To shore up Samajwadi Party’s shrunk support base in Uttar Pradesh, party chief and former UP Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav has decided to forge an alliance with smaller caste-based parties for the upcoming bylections to two Lok Sabha seats of Gorakhpur and Phulpur.
Realisation has dawned on the party that it is no longer on a strong wicket after the assembly election debacle, and though Samajwadi improved its performance in urban local body polls in November last year, it needs to do a lot more. Charting a new political trajectory, the Samajwadi party is attempting to go beyond the traditional Yadav-Muslim political combination and attract the most backward castes (MBCs), through mergers and alliances with smaller parties.
Akhilesh Yadav has taken the initiative in this regard to reach out to the Nishad community, by announcing Pravin Kumar Nishad as Samajwadi party candidate in the upcoming Gorakhpur Lok Sabha byelection. Pravin Kumar Nishad belongs to the relatively unknown Nirbal Indian Shoshit Hamara Aam Dal (Nishad) Party and is the son of party president Sanjay Nishad. Gorakhpur has a sizeable Nishad population (nearly three lakh) which could boost Samajwadi’s prospects on this seat. The Nishad community in UP constitutes less than 4% of the OBC population but is one of the more politically organised OBC groups.
Nishads and their sub-castes like Kewat and Mallah live along river banks and are involved in occupations related to rivers, including boating and fishing. Late Samajwadi MP Phoolan Devi was one of the leaders of the community, who made it big in politics.
Earlier, on February 4, Akhilesh had addressed a ‘Swabhiman Rally’ organised by Janwadi Party (Socialist), a small party floated by MBC social group Lonia Chauhan, in Varanasi. Medieval Rajput king Prithviraj Chauhan is the icon of the community. Akhilesh even promised that his party would bring back the mortal remains of Prithviraj Chauhan from Afghanistan.
Akhilesh Yadav is also making overtures to the Kurmi community, which constitutes about 9% of the population. The party has fielded a Kurmi (Nagendra Pratap Singh Patel) as its candidate for the Phulpur Lok Sabha byelection.
The SP president also visited senior party leader Beni Prasad Varma’s residence on the latter’s birthday. The much-publicised visit to Varma’s residence was seen as an attempt to mend fences with veteran leaders who wield influence in the community. Akhilesh had earlier cold-shouldered Verma when he returned to the party in May 2016, as he is close to the Mulayam Singh camp. Varma’s son Rakesh Varma was denied a ticket in the 2017 assembly polls by Akhilesh.
A senior SP leader said: “The party is left with no option but to take some concrete measures for expanding its social base. We are perceived as a Yadav-centric party though we have always been inclusive. We have catered to all communities and giving the ticket to a Nishad is not an exception.”
After the rift widened in the Yadav clan last year and senior leader Shivpal Yadav was alienated, the SP’s Yadav base suffered massive erosion. This led to the party’s rout in the assembly polls. The party’s Muslim supporters are also said to be upset with Mulayam Singh’s ‘soft’ approach towards the BJP and his aversion to the Congress. The community is no longer as strongly supportive of the SP as they were two years ago.
The SP chief is now trying to repair the damage and has succeeded in getting Muslim-dominated Peace Party as an ally. The Peace Party enjoys some influence in pockets of eastern UP and its presence on the SP dais is expected to send positive signals to Muslims, ahead of the bypolls.
Samajwadi is also hopeful about its prospects in the two BJP-held seats, due to the fact that both contests have effectively become BJP vs SP clashes. The Bahujan Samaj Party is, as is its usual practise, sitting out the bypolls. SP is hoping that many of BSP’s backward caste support base will opt for its candidates instead. The Congress has also fielded candidates in both seats but its lacklustre campaign is not expected to impact either BJP or SP’s chances.
Phulpur and Gorakhpur vote on March 11.