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A new caste formula

Saturday 18 June 2005, by RAMAKRISHNAN*Venkitesh

in Lucknow

The BSP’s efforts to reach out to the Brahmin community point to the party’s plans to forge a new Brahmin-Dalit-Muslim social alliance in Uttar Pradesh.

THE caste-oriented politics of Uttar Pradesh entered a new era on June 9 with the Brahmin Maha Rally organised by the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in Lucknow. Almost every feature of the rally, from its noticeable social and political facets to its not-so-distinct dimensions of realpolitik, denoted that politics in the State was acquiring new qualitative and quantitative characteristics. It indicated that the cauldron of caste politics in Uttar Pradesh would witness some new churning in the days to come.

To start with, it was for the first time in the history of the State that a party professing essentially to champion the interests of "the oppressed Dalit community" organised a rally dedicated exclusively to the interests of the community at "the highest end" of the very caste system that the party used to term "oppressive". Second, and perhaps more interestingly, the response, in terms of numbers, from the Brahmin community to the call from the "Dalit party" was not insignificant. Third, the call and the response to it provoked discussions about the development of a new and powerful social combination - comprising Dalits, Brahmins and Muslims - capable of significantly impacting electoral equations in Uttar Pradesh.

The most conspicuous element of the rally was the BSP’s change of attitude towards Brahmins and vice versa. Almost all the happenings at the rally, from the manner in which BSP president and former Chief Minister Mayawati was greeted and received at the venue to the speeches made by the leaders and the response from the participants, highlighted this change.

As Mayawati arrived at the venue, she was greeted with Brahminical rituals. A group of priests chanted Vedic hymns and blew conches. Brahmin leaders of the BSP, including Sudhir Chandra Mishra, Rajya Sabha member and the chief organiser of the rally, presented her with various gifts. Among them was a silver axe, the weapon of Parasurama, the warrior saint who vowed to kill all Kshatriyas, professedly to protect the Brahmin community. As all these unfolded, the crowd chanted not only the BSP’s traditional slogan of "Jai Bheem" (alluding to Dr. B.R. Ambedkar), but also "Jai Parashuram". Clearly, Parasurama had emerged as a new political icon of the BSP.

Responding to the reception, Mayawati said that her party was never against the upper castes or the Hindu religion. "We were branded as anti-upper castes and anti-Hindu by Manuvadi vested interests, including political parties and sections of the media." In stating this, Mayawati gave up the one slogan - "Tilak, tarazu aur talwar/inko maro joote chaar" (thrash the Brahmin, the Bania and the Rajput with shoes) - that helped the BSP to aggressively pursue its pro-Dalit agenda during the 1980s and 1990s. The BSP chief’s contention was that none of her party leaders had ever raised the slogan. She added that the BSP was only opposed to certain discriminatory tendencies and attitudes prevalent in Hindu society, such as caste oppression, and not to the upper castes as such.

Mayawati said that her party had been making concerted efforts to publicise this understanding and the efforts had started yielding positive results in the past few months, especially among Brahmins. In a clear political message, she added that the new, growing positive appreciation of the BSP among the State’s Brahmins would be beneficial for the community in electoral terms because the party leadership had decided to give the ticket to more members of the community in all future elections.

The crowd greeted these pronouncements enthusiastically. Sixty-four-year-old Niranjan Pandey, who travelled from Mirzapur in eastern Uttar Pradesh to participate in the rally, was certain that the new social alliance would benefit Dalits and Brahmins and uplift both communities. Pandey and his friend Devendra Mishra believe that Mayawati and the BSP had come a long way from the "beat-the-Brahmins-with-shoes" days. "In the last couple of years, only her party had come to our rescue when we faced attacks from communities such as Thakurs and Yadavs," Mishra said. He said that the BSP leader enhanced the dignity of Brahmins by appointing them to high positions in her party.

Speaking to Frontline, BSP general secretary Sudhir Chandra Mishra - one of the Brahmins holding a high position in the party - said that it was the "helplessness of Brahmins before the Thakur and Yadav dons, who have the patronage of the Samajwadi Party (S.P.), that motivated the party leadership to take up the cause of Brahmins". Mishra said that Mayawati had done much more to protect and uplift the social and political dignity of Brahmins than the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party, which claimed to be the benefactors of the upper castes. "These parties were just using us as vote banks and the time has come to get away from their clutches," Mishra said.

