Why the BSP’s efforts to win over Brahmins for UP elections will cost its Muslim support

A poster for the “Prabuddh Samaaj Goshthi”—or the Enlightened Class Conferences—organised by the Bahujan Samaj Party in Ayodhya, on 23 July, in an effort to win over the Brahmin voters ahead of the 2022 Uttar Pradesh assembly elections. Satish Chandra Mishra, the BSP’s general secretary, led the event and promised to expedite the Ram Temple construction if the party comes to power.
29 July, 2021

With a strategy to win over Brahmin voters and repeat its electoral success of 2007, the Bahujan Samaj Party started its campaign for Uttar Pradesh’s assembly elections with a conference in Ayodhya addressed to the community, on 23 July. The event, titled the “Prabuddh Samaaj Goshthi”—or the Enlightened Class Conferences—began with the BSP’s national general secretary, Satish Chandra Mishra, chanting the Hindutva slogan Jai Shri Ram” and promising to expedite the construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya. Mishra, the BSP’s senior-most Brahmin leader, criticised Adityanath, Uttar Pradesh’s Thakur chief minister, in an effort to exploit an age-old clamour for power between the communities. While the BSP is confident that this strategy will not alienate its limited Muslim support, community leaders and political experts believe the move will cost the party.

Mayawati, the BSP chief, had announced a “Brahmin Sammelan”—Brahmin Conference—to the media on 18 July, stating that the campaign would continue from 23 to 29 July and kick off with the Ayodhya event. Mayawati claimed that the campaign led by Mishra would “awaken the Brahmin community once again.” She accused the state’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party government of “harassing and exploiting the community” by using their support to win the 2017 elections and ignoring their welfare afterward. On 23 July, the event was held at a resort on the Lucknow-Ayodhya highway, and attended by several Brahmin community leaders and hundreds of BSP workers. Mishra’s presence marked the first visit by a BSP leader to Ayodhya, and the first time the party formally expressed its support for the construction of the Ram temple at the site of the historic Babri Masjid.

In 2007, the BSP had come to power in the state after winning 206 of the 403 constituencies and 30 percent of the total votes. That year, the party had fielded 86 Brahmin candidates, at least 40 of whom were elected, and 61 Muslim candidates, 29 of whom were elected. The party clearly seeks to repeat that strategy for the 2022 elections—yet, in the wake of the anti-Muslim violence and policies witnessed during the BJP governments at the centre and the state, Mayawati and the BSP are taking a political risk.  

Mayawati said while announcing the event that she was confident that the Dalits voters of Uttar Pradesh, who comprise at least 20 percent of the state’s population, will largely remain with her party despite the successive debacles in the 2012 and 2017 assembly elections. In 2012, despite securing 25 percent of votes, the BSP’s seat share had dropped to 80, while the Samajwadi Party, which won a majority of the Muslim-dominated seats in that election, came to power with 224 seats and 29 percent votes. In 2017, the BJP came to power with a powerful 312 seats, and 39 percent of the votes, reportedly with the support of the upper caste, non-Jatav Dalit and non-Yadav Other Backward Class communities. That year, the BSP’s vote share dropped further to 22 percent and 19 seats. While the Jatav Dalits, who comprise around 54 percent of the state’s Dalit population and nine percent of the total population, have consistently voted for the BSP, Mayawati has not been able to retain the support of the other communities.

Brahmins have long been in the saffron camp, particularly so following the Ramjanmabhoomi movement in the late 1980s for the construction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya. In 2017, the Brahmins overwhelmingly returned into its old shelter, the BJP. Of the 312 seats that the BJP won in the elections that year, as many as 58 of them were reportedly Brahmins. 

Despite Brahmin support, the BJP handed over the reins of power to a Thakur leader, Ajay Singh Bisht, commonly known as Adityanath. During his first term, the battle for power between the Brahmins and the Thakurs has only continued, peaking in 2020, when the Uttar Pradesh police shot and killed the Brahmin gangsters Vikas Dubey and Amar Dubey in encounters. In the days that followed, social media was flooded with messages of “Proud Brahmins” objecting to the encounter killing. Mayawati, too, had joined the chorus and tweeted that the Adityanath government “should not make the Brahmin community feel scared, terrorised and insecure.” During the Ayodhya campaign event, in which he performed pujas for the Hindu deities Ram and Hanuman, Mishra also announced that the BSP would be providing legal aid to Amar’s widow, Khushi.

Satish Chandra Mishra, the BSP's national general secretary and the party's senior-most Brahmin leader, led the campaign event at Ayodhya. Mishra kicked off the event with a chant of "Jai Shri Ram" and accused Adityanath, the state’s Thakur chief minister, of ignoring Brahmins during the BJP government’s rule. COURTESY AZAM HUSSAIN

The BSP had changed the name of its conference from the Brahmin Sammelan to the  Prabuddh Samaaj Goshthi because of a 2013 order of the Allahabad High Court that prohibited political parties from carrying out campaign events on the basis of caste. Yet, there was little room for doubt about in whose benefit the event had been organised, and whose support the BSP was seeking. In his main address, Mishra told the gathering that Brahmins had been ignored and oppressed under the BJP government. He also accused the Sangh Parivar outfit, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, of illegally appropriating the donations collected for the construction of the Ram temple and causing a delay in its construction. Mishra also explained his caste calculations to the Brahmin leaders. He said that if the state’s 13 percent Brahmin population and the 23 percent Dalit population would join hands, then BSP victory would be certain.

