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Grappling with the new realities of U.P.

Tuesday 10 April 2007, by SUBRAHMANIAM*Vidya

The millennium has brought new dynamics into play in the State. Previous social bases are up for grabs as newly empowered forces turn conventional wisdom on its head.

IN 2002, a tectonic shift transformed the poll landscape in Uttar Pradesh. The Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party, representing soaring subaltern ambitions, raced past the status-quoist Bharatiya Janata Party to become the principal power blocs in a State where the largest vote base had been with one or another national party — with the Congress up until the 1980s and with the BJP through the 1990s.

In that crucial election, the so-called regional parties went mainstream and how — together the SP and the BSP had 241 of 401 seats and their combined vote share was close to 50 per cent. The march of the backwards continued in the 2004 Lok Sabha election — this time the two parties had 57 of 80 seats between them and their combined vote share was a spectacular 60 per cent. Of course, the SP and the BSP would never combine; far from it, they were intractably hostile to each other. Yet because both in their own way spoke for underclass rights and aspirations, their simultaneous ascent acquired the dimensions of a social revolution. Though disunited, they had together brought about the fall of the previously powerful.

Three years later, and with U.P. once again in election mode, the story has become infinitely more complex. The process of displacement that edged out the Congress and the BJP — in that order — looks set to cause further upheavals. If the first half of the decade saw social power shift from forward castes to OBCs and Dalits, today that movement has progressed to the next logical step with Dalit power posing a formidable challenge to OBC power. If Mayawati gets the better of Mulayam Singh in this election, as predicted by pollsters and pundits alike, it would be a truly epoch-making event. The bottom most in the oppressive Indian caste order will have triumphed against near insurmountable odds — and in one of the country’s most socially conservative States. More remarkably, that feat will have been achieved by a process of reverse social engineering — by the co-option of sections of Brahmins and other forward castes by Dalits.

The situation throws up obvious questions: Where do the BJP and the Congress stand in this race? The Congress’ answer to the caste churning in the heartland is the family heir. The one message that Rahul Gandhi propagates on his high energy roadshows is that the Congress knows no caste, no religion: "I’m a Hindustani and for me every Indian is a Hindustani. Development, not caste, is my concern." Admirable sentiments, except in today’s U.P. caste is less a bad word in the earlier sense than a euphemism for radical social transformation. The Congress’ appeal to Hindustani sentiments might not seem out of place given that even a party like the BSP is adventuring beyond its Bahujan base. Yet the Congress would be foolish to miss the difference. The Grand Old Party approached Dalits from a forward caste perspective. In contrast, the BSP is wooing Brahmins from a Bahujan perspective. That Brahmins are open to this idea is an indication of how completely heartland politics has changed since the Congress’ heyday.

The BJP adopted methods seemingly different from the Congress but in fact not so. It co-opted OBCs early in its political journey. Yet at heart it remained a forward caste party, evident from its grudging acceptance of Kalyan Singh and Uma Bharti. The party’s decision-makers were Brahmins and Thakurs though it had figurehead OBC leaders. For all this pampering of its core forward caste voters, today the party feels most betrayed by this constituency. Can there be a greater irony than the BSP’s overture to Brahmins, whom it denounced as manuwadis? And who in turn abhorred the party, indeed quarrelling with the BJP for aligning with it?

Yet circa 2007, the Congress and the BJP are battling brand new ground realities with techniques long past their expiry dates. The Congress with no core vote whatever is in denial about caste. Its hope is that Mr. Gandhi will somehow, anyhow, bring in the votes, enabling the Congress to go back to being the catch-all party that ruled imperiously for decades. On the face of it, the BJP has gifted itself a viable forward caste-OBC coalition in the collective form of Rajnath Singh, Kalyan Singh, and the Apna Dal’s Sone Lal Patel. However, its real agenda is communal — and the evidence, if any were needed, is in the now-withdrawn compact disc distributed to the media in Lucknow. The CD’s contents (revealed in this paper) are crude, offensive, and calculated to provoke Muslim outrage and Hindu counter reaction. Quite clearly, the Hindutva party’s objective is to arrest forward caste departure to the BSP by appealing to its baser instincts. It is the old Mandir versus Mandal formula. Pits Muslims against Hindus to unite the latter.

Can communalism work as a mobilisational tool in an environment where social bases are increasingly unstable, voter loyalties are more fickle than ever before, and new parties are emerging every day? The more oppressed a social group, the more apparently its `will to power.’ In today’s fragmented U.P., a slighted Beni Prasad Verma will rather float his own Kurmi outfit than continue in a Yadav-dominated party that denies him his due. Consider what this means for the BJP. On the one hand, it is faced with the reality of a growing subaltern struggle to find its own leader. On the other, it is up against the prospect of forward castes considering leadership alternatives beyond their own caste groups.

Just how the two opposing trends will impact on the U.P. election is difficult to predict. Suffice it to say that the road ahead is tough for the BJP and tougher for the Congress. The BJP has recalled Kalyan Singh but his battles with the entrenched power elite in the party continue.

The Congress had a vote share of 51 per cent in 1984. It fell headlong from that perch because of its refusal to acknowledge the advent of identity politics. The BJP astutely captured the space vacated by the Congress. To its natural forward caste constituency, it added sections of OBCs and the result was a vote share that hovered in the one-third region for all of the 1990s. Yet the party erred in assuming the situation would remain static. In 1995, the party propped up Ms. Mayawati for Chief Minister. However, for the Hindutva party this was an act of patronage; in the aftermath of that historic event, party bosses would endlessly speak of their magnanimity towards the Dalit ki beti (daughter of Dalits).

Today the boot is on the other leg with the BSP inviting Brahmins to join its ranks, and indeed promising not to discriminate against them! The new millennium has brought new social dynamics into play in U.P. The fractured nature of the State Assembly is a symbol of this restlessness. With every election, the U.P. house has become more hung than before. In 1993, the BJP as the single largest party had a vote share of 33.30 per cent. The SP and the BSP were far behind with vote shares of 21.80 per cent and 19.64 per cent. In 2002, the SP as the single largest party secured a vote share of only 25.37 per cent with the BSP and the BJP close behind with vote shares of 23.06 per cent and 20.08 per cent. In 2007, competition is more cut throat with the poll fray crowded with contestants willing to experiment, willing to go the proverbial extra mile.

The BJP is going through the same pangs as the Congress in the 1980s with the SP and the BSP voraciously raiding its base to augment their own votes. The erosion of the BJP’s vote started prior to the 2002 Assembly election but it was in the 2004 Lok Sabha election that its effect was most startlingly felt. In that election, the party suffered a negative shift of eight percentage points each in its Thakur and Brahmin support (source: National Election Study 2004, Economic and Political Weekly). The party that only six years earlier had a landslide 57 of 85 seats, finished with 10 of 80 seats.

The danger to the BJP has since increased with Ms. Mayawati’s charm offensive on Brahmins. The BSP’s `Brahmin jodo abhiyan’ is an experiment without precedent. It is an audacious proposal for a union between the quintessential manuwadis and the quintessential manu-baiters, with the latter setting the terms of this partnership. Whatever the long-term implications of this strategy — can the BSP escape the rise and fall graph? — it seems to have made the necessary short-term impact. An NDTV exit poll done for Phase I of the ongoing election showed a 22 percentage point drop in the BJP’s forward caste support.

Bewildered by all this, the Congress has made a virtue of necessity. A tally of 40 seats is good enough, party strategists say, arguing that the Congress’ fight will commence only in the next election.

See online : The Hindu

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