Consolidation of the Kurmi votebank may benefit Nitish Kumar in Uttar Pradesh and beyond

A banner of Janata Dal (United)’s Nitish Kumar, the chief minister of Bihar and the Samajwadi Party president Akhilesh Yadav, outside the SP headquarters in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, on 10 September 2022. NAND KUMAR/PTI
27 November, 2022

On 17 September this year, Rajeev Ranjan Singh, the national president of the Janata Dal (United), told an ABPLive reporter that the people of Uttar Pradesh have stated that they want Nitish Kumar, the chief minister of Bihar, to contest the next general elections from the state. “We feel pride that our leader has such support from the people of Uttar Pradesh,” Rajeev, popularly known as Lalan Singh, added. He ended the interview saying, “In the next Lok Sabha elections, if Nitish ji and Akhilesh ji,”—a reference to Akhilesh Yadav, the national president of the Samajwadi Party—“join hands in Uttar Pradesh and campaign together, then the Bharatiya Janta Party, which has 67 seats there, will be reduced to 20.” His statement came just days after OP Singh, an SP leader, put up a banner of Nitish and Akhilesh at the party’s Lucknow office. The banner, Nitish and Akhilesh’s visible bonhomie during the last rites of the SP patriarch Mulayam Singh Yadav, and Rajeev’s interview, have added fuel to speculations that Nitish is viewing Uttar Pradesh as his next electoral battleground.  

Nitish’s break from the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance in Bihar, on 9 August, spurred talk of a unified opposition in the run-up to the next general elections, to be held in 2024. An oft-repeated adage of Indian politics says that the road to Delhi passes through Uttar Pradesh; and caste is the biggest electoral factor in the state. The split opened up the possibilities of new alliances in the state, and Nitish, who hails from the Kurmi caste, seems uniquely poised to explore these.  

The Kurmis of Uttar Pradesh are primarily an agrarian community and classified among the Other Backward Classes—they also have significant numbers in a few states of the Hindi belt and central India. They account for almost nine percent of the population in the state, marginally smaller than the next big grouping of the Yadavs and Ahirs, who hold significant sway in the state’s political fortunes. Given their numerical strength and increasing political representation over the decades—two Kurmi leaders are part of the current central cabinet—the Kurmi community aspires to leadership at the national level, an aspiration that Nitish and his party seem intent on harnessing.  

During the course of my reporting in Prayagraj district, several residents spoke of the “Sirathu model”—Sirathu is an assembly constituency in the Kaushambi district. In this year’s assembly elections, Pallavi Patel, a Kurmi leader from the Apna Dal (Kamerawadi), defeated the BJP’s Keshav Prasad Maurya by a small margin of 7,337 votes. Pallavi contested these elections on an SP ticket. Locals across Prayagraj and Phulpur evoked the “Sirathu model” to suggest that if the SP and JD(U) were to join hands, they could replicate the Sirathu win in all constituencies where the Kurmi community has sizeable numbers. In Uttar Pradesh, the community has considerable numbers in the Lok Sabha constituencies of Sant Kabir Nagar, Maharajganj, Kushinagar, Mirzapur, Sonbhadra, Bareilly, Unnao, Jalaun, Fatehpur, Pratapgarh, Kaushambi, Prayagraj, Sitapur, Bahraich, Shravasti, Balrampur, Siddharth Nagar, Basti and Barabanki, Kanpur, Akbarpur, Etah, Bareilly, Lakhimpur Phulpur, Kannauj, Pilibhit, Rampur, Misrikh, Damunriyaganj, Faizabad, Gonda and Jaunpur, among others. Any consolidated mobilisation by the community, in these seats, would likely swing the vote in their favour.

Political analysts in the state are already speculating that Nitish may contest the next elections from the symbolically important seats of Mirzapur, Ambedkar Nagar or Phulpur—Jawaharlal Nehru won three consecutive elections from Phulpur between 1952 and 1962, while Mirzapur is the seat adjacent to Banaras, the prime minister Narendra Modi’s constituency. 

On his part, Nitish seems to understand that if he wants to become a national leader and unify the opposition, then he will have to contest elections outside Bihar. It should be noted here that he has not contested any Lok Sabha election in the last 17 years. In the age of social media, mobilisation has become easier, and nothing spurs caste consolidation more than elections. If Nitish were to decide to launch his bid for national leadership from Uttar Pradesh, the Kurmis of the state will likely mobilise behind him—the matrix of caste equations suggests that the JD(U) would benefit the most if Nitish was to choose Uttar Pradesh. 

