Despite the backlash to his comments on Ramcharitmanas, Samajwadi Party leader and Member of the Legislative Council, Swami Prasad Maurya remains defiant.
On Sunday, his supporters went as far as burning copies of sections of the book in Vrindavan. A group called Akhil Bharatiya OBC Mahasabha burned photocopies of pages allegedly carrying "objectionable comments on women and backward classes" in Ramcharitmanas.
Maurya's statement has faced widespread condemnation from Hindu organisations and priest bodies, and a case has even been filed against him in response. Yet, Maurya refuses to retract his comments.
His refusal to take back his statement seems to stem from the silent and apparent support from the SP chief, Akhilesh Yadav.
According to this report, when journalists asked Yadav about Maurya's comments earlier today, he responded that he [Yadav] himself was a Shudra and did not know much about 'Dharma and Ramcharitmanas'.
However, in this video, also from today, Akhilesh Yadav is seen saying:
Nobody is against any religious scripture, or against Bhagwan Shri Rama. Nobody is against the Ramcharitamanas.
He then says that since Yogi Adityanath has come to the UP Assembly from a religious institution, he would ask him to read the chaupai in question. And then, says Yadav, 'I will ask the chief minister if I am a Shudra or not'.
Coming back to Maurya, not only has Yadav failed to reprimand Maurya, he has instead elevated him to the party's national executive. He recently met with him to discuss the SP's demand for a caste-based survey in Uttar Pradesh.
This could also be Maurya's way of staying relevant after electoral losses.
Maurya began his political journey with the Lok Dal but soon switched over to the Bahujan Samajwadi Party and rose to prominence as an OBC leader. He was considered a close confidante of BSP supremo, Mayawati.
In 2017, Maurya resigned from the BSP and joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). He was a cabinet minister in the Yogi government. Before the 2022 UP assembly polls, he jumped ship to join the SP. He lost the Fazilnagar assembly seat in Kushinagar. However, he was sent to the legislative council by Yadav.
Maurya's recent statements criticising Hindu scriptures and Akhilesh Yadav's silence could be part of a political strategy of dividing the Hindu vote along caste lines. This approach has been tried by the opposition in an attempt to counter the Modi juggernaut earlier too.
As the newly-built Ram Mandir in Ayodhya looks set to be opened for the devotees in January 2024, the SP could be positioning itself, in advance, to counter the BJP's Hindutva stance.
Since 2014, the SP has been struggling to find its footing in the Lok Sabha elections. In the past two elections, the party’s tally has not been able to go beyond single-digits.
Maurya's remarks could also be a way for the SP to test the waters among the 'neo-Ambedkarites' and minorities, in run up to the 2024 elections.
From the latest controversy, it is clear that the party is looking to make early moves to secure its position in the next big electoral contest in Uttar Pradesh.
(with inputs from PTI)
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