The resignation — which comes roughly a month before assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh — will send alarm bells ringing in the BJP, which hopes to hold on to the rainbow coalition of backward classes and Scheduled Castes that propelled it to an unprecedented victory in 2017.
Like Maurya, Chauhan joined the BJP from the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) before the 2017 state polls. And, like Maurya, he blamed the BJP’s treatment of backward castes and Dalits as the reason for his resignation.
“I am hurt by the state government ignoring the interests of the backward, marginalised, Dalit, farmers and unemployed youth. Hence, I resign from the cabinet,” he said in a letter to governor Anandiben Patel.
Samajwadi Party (SP) chief Akhilesh Yadav tweeted a photo of himself with Chauhan, the MLA from Madhuban, and welcomed him to the SP. Yadav had also welcomed Maurya to the SP on Tuesday but a day later, Maurya made it clear that he hadn’t joined any other party yet. “I haven’t resigned as BJP member yet. I will reveal everything on January 14 though one thing is clear that I am not going [back] to the BJP,” the minister said.
“One feels bad if a family member loses way. I would just request the respected leaders who have resigned to reconsider their decision as they won’t achieve anything by riding a sinking boat. I would appeal to big brother Dara Singhji to reconsider his decision,” tweeted deputy chief minister Keshav Prasad Maurya after Chauhan’s resignation.
Uttar Pradesh goes to the polls in seven phases, beginning February 10 and ending March 7. The votes will be counted on March 10.
On Tuesday, Maurya dealt a blow to the BJP with his abrupt resignation from the cabinet, indicating that the BJP’s hold on the non-dominant backward groups, a key demographic that helped the party win the 2017 state and 2019 general elections, may be slipping. Three lawmakers close to Maurya — Roshan Lal Verma, Brijesh Prajapati and Bhagwati Sagar – also quit the party. On Wednesday, a fourth – Bidhuna MLA Vinay Shakya – said he was with Maurya and a fifth, Meerpur MLA Avtar Singh Bhadana, joined the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), an ally of the SP.
To be sure, political realignments are common before every major election, and the 2017 polls also saw a raft of defections. And yet, the resignations on Tuesday and Wednesday, coupled with the BJP’s troubles with former ally Om Prakash Rajbhar and current ally Apna Dal, indicate that the BJP may have to focus on its outreach among the OBCs.
The party came to power in a landslide five years ago on the back of unprecedented support among scores of smaller non-dominant backward castes, which resented the powerful Yadavs, also an OBC group considered the traditional base of the SP.
OBCs form around 42-45% of the electorate, of which 9% are Yadav. The BJP has been wooing the remaining 32-35% of the non-Yadav OBC votes, which includes Kurmis (5%), Lodhs (4%), and Nishads (4%), among many others.
Maurya is a five-time MLA from Padrauna in Kushinagar district who was a top minister in the 2007-12 BSP government and is influential among the Mauryas, an OBC community. Chauhan, a three-time MP (two-time Rajya Sabha MP) and currently a lawmaker, belongs to the Lonia OBC community.
Stung by the resignations at a time when chief minister Yogi Adityanath and other senior leaders are deliberating in Delhi about candidate selection, the BJP’s game plan appeared clear.
It inducted Naresh Saini, the Congress’s OBC lawmaker from Saharanpur in western UP who hails from the same community as Maurya, three-time SP lawmaker Hari Om Yadav, and former SP lawmaker Dharampal Singh. The event happened in the presence of Keshav Prasad Maurya and the party’s UP unit chief, Swatantra Dev Singh, both OBC leaders.
Later in the day, a Sultanpur district court issued an arrest warrant against Maurya in a 2016 case in which he was accused of making objectionable comments against Hindu deities. It asked the former minister to be present in court on January 24.
Maurya indicated that more leaders were likely to follow him, and added that the BJP will have to start according respect to its leaders. “My decision to quit has triggered an earthquake in the BJP. I pleaded with the leaders for the welfare of Dalits and backwards but they couldn’t care less,” he said. His son, Utkrisht Maurya Ashok, said the former minister was not concerned about tickets for his children. Maurya’s daughter, Lok Sabha MP Sanghamitra Maurya, continues to be with the BJP.
Some BJP leaders argued that the resignations were triggered by fear that the party may drop many sitting lawmakers in a bid to curtail anti-incumbency.
“UP elections are important. Naturally, if some candidates are dropped, it could be because of some specific input that might have emerged through field surveys. While it is true that we don’t want to lose any leader, at the same time, why do you think a certain political development that could be big news for the media would force us to compromise on candidate selection? Only the best will be selected. There are hundreds of claimants from each assembly segment and all know that only one eventually would get to contest,” a senior BJP leader said on condition of anonymity.
But other leaders admitted that the exits could hurt the party. “It’s not good optics,” said a second party leader.
On Monday, BJP MLA from Bilsi, Radha Krishna Sharma, joined the SP, the second Brahmin lawmaker after Digvijay Narain Chaubey, MLA from Khalilabad, to leave the ruling party, when Bahraich MLA Madhuri Verma and Sitapur MLA Rakesh Rathore, both OBCs, joined the SP.
The rapid developments also sparked some drama. On Tuesday, Shakya’s daughter Riya made a video saying her father was abducted by her uncle, Devesh. A day later, Shakya and the local police refuted the claim.
Hours later, a letter surfaced on social media claiming BJP lawmaker Ravindra Tripathi, considered close to Maurya, had resigned from the BJP. The legislator later filed a police complaint, saying the letter was fake and his letterhead was forged.
“Such defections closer to the elections are common and if the joining are any indication, it’s set to be a straight contest between BJP and the SP, with none ready to blink ahead of an exercise that means a great deal for both,” said Irshad Ilmi, a veteran journalist and political expert.