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.