The recent rejig of the cabinet by the prime minister Narendra Modi intensified the resentment among the Brahmins in Uttar Pradesh, according to Rajendra Nath Tripathi, the president of the All India Brahmin Mahasabha (RA)—a Lucknow-based organisation that claims to be a representative body of the Brahmin community. Out of a total of seven BJP members of parliament from Uttar Pradesh who were inducted into the council of ministers, Ajay Kumar Mishra, the MP from Lakhimpur Kheri, was the only Brahmin, while there were three non-Yadav OBC members and three non-Jatav Dalit members. “This came as an insult to injury for the Brahmins, who have been alleging for a long time that the Yogi government is targeting them in the name of encounters,” Tripathi told me. “The BJP preferred Thakurs, OBCs and Dalits to them in power sharing and in prime postings.” When she announced the Brahmin Sammelan, Mayawati emphasised that only the BSP would safeguard the interests of the Brahmin community. She added that the BJP had seduced the Brahmins in 2017, and neglected the community after coming to power.

The BSP has not, however, announced any such initiative to connect to the Muslim community, who played a significant role in its 2007 victory. According to Hisam Siddiqui, a Lucknow-based Urdu journalist with over four decades of experience in the state, the BSP chief was mistaken in her belief that the Muslim community would vote for her party if she secured the support of the Brahmins. “Muslims will not go to the BSP camp as they have observed in the past few years that Mayawati’s rhetoric was the same as the BJP,” Hisam said. He was also of the opinion that at present, the BSP does not have any prominent Muslim leader—Naseemuddin Siddiqui, who was partly responsible for bringing Muslims to the BSP in the 2007 election, joined the Congress after the BSP expelled him in 2018. Aslam Raini, another Muslim leader who was expelled from the BSP, told me that the party was a “sinking ship in which neither the Brahmins nor the Muslims are going to sail.”

Yasoon Abbas, an Islamic cleric and a member of the All India Shia Personal Law Board, told me that ignoring the 20 percent Muslim population of the state would prove costly to Mayawati. “It is impossible for the Mawayati to reach the helm of power by upsetting the Muslims,” Abbas said. “The BSP should not forget that in 2007, the Muslims massively voted for it, and only then it became possible for the party to form the government on its own.”

Nadeem Hasnain, a Lucknow-based anthropologist, too, told me that Muslims in the state do not want to split their vote in the upcoming elections. “In this incitement of Brahmin votes, the BSP could lose its Muslim votes as the party is wooing the Brahmins and ignoring the others,” Hasnain said. Meanwhile, Rajendra Nath Tripathi, the president of the All India Brahmin Mahasabha (RA)— which claims to be a representative body of the Brahmin community—believed that the BSP event was a “political stunt ahead of crucial elections.”

The BSP’s efforts to win over the Brahmins and join the movement for the Ram temple has also earned criticism from Dalit leaders. Pawan Rao Ambedkar, a Lucknow-based academic and social activist, told me, “Now Jai Shri Ram has replaced Kanshi Ram,” referring to the founder of the BSP. Ram Kumar, a Dalit-rights activist also based in Lucknow, told me that the majority of Brahmins were loyal to the BJP and the Hindu Rashtra, and would never support any other party. “If Mayawati will focus more on Brahmin issues than the Dalits atrocities, then she might be lose her core Dalit vote bank to the newly formed Azad Samaj Party of the Dalit leader Chandrashekhar Azad,” Kumar added. 

Pertinently, it is not just the BSP, but the Samajwadi Party too which appears to be keeping its eyes on the Brahmin vote. In response to Mayawati’s announcement of the Brahmin Sammelan, Abhishek Mishra, a Brahmin leader of the Samajwadi Party, had claimed that the move was a “political gimmick.” He told the media that when the party was in power in 2007, it had promised to construct an idol of the Hindu deity Parshuram, but had failed to do so. “Brahmins know where to stand and they will support SP for benefit of all castes,” he said.

On 25 July, two days after the BSP’s Ayodhya event, Mishra announced that the Samajwadi Party would also hold a series of Brahmin conferences in late August. The party decided to kick off the series from Ballia, where Mishra had inaugurated a Parshuram temple as part of a programme to establish Parshuram temples in all 75 districts of the state. Mishra repeated this commitment when I spoke to him, stating that the temples would be constructed across the state if the Samajwadi Party came to power in 2022.

The Congress, too, has joined the battle for the Brahmin voter base. The party leader Anshu Awasthi has claimed that Congress is the only party that gives adequate representation to the Brahmins in its governments. The Congress gave as many as five Brahmin chief ministers—Govind Ballabh Pant, Kamlapati Tripathi, Sripati Mishra, Hemwati Nandan Bahuguna and Narayan Dutt Tewari—to the state, Awasthi told me.

However, BSP leaders seem to be confident that Muslims and Dalits will vote for their party. Salim Ansari, the party leader and former Rajya Sabha MP, said that he would meet Mayawati in Lucknow soon to chalk out the party’s strategy to connect to the state’s Muslim population. When asked whether the BSP had been ignoring the community, he said, “Muslims are angry with the BJP. The community will vote for anyone who can give a strong fight against the saffron party.” He added, “The BSP would successfully repeat its experiment of Dalit, Muslim and Brahmin brotherhood of 2007 in the next assembly elections.” 

According to Govind Pant Raju, a veteran journalist based in Lucknow, Mayawati and the BSP had done no work on the ground since she lost power, and the efforts to win over the Brahmin voter base would be counterproductive. “It seems that Mayawati is not a serious contender for the next election, her party is wooing the Brahmins just because the community influences others to vote for BSP,” Raju said. “Without Muslim support, it not possible for BSP to repeat its experiment of 2007.”