Bridging the Castes? The Assembly Elections in Utter Pradesh

Bidyut Chakrabarty | 31 May 2020

The recently concluded assembly elections in the state of Uttar Pradesh were a watershed in India's recent electoral history for two reasons: first, the prediction that the election would result in a hung assembly did not come to pass - that the electorate voted against the incumbent government and accepted the Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) was perhaps a glaring example of how discerning Indian voters can be, flummoxing political analysts and pollsters alike. Secondly, it is clear that the Congress Party no longer remains a catchall party capable of sustaining the rainbow coalition, drawn on the conceptual category of "traditional vote banks". It makes no sense to suggest that the middle castes and Muslims are favourably inclined towards Congress. Furthermore, their support for reservation for the Other Backward Castes (OBC) has surely rattled the upper caste voters who are already disillusioned with the Bharitya Janata Party (BJP) in Utter Pradesh. Likewise, the Muslim vote bank of the Congress is now highly fractured while the Dalits have found their messiah in Mayawati.

It was clear from voter sentiment on the eve of the election that the BSP had a clear a edge over other contending political parties in what is regularly referred to as India's "most happening state" of Uttar Pradesh. A survey by a Delhi University academic group confirms the claim by drawing attention to the growing popularity of the BSP and its vibrant leader, Mayawati in the state across castes and classes. According to this survey, the BSP was a forerunner for two important reasons: first, the mission, "brahmon jodo" (integrate Brahmins or the upper castes), was a masterstroke that was likely to yield dramatic results. In order to translate the mission into reality, the first major step Mayawati undertook was the induction of the former advocate-general, Mr. Satish Chandra Mishra, within the party. By organizing Brahman mahasammelans (general meetings) at regular intervals, Mishra helped the BSP to make significant inroads among the Brahmins. While addressing these mahasammelans, Mayawati repeatedly assured the Brahmans that "the BSP is against Manuwadi or the Brahminical discourse for lower castes, and not against Brahmans". Similar mahasammelans were organized regularly to win-back the other forward castes. These mahasammelans were largely well-attended though doubts were expressed whether this would tilt the outcome in favour of the BSP as the forward castes are not so easily amenable to change given the historical roots of caste barriers and also because of the resentment of the upper castes due to BSP's well-defined anti-Manuwadi platform.

The second supportive factor happened to be concerted attempts by party workers to build an organisational network, widely spread across the state, the parallel of which can be found in West Bengal where the Left Front, supported by a well-entrenched organization, has achieved a political stranglehold of sorts. Unlike other political parties in the fray, the BSP began its election drill almost two years ago by selecting candidates for most of the constituencies and interacting with voters on the ground. Divided into 25 sectors (with ten polling booths in one sector), each constituency was closely monitored by the party's high command. In tandem, each polling booth, hosting roughly with 1000 voters, was made the responsibility of a nine-member committee comprising of at least one woman to motivate and mobilise female voters. As the arrangement suggests, Behanji (sister), as Mayawati is popularly known in the state, left no stone unturned in her effort.

On the surface, the BSP's organisational efforts seem to have paid dividends since a large segment of the forward castes supported the BSP. It is difficult to surmise whether this was positive support for the party, or whether it represented the best available option given the failure of BJP to deliver. What is clear however is a growing separation of the forward castes from the BJP. Their voice was more or less uniform in expressing disappointment with the BJP that conveniently put, as school teacher in Allahabad pointed out, "the Ram mandir mudda (the agenda) under the carpet". They were also upset with the incumbent state government, led by Mulayam Singh who was accused of unnecessarily "pampering" the Muslims. 

In explaining the poll verdict, two broad arguments have been put forward: first, the triumph of the BSP is largely attributed to Mayawati's social engineering project – an euphemism suggestive of an alliance between the Dalits, Brahmins and to a lesser extent, the Banias (merchants). In other words, Mayawati's success can be attributed to "a rainbow coalition", reminiscent of the Congress system that survived till 1967 in India, in spite her inability to win the support of both the Muslims and OBCs to the extent the BSP supremo had expected. The second argument revolves around the popular inclination for a single party majority government since coalition governments failed to govern irrespective of caste, class or religion. Whether the poll verdict corresponds with an anti-coalition trend is difficult to say. But there is no doubt that an anti-incumbency factor played a critical role in BSP's favour. Given the genuine grievances of the common Utter Pradesh voter, with a per capita income less than half the all-India average, the discontent was not unexpected.

Statistics reveal that one of the four Brahmins in India lives in Utter Pradesh. Correspondingly, the state has the largest Dalit population (23%) in India. Since the breakdown of the Congress-led social coalition in the first two decades after independence, the BSP political platform represented the first renewed attempt at unifying socially "antagonistic" groups in the political arena. The BSP's new political mantra, which was critical of the Mandal reservation scheme for the Other Backward Castes and drawn on Ambedkar-inspired principles, undoubtedly favoured the political aspirations of the party. This ideological package drew Dalits and forward castes together irrespective of their clearly different, if not antagonistic, location in the traditional social hierarchy of caste. The electoral appeal of inter-meshing the pro-Dalit ideology of Ambedkar with the anti-Mandal stance of the BSP, cemented a bond between castes that invariably became a deciding factor in the election. 

Mayawati's success was also largely due to a peculiar caste chemistry that fermented the coalition between Brahmins and Dalits. By getting the traditional upper castes and the dalits together, the BSP leader has done a lot more than just returning to the social pyramid that sustained the erstwhile Congress system. While in the Congress system, the upper castes remained the driving force, in Mayawati's social contract, Dalits are the drivers of change. Nonetheless, the BSP is hardly the party of its traditional ideological mould since its leader seems to have redefined its character by underlining the role of Sarvjan (Dalit-Brahmin combination), in staging a come back. Whether this formula will work elsewhere in India is debatable - it worked in Utter Pradesh precisely because the Dalits were already a consolidated political force and the combination with the forward castes put the BSP in an unassailable position which none of the political parties managed to muster.

The Sarvjan-commitment was translated even in Mayawati's state cabinet with the fifty member cabinet housing seven brahmins and ten dalit ministers. What was rather conspicuous was the inclusion of seventeen ministers with criminal backgrounds contradicting Mayawati's highly publicised claim of providing a bhaymukti (fearless) and aparadhmukti (crime free) administration. The inclusion of Anand Sen Yadav in the ministry, for instance, disturbed some of the more committed BSP workers since he was still incarcerated when called upon by the chief secretary to take oath of secrecy in the state capital, Lucknow. 

The BSP victory is not merely a change of guard in Utter Pradesh - it is also indicative of a new social coalition that is likely to become stronger in the days to come. By providing a unique formula bringing both the upper castes and so-called untouchables together, the BSP created a formidable social compact which while heterogeneous by caste, is politically united. Neither the BJP nor Congress has succeeded in creating constituencies beyond its so-called traditional base. The new government in India's largest state (which sends the maximum number of parliamentarians to the national legislature) is also an articulation of a process highlighting a clear shift in the centre of gravity in Indian politics - power has been shifting lower and lower down the caste order. This is perhaps the process of a silent revolution that has taken place which neither the pollsters nor the strategists of the major political parties envisaged.

Bidyut Chakrabarthy is the Dean of Social Science at the University of Delhi, India.

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