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The Elephant Paradox

Saturday 10 March 2007

Turning traditional philosophy on its head, the BSP is reaching out to Brahmins in its quest for power. Will it work? The first in a three-part series by Shivam Vij who travels across UP to assess the new caste equations being forged in the state


"Saath saal puranay Sanghi ko tod laaye hain hum!,” (We have won over a sixty-year-old Sanghi — a member of the Jan Sangh — to our side) exults Sarvesh Shukla as he walks into his rooftop campaign office. Shukla is contesting from the Generalganj Vidhan Sabha seat in Kanpur in the UP Assembly elections, which will be held in April and May, on a Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) ticket. Festooned with plastic BSP flags, the office overlooks a busy marketplace — and exudes an air that matches the thirty-something candidate’s upbeat mood.

Shukla is a Brahmin. He was active in Kanpur University politics until recently and had little chance of getting a Vidhan Sabha ticket from any party. But the BSP is wooing Brahmins in a big way — “Sarvajan” (for everyone) is BSP’s new mantra. For now the “Bahujan” agenda — the project of uniting dalits, OBCs and Muslims in a coalition of the oppressed — has been shelved.

The “Sanghi” — a member of the BJP/RSS in popular parlance — Shukla has co-opted happens to be his 76-year-old uncle, Rajendra Nath Bajpai, who sports a beard and a tilak, and is known as “Pita” (father) in BJP circles. “They call it the elephant,” Bajpai says of the BSP’s election symbol. “But I see it as Ganeshji. And what I have got is a chance to put a tilak on Ganeshji.

Bajpai will try and convince Generalganj’s voters, who traditionally vote for the BJP, to switch their allegiance to the BSP. “I will tell them they are voting for the Brahmin Samaj Party,” he says. “And don’t you know the other meaning of BSP,” his nephew adds. “Bijli, Sadak, Pani — electricity, road and water.

Why are the Brahmins disenchanted with the BJP? The question touches a raw nerve. “The BJP is no longer a party that works for the benefit of Hindus,” Bajpai says. “It works only for its own benefit.” He begins naming all the Brahmin leaders in the party’s UP unit who over the years were either sidelined or just died (of natural causes). “Actually Brahmins were with the BJP because of Atal Behari Vajpayee, who is too old now,” he says. The nephew leans over and says sotto voce, “You know, Baniyas have taken over the BJP. For 15 years a Brahmin, Niraj Chaturvedi, was on this seat, but he didn’t get along with Rajnath Singh (the current BJP president). So the BJP brought along a Vaish, Salil Vishnoi.

Kanpur has eight Vidhan Sabha seats and the BSP plans to nominate Brahmins in five of these. And of the total 403 seats in the UP Legislative Assembly, the BSP plans to field Brahmins in 120. The BSP has rarely won in any of these 120 seats; they are “expendable”. Traditionally, the party has had a lock on UP’s dalit vote bank — with a population of three crore, they constitute 21 percent of the state’s population. Among these, 55 percent belong to the Jatav (formerly Chamar) caste — the same as BSP chief Mayawati’s.

The fixed dalit votebank ensures that often, if the BSP does not win a seat, it comes second or third. He party’s project of allying with the OBCs (the Other Backward Classes, led by the Yadav caste) and the Muslims never took off, as these two communities have remained loyal to the Samajwadi Party (SP) (Though now SP’s Muslim base is shifting to the Congress). Traditionally, OBCs have been locked in a constant conflict with dalits, much more so than with the savarnas or the upper castes — the Brahmins, Baniyas and Kshatriyas. The causes range from land disputes, to atrocities on dalits, as well as the Yadav-isation of the local administration under the chief ministership of Mulayam Singh Yadav.

The BSP hopes to get the winning electoral arithmetic right so that Mayawati becomes the chief minister for a fourth time — and has to rely as little on coalition partners for seats as possible. This will enable her to run the government unhindered for five years.

So, the Brahmin-dalit alliance is a marriage of convenience, and every Brahmin in the BSP openly admits to it. Does this mean that they could discard each other just as easily? “Not really,” says a BSP worker in Lucknow, who doesn’t wish to be named. “What the BSP think-tank has done is to try and treat the Brahmin’s almost like a separate party, so that the alliance is viable in the long run.” You can see the separate Brahmin “party” in action when Shukla shouts: “Brahmin shankh bajayega / Haathi dilli jayega — the Brahmin will herald the BSP’s march to Delhi.