The history of Kurmi political consciousness goes back to the early decades of the twentieth century, starting with the Triveni Sangh, which was formed around 1920. The Sangh brought together three communities, the Kurmis, the Yadavs, and the Kushwahas, a combination that has since become the core of Bihar’s electoral politics. Historically, in Uttar Pradesh, the Kurmi community was divided into large landowners and those with small holdings. The community also controlled a handful of small princely states such as Padrauna, Sagdi, Kushinagar, Deoria.  

After independence, the Kurmi community stood firmly with the Congress for a long time. Most leaders of the Kurmi royal houses allied themselves with the Congress, while the farmers and working-class Kurmis gravitated toward the communists, who have worked with the community since before Independence. Udal Patel, a Kurmi who went by just his first name, won the now defunct Kolasla assembly seat eight times between 1962 to 1993, on a Communist Party of India ticket. The CPI’s Ram Sajeevan Singh, a Kurmi, was the member of legislative assembly from Banda four times between 1969 to 1989. He was elected to the Lok Sabha from Banda in 1996, on a CPI ticket, and later joined the Bahujan Samaj Party, and won from Banda again in the next elections. 

The arrival of the All India Backward and Minority Communities Employees Federation, or BAMCEF, in Uttar Pradesh’s politics, witnessed significant Kurmi participation. This was primarily on account of a handful of senior leaders from the community—Ramswaroop Verma, Jang Bahadur Patel and Sonelal Patel. The Kurmis were associated with Kanshi Ram, the founder of BAMCEF and the BSP, even before he launched the Ambedkarite movement, and it was Kanshi Ram who started bringing Kurmi representatives, like Ramswaroop and Jang Bahadur, into the leadership. Jang Bahadur was a resident of Phulpur, and served as the state president of BSP.

Historically, the Kurmi community did not use the title Patel, till the arrival of Sonelal, who had the surname Kannojia. Sonelal was an ally of Sardar Vallabhai Patel, and coined the slogan, “Jaat Paat Chodo, Patel Jodo”—leave castes, add Patel. Sonelal connected the Kurmis to Vallabhbhai, and gave them an icon associated with the freedom struggle. Vallabhbhai’s national appeal led to an expansion of social and political consciousness among the Kurmis, who had been scattered as a community, and established the beginnings of the Kurmis’ caste unity and caste consciousness. Sonelal formed the Kurmi Regional Mahasabha in 1980, and soon after joined the BSP and became its state secretary. 

The political awakening of the Kurmi community and its adoption of Ambedkarite thought can be traced back to Ramswaroop, who was also an ally of Ram Manohar Lohia. In 1968, Ramswaroop established the Arjak Sangh, a reformist organisation aimed at emancipation from Brahminical mores. Soon after, he formed the political party, the Shoshit Samaj Dal, in 1972. Ramswaroop also handled all of BAMCEF’s national programs. Often in speeches, Kanshi Ram would refer to Ramswaroop and say, “The books have been written by Verma ji. I want to establish his idea.” Consequently, Ramswaroop is credited with the community’s support and belief in the Ambedkarite movement, BAMCEF and the political alliance with the BSP. The Arjak Sangh played an important role in this. In fact, the Kurmi community was one of the reasons for the expansion of the BSP—several Kurmi leaders from the Shoshit Samaj Dal, Congress and communist parties flocked to the party during Kanshi Ram’s time. 

However, it should be noted that Ramswaroop’s ideology was not caste based. The community stood behind him as he was a Kurmi, and this is at the core of Kurmi politics even today—the community mobilises where it sees a chance of electoral and political power. For instance, Jang Bahadur and Barkhuram Verma, another senior Kurmi leader, were considered quite influential in the BSP. Kanshi Ram expelled both of them from the party. Soon after, Jang Bahadur joined the SP and won the Lok Sabha seat of Phulpur in 1996, by defeating Kanshi Ram himself. Another Kurmi leader of the BSP was Lalji Verma, from Ambedkar Nagar. In June 2021, Mayawati, the BSP’s current national president, expelled him from the party. Till Lalji was with the BSP, the party won elections in the district. In October 2021, Lalji switched to the SP, and the SP now holds sway in Ambedkar Nagar. 

While Kanshi Ram managed to gain the support of a large section of Kurmi society, the SP also took a section of Kurmi society along. Whenever an SP government was formed in the state—under the leadership of Mulayam Singh—Beni Prasad Verma, a veteran leader of the Kurmi fraternity, played an influential role. In fact, Beni Prasad held the mantle of Kurmi politics in Uttar Pradesh for a long time. The SP had two Kurmi MLAs in the 2017 assembly elections, but in the 2022 election, this number increased to 13, including all the seats from the Ambedkar Nagar district. Today, Naresh Uttam, a Kurmi, is the state president of SP. 

