Lucknow: As the electoral campaign intensifies, the key state of Uttar Pradesh is witnessing a unique battle between two arch rivals – the BJP on the one hand, and the SP-BSP-RLD alliance on the other. It is a battle between the BJP’S “Ali-Bajrang Bali” and the alliance’s “BajrangAli”.
At first glance, it may appear to be a simple case of leaders making sudden provocative remarks and counter-remarks as they travel across the state, frantically addressing one rally after another. However, it is not that simple.
The opposition’s “BajrangAli” is a well-calculated, long-time strategy of countering any move of communal polarisation. So, while the BJP and the larger Sangh parivar may be eager to give the elections a polarising pitch through the narrative of “unke Ali aur humare Bajrang Bali” (their Ali and our Bajrang Bali), the opposition alliance is desperate to keep the elections centered around the “caste arithmetic”. The agenda is clear — communal polarisation should not supersede the caste narrative.
In this eagerness to avoid polarisation, the opposition alliance has made an open appeal of communal harmony and unity through a unique synthesis – “BajrangAli”, which combines Bajrang Bali, or the monkey Hanuman, and Ali, the highly revered figure in Islam worshipped by all sects. According to the Shia school of thought, Ali was Prophet Mohammad’s successor while Sunnis believe that he is among the four-most respected caliphs.
Surprisingly, none other than SP stalwart Azam Khan, who himself has been quite a polarising figure in the past, came up with this synthesis. “The BJP might differentiate between Bajrang Bali and Ali; for us, both are our own and together they become BajrangAli,” Khan said at an election rally in Rampur on Friday.
“It is this BajrangAli that will now break the enemy,” Khan had added. Moments later, slogans of “Jai Jai Jai BajrangAli, tod de dushman ki nail (break the enemy’s windpipe)” echoed across the rally ground.
But here arises a questions: Why have political parties like the SP and BSP, who until recently fervently played the minority card, suddenly changed track? Not only is this change evident in their campaigning styles but also in ticket distribution. The alliance has given tickets to far fewer Muslim candidates this time round. Only four of the 16 alliance candidates, for the first two phases of polls in western UP are Muslims. The minority vote plays the most significant role in this region.
Undoubtedly, alliance strategists have been crystal-clear on one thing since the poll debacle of the 2017 assembly polls – to counter the BJP in UP, they need to build a strong caste consolidation and protect it from weakening by an aggressive Hindutva narrative. For the alliance’s caste arithmetic of Dalit-backward solidarity, along with Muslim support, to work, it was necessary that the non-upper caste Hindu vote be prevented from being influenced by the communal Hindu-Muslim discourse.
A senior SP leader, who is also a member of the state legislative council, said on condition of anonymity, “In 2014, despite a strong Modi wave, and then in the 2017 assembly election, the BJP polarised Hindu voters by successfully brandishing both SP and BSP as parties indulging in minority appeasement.”
“The BJP was able to do so by citing several acts and statements of our party and leaders,” the leader added. “For example, 97 tickets to Muslims by BSP in assembly polls or Akhilesh wearing a skull cap at a function while being a chief minister. Leaders like Azam Khan often gave fodder to the BJP to play on communal sentiments.”
As a result, both parties since 2017 decided to keep at a distance the politics of open outreach to minorities. Leaders such as Azam Khan were told to keep quiet or be very cautious. The parties believed that in the fight against the BJP, minorities would be a natural support base – the parties were required to win back the Dalit and OBC support that turned to the BJP in a significant way in 2014 and 2017.
In the fight for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, this renewed strategy has emerged as the BJP’s biggest political challenge in the state. Even BJP chief Amit Shah had described it as a mammoth task — “The SP-BSP alliance is the biggest challenge for us,” he had said.
In this fight against its most formidable opponent, the BJP may have taken recourse to talking and stressing upon the “good work” done by the Narendra Modi-led government and the prime minister’s own personal image. But on the ground, nothing but a larger Hindu polarisation can effectively ensure that its hold on the non-upper caste Hindu vote is not weakened.
And it is out of this concern for a larger polarisation that even while talking of development, governance and “sabka sath sabka vikas”, senior leaders and star campaigners such as Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath have ignited the “Ali-Bajrang Bali” debate. They have also accused an opposition candidate of being related to Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar. Even other leaders have subtly tried to play on Hindu-Muslim politics.
The alliance seemed to have faltered on its strategy in one instance, when BSP chief Mayawati in her Saharanpur rally made an open appeal to Muslims, asking them not to get confused by the Congress and to vote only for the alliance in order to defeat the BJP. This gave the BJP some much-needed ammunition, with even Modi lashing out at Mayawati.
In an interview to News18 Network Group Editor-in-Chief Rahul Joshi, Modi had said, “Those who were enemies are now hugging each other. The ground in Uttar Pradesh is slipping from under their feet. Mayawati is desperate. Her ship is sinking. The Election Commission should take a call on whether this is appealing in the name of a particular religion or not.”
“What if someone had canvassed for Hindu votes in the same way? Where is the secular gang now? Where is the ‘award wapsi’ gang now?” he had asked.
But the alliance quickly spun into damage-control mode. While addressing the second joint electoral rally in Badaun on April 13, Mayawati said, “We need both Ali and Bajrang Bali in our fight against the BJP.”
“I am grateful to UP CM Yogi Adityanath for informing all of us about the caste of Lord Hanuman. We are happy to know he was a Dalit,” she added.
Mayawati was referring to a controversial statement Adityanath had made in the run-up to the Rajasthan Assembly polls last year. “Lord Hanuman was a Dalit-Vanvasi”. The statement, then made with an intent to attract Dalit voters, is now being used against the BJP itself in UP.
With voting for eight seats wrapped up in the first phase on April 11, there are still 72 more to go. As the election moves from the west to the eastern parts of the state, one can expect many more such statements from both sides. In a state where politics has been played out on the lines of “shamshan” (cremation ground) and “kabristan (burial ground for Muslims) in the past, Ali-Bajrang Bali versus BajrangAli is the current phenomenon, but surely not the last this election season.