BSP’s “bhaichara” or brotherhood committees are trusted with selling the slogan: “vote dena aur lena”— give and take of votes. “Where there is a Brahmin candidate this slogan will be sold to dalits and where there is a dalit candidate this slogan will be sold to Brahmins,” says a BSP worker in Kanpur.

To win over the Brahmins, Mayawati has appointed as her second-in-command a Brahmin lawyer, who was UP’s attorney general when she was the chief minister. Satish Chandra Mishra is an important man in UP today. “My feeling is that Satish Chandra Mishra is also there to take along the state’s powerful Brahmin bureaucracy,” says Ram Kumar, who runs the Dynamic Action Group, an ngo that takes up cases of atrocities against dalits in eastern UP.

And so Sarvesh Shukla reels out figures which, even if they go wildly wrong, could win him the Generalganj seat. However, the other two main parties in the fray — the BJP and the Samajwadi Party — are also planning their electoral arithmetic. For instance, amongst potential voters, Shukla counts the Kashyaps, a dalit caste that traditionally lives and finds work along the river.

A kilometre away from his office is the largely dalit slum settlement on the banks of the dirty Ganga. Like his relatives, Bhaiyyalal Kashyap, a resident, used to work in one of Kanpur’s mills before it closed down. Now they do rajgiri — building houses on daily wages, often in this very slum. Bhaiyyalal stands before his house overlooking the Ganga. A corpse floats in the river. It is a little while before he opens up. “Kashyaps are ‘backwards’,” he says. “They don’t have sc status or OBC status. We are in the middle. Mulayam Singh has promised us OBC status which would get us scholarships and jobs. Perhaps a road may be built leading up to this slum. Mayawati opposes OBC status for Kashyaps. Why would any of us vote for her?” Looks like the Kashyaps won’t be voting for a Shukla contesting on a BSP ticket. Wrong number.

Another kilometre away is the dhobi mohalla of Parmat. Dhobis, traditionally laundrymen, are dalits. Asked if he will pose for a photo ironing a shirt, Dharmendra Kanojia flatly refuses. Unlike his brother, Kanojia says, he doesn’t do this for a living. He works for the local municipal corporation, and his efforts to get his B. Com graduate brother a job have been fruitless because, according to him, all job openings in the state government are cornered by OBCs whenever the SP is in power. This refrain is heard in every dalit basti — in both cities and villages of UP. But this is not the main reason why Kanojia and his family swear by the BSP’s elephant. “I don’t care if the candidate is Brahmin or Yadav or Muslim. It is after all our party,” he says.

Secure in its lock over the dalit vote, the party goes about wooing anyone willing to be wooed — not just the Brahmins. The BSP mobilisation machinery consists of workers from all castes — in proportion to their importance in the party’s electoral strategy. “Like a chemical equation,” as one BSP worker puts it.

Dinesh Tandon, chairman of the Jaunpur Municipal Corporation, is currently serving his second term. He joined the BSP in 1999 and lives in what must be the largest house in Jaunpur — thanks to his flourishing businesses. He is good example of another reason why the BSP needs upper-caste representation in the party. Tandon dutifully spells out all the Sarvajan Samaj theories, and then extends an invitation to the Akhil Bharatiya Vaish Ekta Parishad (All India Vaish Unity Board) rally in Lucknow in March. He is the organisation’s vice-president for UP.

So, why does the Vaish community need to organise itself? “So that politicians across parties recognise our large numbers and accordingly give us election tickets,” he says. He does not see such assertion along caste lines as being inimical to the establishment of a Sarvajan Samaj. After all it fits with the BSP philosophy of “Jiski jitni sankhya bhaari/uski utni bhagidari”. (Loosely — your share of the pie will be determined by your numbers.)

In a village market in the Saedpur constituency — an hour away from Varanasi — Gram Pradhan Awadhesh Kumar Jaiswal is comfortably ensconced in his seat in his cattle-feed godown. BSP flags and hoardings can be seen in the entire market and Jaiswal, a baniya by caste, makes predictable noises: “Who says the BSP is a party of the dalits? Behenji (Mayawati) talks of samta moolak samaj, a society equal for all. We’re all members of the same family.

Jaiswal asks Brahma, one of his workers, to accompany us to a dalit settlement. But Brahma disappears, and Jaiswal then asks a tailor in the neighbourhood who is downing shutters for the day to show us the way. The tailor, Kanhaiyalal Bharti, is a dalit Buddhist activist. He volunteers why Brahma disappeared: “Brahma is Moriya (OBC) by caste and he was too disgusted at the prospect of walking into a basti of Doms and Musahars.

