Chances are that you have not heard of the Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party (SBSP) with its yellow flag. In fact, there are not many outside of eastern Uttar Pradesh who are familiar with the party that might just hold the key to the Bharatiya Janta Party's (BJP) fortunes in Purvanchal.
The alliance between the two parties involves SBSP fielding eight candidates and exercising its influence in favour of the BJP in no less than 125 Assembly seats in the ongoing polls.
Eight seats, including one in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Lok Sabha constituency of Varanasi, are not insignificant for a small party. It just goes to show how caste imperatives allow small but ambitious parties to punch above their weight.
The Rajbhars, mostly landless agricultural labourers, are among the 17 "most backward" sub-category (MBCs) within the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in UP. They constitute around 2.6% of the population in UP and 18% in the eastern part of the state, by some estimates.
In the face of stiff competition, the three major contesting parties have had to look beyond their regular voter base. With the Yadavs largely supporting the Samajwadi Party, the Dalits with the Bahujan Samaj Party and the upper castes with the BJP, the scramble is on for the votes of non-Jatav scheduled castes and non-Yadav backward castes, particularly the non-Kurmis.
While many of these voters have gone with the BSP and the SP in the past, they are less fiercely aligned today. Wooing the MBCs did not serve the BJP in Bihar after Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad Yadav joined forces, but the party has continued to pursue the same policy in UP.
The alliance of BJP with the SBSP is a shrewd move. Although the SBSP has been without a single winning candidate since its founding in 2002, the past two Assembly elections show that the party got a significant number of votes. In the 2012 Assembly elections, it managed to get around five lakh votes in 52 Assembly constituencies, which works out to about 9,000 voters per constituency.
That is a significant figure for the BJP to factor in, given that it lost several assembly seats by a margin of just a few thousand votes, pointed out AK Verma, political analyst at Kanpur University. "It is a silent and important alliance," he said. "How do you become inclusive in politics? That is the question. If the BJP is successful, then it could be a positive development in the direction."
It is a silent and important alliance.
Ashutosh Misra, political science professor at Lucknow University, said it was clever of the BJP to tap into the SBSP. "The smaller parties were ignored by the big ones in the past. They don't matter on their own but the right combination can give you the edge needed to win," he said. "This has been there in the South, it is visible in Bihar and emerging in Uttar Pradesh."
The oft-cited example of this in UP was the BJP-Apna Dal alliance in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. By giving the smaller party two seats, the BJP raked in the support of Kurmis and Patels across the state. Anupriya Patel, now expelled from her own party, was given a place in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Council of Ministers.
It is also noteworthy that around 15% of votes for the 150 seats of Purvanchal went to smaller parties, other than the BSP, SP, the BJP and the Congress, which are an amalgam of non-Jatav schedule castes and non-Yadav backward castes. It is this chunk of votes which the BJP has tapped into by fielding candidates from diverse castes, including the Nishads, Binds, Gaurs, Pals and Sonkars.
While there are no tall leaders among the non-Jatav scheduled castes and non-Yadav backward castes, there are local leaders who wield considerable influence. Local observers point out that the BJP should be wary of the alliance between the Nirbal Indian Shoshit Humara Dal (NISHAD) founded by Sanjay Nishad, Mohamed Ayub's People's Peace Party, Babu Singh Kushwaha's Jan Adhikar Manch and Krishna Patel's Apna Dal. They could turn the tables on the bigger parties in at least a few seats in Purvanchal.
The BJP-SBSP alliance has not exactly been smooth. Last year, the Rajbhar community railed against what they saw as an attempt of the BJP to appropriate the legacy of Raja Suheldev, the Bhar-Pasi king of Shravasti, who is believed to have slain the Afghan invader Syed Salar Ghazni, nephew of Mahmud Ghazni, in the 11th century.
Both the Pasis (Dalits) and Rajbhars believe that Raja Suheldev belonged to their respective castes. The BJP entered the fray by promoting the little-known king on three fronts: a Dalit icon, a symbol of nationalism and a guardian of Hindutva. Last year, the Suhaildev Express, a super-fast train between Ghazipur city and Delhi, was launched by the BJP-led government at the Centre.
When the BSP was in power, Mayawati, the tallest Dalit leader in UP today, had statues of Raja Suheldev erected in the state. When BJP president Amit Shah unveiled a statue of the king in Bahraich last year, Om Prakash Rajbhar, founder and president of the SBSP, called it an "election gimmick." He also protested any symbolism of the king as a Dalit icon.
"I don't fight to defeat, I fight to win"
In a recent conversation with HuffPost India, however, Om Prakash, who believes that he is the modern-day stand-in for Suheldev, denied any rift with the BJP over the 11th century king. "There was no problem. There was nothing at all," he said.
Rajbhar, who was previously a prominent leader of the BSP, glossed over what have been tough negotiations with the BJP over the number of seats amidst speculation that the SBSP would ally with the SP. "Look, we believe in Modi, and BJP is following what Modi is saying, so we are happy with the alliance," he said, referring to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has fronted BJP's election campaign in UP.
'Look, we believe in Modi, and BJP is following what Modi is saying, so we are happy with the alliance.'
When this reporter pointed out that several of Modi's promises for Varanasi, such as cleaning up the Ganga, remained unfulfilled, Om Prakash said it was difficult to "clean up the cancer of a 100 years in three years". "For ten years, we were a country that was desperate for a prime minister to speak. Now we have a prime minister to whom the world listens. He doesn't just speak, he roars," he said.
While wooing the non-Yadav backward castes, the BJP often walks a tight rope, not wanting to alienate its upper-caste voter. When this reporter asked the Rajbhar leader whether it bothered him that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief Mohan Bhagwat had called for a relook at the reservation policy, the Rajbhar leader responded by accusing Mayawati and the SP leadership, respectively, of enacting policies skewed in favour of the "Chamar community and the Yadavs".
"Abhi bhi, Musahar ka beta Musahar, Dom ka beta Dom, (even now, the son of a Musahar is a Musahar and the son of a Dom is a Dom)" he said. "The situation for them has not improved. They need education, they need jobs. Irrespective of caste, people need education for their lives to improve," he said. "The BJP talks for the poor and not only for the Dalits. Sabka saath, sabka vikas (solidarity with all, development for all)."
On whether the UP election would ever be fought bereft of caste calculations, Om Prakash laughed and said, "No."
'Abhi bhi, Musahar ka beta Musahar, Dom ka beta Dom.'
It is worth mentioning that Om Prakash's change of heart over sharing Raja Suheldev with the BJP isn't the only about-turn in the run-up to the elections. In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, SBSP had allied with the gangster-politician Mukhtar Ansari's Quami Ekta Dal (QED), now an ally of the BSP.
In the ongoing election, Om Prakash had considered standing against Ansari from the Mau (Sadar) constituency, which the QED leader has won for four consecutive terms, but then he backed out. In fact, Mahendra Rajbhar, who eventually stood against Ansari, was a source of worry for the BJP. It was Modi who came to the rescue when at a rally in Mau he described Ansari as Bahubali (from SS Rajmouli's film of the same name) and Mahendra as Kattappa, who kills him.
To whether Ansari was a Robin Hood figure that many believed him to be, Om Prakash said he was "a goonda (goon)". "But there is no bigger goonda than the voters who keep voting such goondas into power," he said. "There are such goondas who would sell their vote for a lungi."
On whether his party could beat QED, Om Prakash said, "I don't fight to defeat, I fight to win."
'I don't fight to defeat, I fight to win.'
Also on HuffPost India: