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A benign rupture in Uttar Pradesh

Saturday 12 May 2007, by CHANDRA*Kanchan

The BSP is poised to form Uttar Pradesh’s first single party majority government in more than fifteen years. It has won this majority by successfully replicating part of the rainbow coalition that has historically given the Congress its majorities in UP. Congress victories in UP depended upon an alliance between upper castes, Scheduled Castes and Muslim voters. While the BSP’s attempts to appeal to Muslim voters in UP have been erratic, the party has consistently reached out to upper caste voters for over a decade, at first indirectly, through its alliances with the BJP and Congress, and then directly, by appointing upper-caste candidates and office-bearers.

Upper caste candidates were not at first taken seriously by Scheduled Caste voters and met with fierce resistance from BSP workers. In 1996, the same year that the party began to aggressively award tickets to BSP candidates, many of its workers continued to underline the meaning of ‘bahujan’ as “all those not included in the three Hindu upper castes.” Now, ten years later, with brahmins and dalits represented in almost equal numbers in the party’s list of candidates, and with a considerable improvement in its electoral performance, the BSP appears to have consolidated this alliance.

Does that make the BSP equivalent to the Congress party? Many think so, describing the broadening of its social base as the “Congressisation” of the BSP. But this would be a mistake. The groups included in the BSP’s social base may well be the same groups that once voted for the Congress party. But the terms on which these groups have been mobilised could not be more different. The Congress party usually played a coded ethnic card, invoking ethnic identities — identities based on caste, religion, region, language or tribe — quietly in its selection of candidates but not openly in its identification of issues, and targeting these groups through the distribution of patronage but rarely through the rhetoric of identity.

The BSP, by contrast, has always made open appeals to ethnic identity central to its election platform. And the slogan based on which it began appealing to upper-caste voters — “jiski jitni sankhya bhari, uski utni bhagedari” (Each group should obtain a share of political power proportional to its share in the population) — keeps these open appeals to ethnic identity intact. The only difference between this and earlier slogans is that upper castes are now included in the open ethnic appeals while they were earlier excluded.

These open appeals to ethnic identity should not be seen, as they often are, as alarming. Rather, they have had a salutary effect on politics in UP. The coded ethnic appeals made by the Congress party have often been praised for keeping the lines of social division, and therefore the possibility of conflict, blurred. But at the same time, by not naming ethnic categories openly in the political sphere, the Congress party also made it difficult for these categories to be challenged and redefined. As a result, large numbers of voters remained unrepresented in politics. By contrast, the open ethnic appeals made by the BSP and other parties in the past decade have led to the continual redefinition of ethnic identities through politics — and through it, the political inclusion of new groups of voters and representatives.

In 1993, the BSP came to power in UP for the first time by mobilising a new “backward caste” coalition along with the SP. Once this category was openly named, it was also open to challenge. The fierce competition for the vote in UP immediately led to the differentiation of the larger OBC category into smaller component parts, each of which was courted by a different party: the MBCs (most backward castes), the FBCs (the forwards among backwards) and the BFCs (backwards among forwards). Further competition brought further subdivisions. In the elections since, political parties have tried to split up sections of the Scheduled Caste vote by appealing independently to pasis, dhobis and so on, the backward caste vote by appealing independently to lodhs, telis, rajbhars, sainis and so on, and also the upper caste vote by appealing separately to brahmins, thakurs, banias and so on. With each subdivision, new waves of hitherto unincorporated and underrepresented voters, are brought into the political system.

The open appeals to ethnic identity then, have not just gone hand in hand with a democratic upsurge in Uttar Pradesh — they have produced it. In 1985, when the last Congress majority government was elected in UP, 13 parties contested in the UP elections, and voter turnout was 46 per cent. By 2002, following more than a decade of open ethnic politics, the number of parties contesting elections had increased sevenfold to 91 — and the increase in voter turnout, although more modest at 8 per cent, was considerable. The BSP has been one of the main parties responsible for this trend.

Its assumption of power as part of a rainbow coalition will not reverse it. Quite the opposite. We should expect the politics of category construction — and therefore participation — to now become even more intense, as opposition parties in UP try to slice off sections of the BSP’s vote base, and as the BSP responds. In this sense, even though it may have rebuilt the Congress’s rainbow coalition, the BSP’s victory in Uttar Pradesh does not signal a fundamental continuity with the politics of the Congress party. It signals a fundamental — and benign — rupture.

Kanchan Chandra is author of ‘Why Ethnic Parties Succeed: Patronage and Ethnic Headcounts in India’ (Cambridge University Press: 2004)

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