The rise of Chandra Shekhar Azad, and why every party is wary of him

When Azad Samaj Party (Kanshi Ram) chief Chandra Shekhar Azad challenged Yogi Adityanath in the Gorakhpur Urban Assembly constituency in the 2022 UP polls, many scoffed at it as political naiveté while others felt he was punching way above his weight merely to hoard attention. The election poll result only strengthened this perception about Azad, the founder of the Bhim Army, as he ended up polling a paltry 7,640 votes and forfeiting his security deposit.

Few would have thought then that two years later, in a far more surcharged Lok Sabha election battle, Azad would register a thumping poll victory. Unlike the 2022 polls, Azad had now chosen a familiar electoral turf – the Scheduled Caste reserved constituency of Nagina in western Uttar Pradesh situated barely 100 km away from his hometown of Saharanpur.

Azad’s massive victory in Nagina

Azad told The Federal that he had begun building his base in Nagina shortly after his humiliating defeat in Gorakhpur and was determined to contest from here “with or without any allies”.

As it happened, Azad’s efforts to join the Opposition’s INDIA bloc and contest from Nagina riding on the combined strength of his own efforts and the support of Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Congress went in vain. That, he says, only made his win “all the more significant” because he was pitted in a four-cornered contest against the BJP’s three-term MLA Om Kumar, the SP’s Manoj Kumar and Surendra Pal Singh of Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP).

The 37-year-old Azad won the Nagina seat by securing over 5.12 lakh votes – over 51 per cent of the total votes polled – and a lead of over 1.51 lakh votes against his nearest rival, Om Kumar.

The BSP, which had won this Dalit reserved seat in the 2019 polls, was pushed down to the fourth position making it clear that, at least in Nagina, the Dalits saw Azad as a more worthy representative of Dalit interests than Mayawati’s BSP. The consolidation of Dalits behind Azad in Nagina is significant because until the delimitation exercise of 2008, large parts of the constituency fell under the Bijnor Lok Sabha seat from where Mayawati had made her Lok Sabha debut in 1989 after having finished a distant third in the 1985 Bijnor bypoll against two other Dalit heavyweights – Congress’s Meira Kumar (the winner) and LJP founder, late Ram Vilas Paswan.

The consolidation of Dalits aside, there is an even more compelling reason to analyse Azad’s Nagina victory and what it could portend for the always volatile political landscape of Uttar Pradesh. Muslims constitute over 40 per cent of the constituency’s electorate. The over 51 per cent votes that Azad polled is an indication enough that the community, which rallied behind allies SP and Congress elsewhere in UP, stood firmly with Azad in Nagina. In fact, in the constituency’s three Assembly segments of Najibabad, Noorpur and Nagina, which were won by the SP in the 2022 polls, Azad secured huge leads.

‘Social justice and equality’ leader

It is, arguably, for this reason, that since his Lok Sabha win, Azad has assiduously shunned being bracketed as a “Dalit leader”. Instead, Azad prefers to be labelled as a “social justice and equality” leader. He has spoken strongly against the persecution of Muslims under BJP rule as well as for the urgent need for addressing the community’s socio-economic backwardness; both issues that the Congress and the SP have failed to highlight adequately despite benefitting electorally from the Muslims’ support.

Incidentally, it is this same narrative of equality and social justice that Akash Anand, Mayawati’s nephew and political heir, was trying to build during the Lok Sabha poll campaign before he was unceremoniously benched by the BSP supremo. Since the Lok Sabha polls, in which the BSP failed to wrest a single seat and also saw a huge dent in its vote share, Mayawati has re-instated Akash; a move many in Lucknow’s power corridors have dubbed as the “Azad effect”; alluding to the nervousness within the BSP over losing its base to the firebrand ASP chief if correctives aren’t applied immediately.

The Congress and the SP, which were once eager to field Azad as the joint INDIA bloc candidate from UP’s Agra, have, curiously, tried to ignore his triumph in Nagina; something the two parties seem to share with the BJP. Azad told The Federal that even during the inaugural session of the 18th Lok Sabha, “no senior leader from the BJP or the INDIA bloc made any effort to reach out to me or even encourage me as a newly elected first-term MP”. He asserted that the “cold shoulder” from both sides of the political divide has only “convinced me that I am on the right path and they are not happy with my victory… whether it is the BSP or the BJP or the SP and the Congress, all of them think if the Azad Samaj Party becomes strong, it will dent their electoral base”.

Lucknow-based Dalit ideologue and political commentator, Prof. Ravikant calls Azad’s Nagina victory the “single most consequential outcome in the Lok Sabha polls from UP”. Though stressing that it may be “very premature to make any predictions on how Chandra Shekhar’s political trajectory will progress”, Ravikant says the ASP and Bhim Army chief “can unsettle the status quo for all key political parties in UP as far as their respective caste arithmetic is concerned if he continues to build on his narrative of Dalit Bahujan Muslim empowerment”.

