Akhilesh Yadav
Samajwadi Party (SP) chief Akhilesh Yadav Image Credit: ANI

In 2017, when Akhilesh Yadav was completing his term as chief minister, he hoped that voters would vote him in for the development and welfare work undertaken by him.

Even those who were not voting for him were all praise for him. His government had made ambulances reach remote villages for the first time, distributed free laptops to students, made cash transfers to poor women, and built a high speed highway from Agra to Lucknow on which Air Force planes could land.

Most impressively, he even fought with his father and uncle to wrest control of the party, shun the old ways, try and go beyond caste and the use of violent Robinhood dons to create a new technocratic image.

But it was too little, too late. Workers of the Bhartiya Janata Party went door to door that election, convincing lower OBC swing voters that all the government jobs had been taken away by Yadavs.

Top BJP leaders said in their speeches that all the welfare benefits had gone to one caste and one community — referring to SP’s core vote base, Yadavs and Muslims. The ‘polarisation’ was more about caste than religion, more against Yadavs than Muslims.

For Akhilesh Yadav this was devastating. It was as if his father and uncle had been right. Caste won, development lost.

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In the 2019 general elections he allied with the Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party but once again the ‘gatbandhan’ or alliance failed to win over lower OBC swing voters. These are estimated to be 30-40% of the population.

The low morale of the SP and its leadership saw a boost in the 2022 UP Vidhan Sabha elections, when Muslim voters in UP finally wisened up and didn’t let their vote be ‘divided’. They completely shunned the Bahujan Samaj Party, clearly seeing the negative, obstinate and un-cooperative role played by Mayawati in uniting opposition forces against the BJP.

This made UP a bi-polar contest for the first time since 1989. The Samajwadi Party, without much effort, increased both its seats and vote-share beyond their expectations. Even though the BJP marginally increased its vote share, its seats saw a substantial fall from 312 to 257 (the majority mark is 202).

From M-Y to PDA

In 2023, Akhilesh Yadav began to address his party’s twin weaknesses, of the party organisation and the “M-Y” image. He announced a new caste formula called PDA — targeting Pichada (backward), Dalit (oppressed), and Alpsankhyak (minority) communities.

There are many reasons why the SP has beaten all expectations and won 37 seats in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections in Uttar Pradesh. The “PDA” approach is certainly one of them, softening the party’s “M-Y” image.

In 2017, the BSP had made history by winning a single-party majority in the UP assembly for the first time in two decades. It did so by announcing a “Brahmin-Dalit” alliance formula. Whenever the SP or the BSP have done well in UP, it has been possible only by going beyond their core votes through what is loosely called “social engineering”.

The best thing about the new PDA formula is that there is a caste formula, officially announced and publicised. Political parties have often benefited by announcing such caste formulas before the electorate — such as Chaudhary Charan Singh’s “AJGAR” in UP, Siddaramaiah’s “AHINDA” in Karnataka or the Congress party’s old “KHAM” in Gujarat.

It is a fact of life that society is divided on the basis of caste. Given how caste communities are often in conflict with each other for dominance and resources, no party can keep their caste coalition stable forever. There will always be resentment about perceived or real discrimination. This is why no party can win 100% votes — going above 50% vote share is a rarity in any election in India.

Read more by Shivam Vij

Who’s out of PDA

Every party thus has to decide whose votes they DON’T want. Some parties decide they don’t want Muslim votes, some decide they don’t want Yadav votes, some decide they don’t want Jatav votes.

Who you are not keen to help makes it clear who you are keen to help. Just like the BJP impressed lower OBCs by appearing to not be keen on getting Muslim and Yadav votes, the Samajwadi Party also needed clarity on whose votes they did NOT want.

The answer was obvious: upper castes. For many years Akhilesh Yadav didn’t want to do this, but he has learnt the hard way. Note that “PDA” includes everyone except upper castes. The Samajwadi Party is trying to pay the BJP back in the same coin.

While the Samajwadi Party campaign has been loudly around PDA, acronyms are what acronyms do. The PDA formula was seen in not just words but action. The Samajwadi Party gave only 5 tickets to Yadav candidates, all from the Akhilesh Yadav family, and only 4 tickets to Muslims. This enabled it to give a lot of tickets to non-Yadav OBCs, including 9 Kurmis, sending a loud message to these communities.

On general seats like Meerut and Faizabad (where Ayodhya is located), the SP was smart to give tickets to Dalit candidates. It lost Meerut by a small margin and won a historic victory in Faizabad months after the inauguration of the Ram temple. ‘Mandal’ (caste politics) won this round.

The churn in Uttar Pradesh is a reminder that political parties don’t practice caste politics. It is caste groups that use political parties as their proxies in their negotiation of when they negotiate for social power.