In the mid-nineties, sections of the Kurmi community also gravitated towards the Lok Dal, helmed by Chaudhury Charan Singh. After Ramswaroop’s death in 1998, several Kurmi leaders joined hands with Charan Singh. Yadunath Singh, a Kurmi, was a leader of the Lok Dal, and was the party's Uttar Pradesh president for a long time along with Charan Singh. Around the same time, in 1995, Sonelal separated from BSP and formed his own political party, the Apna Dal. He used to say, “Till the Kurmis scattered in different parties are not defeated, they will never unify.” In an attempt to unify the community’s leaders, spread across parties, Sonelal coined a slogan, “Kurmi Harao”—defeat the Kurmi.  As of today, two parties represent a huge chunk of the Kurmi vote—Apna Dal (Sonelal) headed by Anupriya Patel and Apna Dal (K), which is headed by Krishan Patel. Anupriya's party is in alliance with BJP, while Krishan’s party is allied with the SP. At present, the BSP does not have any big leader in the Kurmi community. 

Meanwhile, the BJP has worked to garner Kurmi votes in the state for over three decades. Om Prakash Singh, from Mirzapur, was an influential leader of the Kurmi community during the BJP government led by Kalyan Singh—he was the education minister in 1991. Kalyan and Om Prakash had tried to unify the Kurmi and Lodhi community, and coined the slogan, “Kurmi, Kachi, Lodh, Kisan, ek pitaa ki hai santaan”—Kurmi, kachi, lodh, farmers, are the children of one father. Om Prakash’s son, Anurag Patel is also with the BJP, and is currently an MLA from the Chunar constituency in Mirzapur district. Om Prakash, along with another Kumri leader, Vinay Katiyar, represented the Kurmi community in the BJP for a long time, and were important in making their community one of the traditional votebanks of the BJP.   

In areas like Mirzapur and Banaras, the Kurmis favour the BJP due to Om Prakash’s influence; similarly, the Bareilly district leans towards the saffron party because of Santosh Gangwar, another Kurmi leader. The Kurmi community also has several representatives at the local administration level. But the BJP understands that among the OBC castes in Uttar Pradesh, after the Yadav community, it is the Kurmi community which is politically strong and ambitious. Both these groupings have allied and been rivals at various points in the state’s history based on swings in political and electoral fortunes. The Kurmi’s feel that they have not been able to harness their caste potential the way the Yadav community has, and the swing towards BJP is primarily on this account. 

Historically, one crucial aspect of the Kurmi leadership has been that they paid special attention to education, and built several schools and college, spurring social consciousness among the varied Kurmi castes spread across the OBCs. These include the Katiyars and Sachans in Kanpur; Gangwars in Bareilly and Kayamganj; Niranjans in Orai, Jhansi, Jehanabad, Fatehpur, Umrao and Uttam; Kanojjias in Basti and Maharajganj;  and the Choudharys in Ambedkar Nagar, among others. However, most Kurmis use Verma as their surname. The use of the surnames Patel and Singh is more prevalent in Unnao, Hardohi, Lakhimpur Kheri, Banaras, Mirzapur, Bhadohi, and Allahabad, among others.  

The consolidation of the various Kurmi castes was brought about by an admixture of education, caste organisations, and now, social media. The various sanghs and caste organisations of Kurmi society managed to achieve two things. First and foremost, they established a political equation. Secondly, these organisations brought several sub-castes together by way of marriage. Over several decades, all the sub castes were brought together on one platform, eliminating the hierarchy among them. 

Rising caste consciousness among the Kurmis has brought with it the desire for more consequential and visible electoral power. Among the OBCs, the Kurmis’ social and political status and influence is higher than the other artisan and agrarian castes. The way caste solidarity operates, if a chief ministerial or prime ministerial candidate is announced from a particular caste, it is considered a big achievement for the caste and leads to notable mobilisation. Political analysts in Uttar Pradesh believe that Nitish could be one such Kurmi leader, more so since he was allied with the BJP for a long time, and is well aware of their strengths and weaknesses. 

The Kurmi community holds that it is the curse of the Kurmis that they never came to power completely—neither with the Congress, nor with the socialists, BSP, SP or the BJP. As of today, among the OBCs in Uttar Pradesh, the Kurmis have the maximum number of MLAs—40 MLAs, out of which 27 are from the BJP alliance and 13 are from SP alliance. Nitish being a Kurmi gives him a real possibility of achieving electoral upsets in Uttar Pradesh, for the simple reason that no Kurmi has till date held the chief ministership in the state.