason. After Choudhary Charan Singh formed a coalition of peasant communities in the state in the 1970s, the Congress lacked even symbolic Yadav presence. And once Mulayam emerged as Charan Singh’s successor in the 1980s, he attracted Ghosis, Kamarias and other Yadavs.Yet, Hindi-belt politics has taken such a dramatic turn, that for the first time since Independence, the Congress, more than any other party, seems to have emerged as the best bet for tactical voters in the country’s largest state.
“There are times when there is a sea change in politics,” as the 89-year-old Narottam Singh Yadav puts it, on the SP’s growing desperation, “It then does not matter what you say or what you do.” This is a lesson that Mulayam Singh Yadav might have to learn the hard way.