The BSP leader added that the Brahmin community was well on the way to sidelining the Congress and the BJP and aligning with a "real leader". Mishra said: "The community’s conferences in districts such as Pratapgarh, Allahabad, Gonda, Gorakhpur, Kannauj and Sultanpur and the State level rally of June 9 clearly point towards a process of liberation."

But not everybody is ready to accept this theorisation that seeks to highlight the BSP’s overtures to Brahmins in terms of the party’s philanthropic ideals. According to Ramakanth Vajpayee, a former BJP activist who is currently associated with the BSP initiative, the present process is a marriage of convenience for both the party and sections of the Brahmin community in the State. He pointed out: "The BSP, like all other big parties in the State, has realised that it has reached a saturation point of support within its core caste support base in the Dalit Chamar community. Its leadership knows that it has to win over other communities if it has to enhance its strength and influence in the State’s polity, and hence the new love for Brahmins."

The crux of Ramakanth Vajpayee’s contention has reflected in the strategies adopted by all important parties in Uttar Pradesh during the past one decade. It was the BJP that first tried to add value to its core support base by bringing together social groups beyond that base. This was done right from the early 1990s by projecting the concept of a pan-Hindu identity. The party clubbed its manifestly upper-caste Hindutva ideology with the projection of Other Backward Class (OBC) leaders such as Kalyan Singh, Uma Bharati and Vinay Katiyar. S.P. leader and Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav and party general secretary Amar Singh followed the same strategy in a different form when they successfully forged a social combination of the OBC Yadav community with Muslims and Thakurs during the past decade. In short, all the parties devised ways and means to add a new community to their core caste-based vote banks. The outcomes of the last few elections in the State have underscored this trend. The BSP’s Brahmin initiative clearly belongs to this genre.

BUT what motivated Mayawati and the BSP to woo the Brahmin community? One of the factors, according to BSP ideologues, is that there is greater social compatibility between Dalits and Brahmins than there is between Dalits and intermediate castes such as Yadavs. Kanshi Ram, the BSP founder, told this correspondent in 1995 that the alliance with upper castes, especially Brahmins, would work better for Dalits because the communities are not in direct conflict at the level of everyday life. He said: "This is not the case with communities like Yadavs, who have become land-owning classes only in recent times. Our experience is that there is a continual conflict with these classes at the social level."

Kanshi Ram made these comments while justifying the BSP’s first-ever alliance with the "upper caste" BJP in 1995. He said that one of the reasons for the collapse of the 1993 S.P.-BSP alliance experiment was the conflict between Dalits and intermediate castes. Obviously keeping Kanshi Ram’s views in mind, the BSP has made some advances towards the Brahmin community in every election in the past few years. In the last Assembly polls, the party gave the ticket to 26 Brahmins and got six of them elected. In the 2004 Lok Sabha polls it gave the ticket to six Brahmins and got one of them elected. This process got a fillip after the last Lok Sabha polls.

The Brahmin community in the State was veering towards the Congress immediately after the 2004 Lok Sabha elections and the defeat of the BJP. But large sections of the community realised that the Congress was not making much progress in building up a good organisation in Uttar Pradesh, despite being in power at the Centre. These sections were ready to gravitate towards any party that would provide them with a core vote base so that they could add this to their individual support base and get elected to positions of power. "This is when the BSP leadership saw a chance to make quick political capital using the community and started wooing them," a senior Congress leader pointed out.

The fact that the rainbow social coalition of the Congress that helped the party hold sway over Uttar Pradesh politics for nearly four decades after Independence consisted mainly of the upper castes, Muslims and Dalits is clearly a factor that has been taken into account by the BSP leadership. Until the last elections, it received large chunks of the Dalit vote and a significant segment of the Muslim vote, but only a minuscule portion - less than 5 per cent - of the upper-caste vote. According to a senior BSP leader, the party is confident that it can dramatically alter equations even if it is able to garner one-tenth of the total upper-caste vote.

Time alone can tell whether the calculations of the BSP leadership will yield the expected results. But there is little doubt that the Brahmin rally has pumped a new energy into the party’s vote-enhancing tactics.

See online : Frontline


Volume 22 - Issue 13, Jun 18 - Jul 01, 2005

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