Weakening of BSP

Leaders across party lines in UP agree that the weakening of the BSP due to Mayawati’s inability to effectively fight for the empowerment of all Dalits and her failure in challenging the BJP whenever Dalit persecution stirs the political cauldron has created a space for alternative leadership of the community.

“Over the past decade, the BSP had largely been reduced to a party of Jatav Dalits while the BJP successfully walked away with votes of non-Jatav Dalits. In the (just concluded) Lok Sabha polls, the INDIA bloc successfully broke away a lot of the non-Jatav Dalits from the BJP while also gaining some votes of Jatav Dalits. This is why the SP-Congress combine managed to win eight of the 17 Dalit Lok Sabha seats of UP while the BJP, which had won 15 of these seats in 2019, could win just eight this time while the BSP failed to win a single seat,” a senior Dalit leader of the Congress told The Federal.

The Congress leader added, “Everyone believes the 21 per cent Dalit vote in UP is up for grabs now because the BSP has weakened… where Azad has an opportunity is in the fact that unlike a Rahul Gandhi, Akhilesh Yadav or even Narendra Modi, he is actually a Dalit by caste and he makes the right noises when it comes to issues of the community. The SP can give prominence to (Faizabad MP and Pasi Dalit leader) Awdhesh Prasad and the Congress may have Mallikarjun Kharge (as party president) but if Azad flaunts his Dalit identity aggressively and raises the community’s issues forcefully, he will slowly but surely expand his party”.

‘A lot of ground to cover’

Ram Kumar, founder of Dalit rights NGO Dynamic Action Group and an early mentor of Azad believes the ASP chief, with his focus on consolidating Dalits, Muslims and extremely backward castes, is “going back to the strategy that helped Kanshi Ram establish the BSP”.

“He has a lot of ground to cover but if he continues on his current path, he has the potential to rebuild the Dalit Bahujan movement in UP which has collapsed in recent years because of Mayawati’s poor leadership… he spent a decade building his network through his Bhim Army and the help of BAMCEF (Backward and Minority Communities Employees Federation); he has gone back to the Kanshi Ram model of empowerment at a time when Mayawati’s initially successful attempt at building a coalition of extremes by bringing Dalits and Brahmins together collapsed completely,” Kumar said.

Ravikant claims that by constantly raising issues of the Muslim community alongside his campaign for Dalit empowerment, Azad is trying to consolidate a formidable political clout that directly involves over 35 per cent of UP’s population. “In UP, there is a leadership vacuum for both Dalits and Muslims. Azad has an opportunity here and he is making good use of it. The fact that he won by a huge margin in a constituency that has over 40 per cent Muslim votes shows he won the trust of the community there and by saying repeatedly that in his view Muslims today are as persecuted, if not more than, the Dalits, he is trying to build on that trust,” Ravikant explained.

Mayawati is now making an effort to dent Azad’s rise by reposing her faith in Akash while the SP and the Congress, it is learnt, have also decided to amplify their Dalit outreach efforts. Akhilesh’s decision to have Awdhesh Prasad seated in the front row of Lok Sabha alongside himself and Rahul Gandhi and repeatedly refer to the Faizabad MP’s victory as a “true victory of PDA (Pichchda, Dalit, Alpsankhyak)” is part of this strategy. Rahul too has ensured a front row seat for the Congress’s Dalit leader K. Suresh making this the first time in Lok Sabha’s history that two Dalit leaders grace the front row of the Opposition benches. The Congress, of course, had begun its aggressive Dalit outreach three years back when it chose Kharge as party president.

Azad’s first test in bypolls

Curiously, Azad has also united the BSP, BJP, SP and Congress on at least one issue – their wariness of Azad. Mayawati has publicly been critical of Azad on several occasions, often even likening him to a goon. The Congress and the SP may not have publicly crossed swords with Azad but in off-record conversations, senior leaders of both parties lose no time in branding the ASP chief as a “BJP agent” and even a “Dalit equivalent of Asaduddin Owaisi”. Owaisi, the AIMIM chief and Hyderabad MP, has repeatedly been accused by the Congress of being the “BJP’s B-Team”.

Likewise, the BJP has largely been dismissive of Azad; playing down his Lok Sabha debut. Maintaining that he is “neither part of NDA nor INDIA”, the Nagina MP has been trying to draw the saffron party’s fire at himself by routinely slamming Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “dictatorship” and reminding everyone that “the BJP had filed over 40 cases against me and jailed me for a year and a half on false charges just to stop me from entering politics”.

Azad now plans to divide his time between “forcefully raising issues of my people in Parliament and expanding my party electorally”. His first test would be in the impending bypolls for nine Assembly segments in UP, for which the ASP is fielding candidates. Azad believes that his own Lok Sabha victory would galvanise support for his party but concedes that he is “keeping expectations low” from the bypolls because his party had very little time to prepare. “It’s a trial run in a way; our focus is to strengthen the party enough by the 2027 UP polls so that we can fight it well and make sure that no political party can afford to ignore us and the issues we raise”,” Azad said.

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