The dalit basti of Dubkiyan stands in stark contrast to the prosperity of other settlements around it. Nand Kishore, a Musahar by caste is a rickshaw-puller. He recounts how, during a marriage in the family, the baraat procession could not come inside the settlement for want of a road. His neighbour Babloo is Dom by caste and cleans latrines. There is no electric supply in the basti. Babloo stands at the edge of his settlement, pointing at an electricity tower in a Brahmin’s mustard field just behind him.

Dalits see the lack of access to bijli, sadak and paani as part of the deliberate deprivation that has always been their lot. In the village of Palamau Kala, on the route from Varanasi to Jaunpur, Ram Surat, a daily-wage labourer points at the road that leads to the Thakur settlement, and another that leads to a Brahmin settlement. But the road to the dalit settlement is yet to be built.

Thirty-five-year-old Arun Kumar works as a tailor in Bheemnagar in Varanasi. Portraits of Mayawati and the late Kanshi Ram, who founded the BSP, hang on one wall of his bare room. He says building an egalitarian society based on the ideals of BR Ambedkar requires taking everyone along. And so, one person from every caste is appointed in every constituency to establish links between his caste and the BSP. Getting the arithmetic right is important even if compromises have to be struck, he says, because, “It is politics, and as Kanshi Ramji said, ‘politics is that key that opens all doors.’”

Mayawati’s dalit supporters hope the BSP will get a full five-year term in office to open the doors for them. The village of Pasiapur in Allahabad district comprises some 500 Pasi (a dalit caste) homes. Residents hope that the BSP will come to power and declare it an “Ambedkar village” and the five hundred rupees that BSP workers collected from every family here will be put to good use in building a colony. Gunnu and Babu Lal, who work as labourers, say they can see how different parties exploit caste.

We voted for the Congress for so many years even though it didn’t ask for votes along caste lines. But they never delivered on development. The BSP is our party, they just might.

Once loyal to the Congress, the dalit voter’s awakening and assertion was capitalised by the BSP in the mid-1980s after the Republican Party of India, founded by Ambedkar, merged with the Congress in the 1970s leaving a vacuum. As part of the drive to increase its support-base, the BSP, ironically, is adopting the traditional Congress strategy of co-opting all castes and communities within an umbrella fold — the difference now is that the dalits are at the helm. The 126 Assembly seats where the BSP is fielding dalit candidates, are largely reserved for the Scheduled Castes anyway — so BJP voters, for instance, end up voting for a dalit BJP candidate. In the remaining constituencies, the BSP has given 55 tickets to Yadavs, 25 to Thakurs and 65 to Muslims. Mayawati’s statement against Islamic fundamentalism in December 2006, which she promptly denied having made, is seen as a tactical move to assure Brahmin voters that, unlike Mulayam Singh Yadav, she is not going to bend over backwards to get Muslim support. But lower caste Muslims also have to be wooed to undermine the SP’s base, just as Mulayam Singh Yadav tries to woo the dalit Pasis by reminding them of their ‘martial’ past. When it comes to undermining caste hierarchies and discriminatory behaviour, these alliances may mean little. Wherever untouchability and discrimination against dalits by savarnas or the Yadavs is a fact of life — mostly in rural areas — it continues, even when they belong to the BSP.

Take the case of the BSP MP from Machlisheher, Umakant Yadav, who allegedly tried his best to save his son who had beaten up a dalit kabariwala, accusing him of theft, and left him critically injured. Yadavs in the local administration, with patronage from the SP, allegedly convinced the victim not to pursue the case. “Umakant openly said that he was with the BSP only till the next elections and would join the SP thereafter,” says Usa, a local dalit activist.

The BSP has been holding gatherings and rallies for two years now to reach out to the upper-caste voter. In a rally in Lucknow, both Mayawati and Satish Chandra Mishra challenged the media to provide evidence that Kanshi Ram or Mayawati had ever used the classic slogan of dalit assertion: “Tilak, Tarazu aur Talwar / Maaro Inko Jootay Char” — calling upon the dalits to rise in revolt against Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Baniyas. It is common knowledge that the slogan was first used in the 1993 elections by BSP workers. But, by 1996 the party had decided to open up to non-dalits.

K. Nath, a dalit writer from Kanpur, thinks the BSP is not interested in delivering anything to dalits. “Kanshi Ram destroyed the dalit movement in UP,” he says. He is an old rpi hand. Congress leaders sent him to 40 villages to find out if the Jatav voters are interested in the party.

They said the wave is for Mayawati because the SP has to be ousted. How can Brahmins who used to abuse Kanshi Ram share power with the BSP?” he asks.

See online : Tehelka

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