The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) continued to suffer setbacks ahead of the Uttar Pradesh (UP) assembly polls with Dharam Singh Saini becoming the third minister belonging to the Other Backward Castes (OBCs) to resign from the council of ministers in as many days. The development came even as the ruling party’s top leaders in Delhi mulled over names for the assembly seats that will go to polls in the first phase on February 10.

Eleven lawmakers, including three OBC ministers, have resigned from the BJP since the schedule for the UP assembly polls was announced on January 8. The trend of resignations, primarily of OBC lawmakers from across the state, gained strength after labour minister Swami Prasad Maurya quit the Uttar Pradesh cabinet on January 11. The next day, environment minister Dara Singh Chauhan also resigned.

Ayush minister Dharam Singh Saini, a Swami Prasad Maurya loyalist and lawmaker from Nakur assembly seat in Saharanpur in western UP, was also spotted at the main opposition Samajwadi Party office, a stone’s throw away from Swami Prasad Maurya’s Kalidas Marg residence, currently the hub of all rebel activity in the BJP.

Like Swami Prasad Maurya and Dara Singh Chauhan, Saini, too, sent his resignation to governor Anandiben Patel.

“I came to meet Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav on his invitation and assurance that backwards and dalits would get justice in the Samajwadi Party. I told him that I will consult Swami Prasad ji and will soon take a collective decision,” Saini said.

After initially reaching out to them, the BJP has begun to hit out at the rebels.

While UP minister Sidharth Nath Singh described the resignations as a case of “vinash kaley viprit buddhi (pride comes before the fall)”, UP BJP chief Swatantra Dev, an OBC leader himself, was more direct.

“Those who failed to get a ticket of the double engine BJP train are now being given ticket in black for the rickety van by Tipu Sultan,” the UP BJP chief tweeted.

Along with chief minister Yogi Adityanath, Swatantra Dev and party’s OBC face in UP, deputy chief minister Keshav Prasad Maurya are in Delhi to mull over the names of candidates. The BJP, along with its pre-poll allies Apna Dal (Sonelal) and Nishad Party, could hold a joint press conference to declare the names of over 150 candidates on Friday, the day when Swami Prasad Maurya is expected to declare his next political strategy.

In Delhi, Keshav Prasad Mauarya said the BJP’s central election committee discussed the names of candidates for 172 seats and exuded confidence of the party winning the UP assembly elections.

But the rebels appeared unfazed, with Swami Prasad Maurya terming the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh) and the BJP as “saanp’ and naag (snakes)”, while warning of more defections.

“Dekhte jaiye (keep watching),” said Dara Singh Chauhan, who in 2017 had won the Madhuban in east UP for the first time for the BJP. He was earlier with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP).

“At least 100 lawmakers would quit,” said Mukesh Verma, the BJP lawmaker from Shikohabad assembly constituency of Firozabad as he along with Bidhuna MLA Vinay Shakya joined the growing list of rebels on Thursday.

While quitting the party, Mukesh Verma expressed solidarity with Swami Prasad Maurya.

Mentioning the neglect of backwards, Dalits and minorities as the reason for his resignation from the BJP, Verma said he would follow Maurya to decide his future course of action.

“Swami Prasad Maurya is our leader and we will decide the future course of action under his leadership,” Mukesh Verma said.

Shikohabad in Firozabad district of western Uttar Pradesh goes to polls on February 10 in the first phase of the seven-round state assembly elections.

Mukesh Verma had joined the BJP in 2017 and won as the party candidate. In 2012, he had contested as the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) candidate and was the runner-up.

For his part, Dara Singh Chauhan, who had quit the cabinet on Wednesday, refuted the BJP charge that only those who were sure of missing out on the BJP ticket are looking elsewhere.

“I never have begged for a ticket. In fact, I never wanted to contest but was made to,” he said, adding that he won the Madhuban seat for the first time for the BJP in 2017 UP polls.

Apart from them, yet another BJP lawmaker Bala Krishna Awasthi from Dhaurahara, a Brahmin dominated assembly constituency in Lakhimpur Kheri district, was also spotted at the Samajwadi Party office.

Later on Thursday evening, Awasthi, speaking to the media in Lucknow, made it clear about his leaving the BJP and joining the Samajwadi Party.

Awasthi mentioned neglect of his community, party workers and farmers, dominance of bureaucracy at the cost of elected MLA as the reasons for him switching sides. At the same time, he heaped praise on the SP chief.

Awasthi’s eldest son Rajiv Awasthi, speaking over the phone, said his father would contest from Dhaurahra.

Bala Prasad Awasthi’s move comes when the BJP is out to placate Brahmins, the key upper caste group for whom the party had recently set up a committee to connect with the community.

Amid the exodus, came a few denials too. Three BJP lawmakers and a minister have denied the buzz about them joining the rebel ranks with two of them even registering a police complaint against the “canard” of them leaving the party.

They include BJP MLA from Bhadohi Ravindra Tripathi and Bareilly lawmaker from Bithri Chainpur Rajesh Mishra. Both of them have approached the police seeking action against those spreading rumours about their quitting the party. A third, UP’s cooperatives minister Mukut Bihari Verma also denied rumours about him being on the list of rebels.

“I am a die-hard RSS man who joined the BJP as part of the Sangh’s advice and will remain in the party till I live,” he said.

Political experts cautioned against reading too much into the pre-poll desertions.

“These aren’t good optics, but how these play out in the election campaign is yet to be seen. Perception wise, it could be comforting for the opposition, though,” said Irshad Ilmi, a political observer.

On Wednesday, the BJP inducted Naresh Saini, the Congress’s OBC lawmaker from Saharanpur in western UP, who hails from the same community as Swami Prasad Maurya, three-time SP MLA Hari Om Yadav, and former SP lawmaker Dharampal Singh into the party.

The BJP lawmakers who have quit since model code came into effect on January 8 are: Dharam Singh Saini (OBC, minister) , Dara Singh Chauhan (OBC, minister), Swami Prasad Maurya (OBC, minister), Roshan Lal Verma (OBC), Bhagwati Sagar (OBC), Brijendra Prajapati (OBC), Vinay Shakya (OBC), Mukesh Verma (OBC), Avtar Singh Bhadana (OBC), Radha Krishna Sharma (Brahmin) and Bala Prasad Awasthi (Brahmin).

(With inputs from Hemendra Chaturvedi in Agra and Deo Kant Pandey in Lakhimpur Kheri)

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