Shifting caste dynamics

UP Elections
Last Updated 30 November 2021, 05:00 IST

The future of major political parties is at stake in the upcoming Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh. The current BJP regime appears defensive due to the deplorable law-and-order situation and the farmers’ protests. Though, as a desperate move, Prime Minister Narendra Modi repealed the three controversial farm laws, the impact of the farmers’ agitation will haunt the state and central regimes for some time to come.

Further, in the last two years of the coronavirus pandemic, the lower middle-class sections, mainly people engaged in small businesses, retailers and skilled workers, have faced a severe economic burden. The government failed to provide the needed welfare package to help the depressed classes. Noticing that the issue of economic crisis would create discontent against the government, the Congress has already blown the campaign bugle with promises of populist welfare policies. The Samajwadi Party (SP) is steadily building effective social and political alliances with crucial castes and communities to retain its vital social base. It is only Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) that seems to have made no effort to project itself as an important political contender.

The issues related to farmers and economic distress of the lower classes will surely impact the electoral outcomes. However, it is the traditional caste-based compositions and political calculations that will determine the final verdict. While conventional dominant castes may retain their hegemony over democratic processes and institutions, this election will also invite a new focus on the subaltern marginalised communities amongst the OBCs and Dalits as parties try to retain or gain their support.

Each party is structured around conventional castes and community-based support. The BJP has breached the ‘Brahmin-Bania’ exclusivity as vulnerable sections amongst the OBCs and the lowest-rung Dalits have voted for the Hindutva camp, making it a formidable organisation. The SP and BSP are compartmentalised as exclusive Yadav and Jatav-based parties and against their political domination, the lowest rung of the OBCs (like Kurmis, Kushwahas, Rajbhars, Lodhs, Saini, etc) and Dalits (Kori, Valmiki, Pasi, etc) are marked as communities that have close affinities with the BJP.

Though these groups have supported the BJP in the last three elections, the BJP regimes at the Centre and in the state have shown limitations in providing social or class empowerment to the worst-off Dalits and OBCs. On economic development, educational and health or even political participation, these groups are still marginalised. Even in the allocation of important positions of power, the lower OBCs and Dalits have not gained much space. Such neglect will allow them to recalculate their political options this time.

Importantly, to counter the BJP’s impressive social engineering, the task of the Opposition is not only to retain their traditional support bases but to attract newer classes and communities. If the opposition parties provide substantive recognition and representation to the growing concerns of the subaltern castes and the interests of the worst-off communities, it will bring a dynamic change in UP politics.

Conventionally, the SP is framed as the party of the Yadavs, supplemented by strong Muslim support. The SP built such camaraderie with Muslims as during the Ram Temple-Babri Masjid controversy, then UP Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav had showed gutsy secular credentials by stalling Lal Krishna Advani’s Rath Yatra and later ordered his arrest. Since then, Muslims had no qualms in supporting the SP. Yadav-Muslim is a significant force in districts of Western UP. However, if the party gains crucial support from the EBCs in other districts, it can emerge as an important challenger to the BJP. It appears that the SP has already moved in this direction as it has formed electoral ties with Omprakash Rajbhar’s Suheldev Bhartiya Samaj Party. This approach can be a game-changer. Further, it is also eyeing the disillusioned young Dalit voters because of their growing distance from the BSP.

The Congress is the weakest in UP and without any substantive mass base, it is looking unimpressive. However, the regional leadership looks motivated and ready to toil harder under Priyanka Gandhi’s leadership. The party has improved its image as a vital opposition party by organising street protests (especially during the rape and murder of Dalit girls in Hathras) and by making bold promises of social equity, women’s empowerment and welfare policies. Compared to any other party in UP, the Congress is putting more effort into building a substantive opposition and also flagging innovative ideas to mainstream crucial issues related to Dalits, farmers and women. Though it is very early to judge the impact of its activism, if the Congress succeeds in attracting a sizeable section of the upper caste voters (like the EBC Brahmins) alongside the lowest rung of Dalit voters, it will be a promising restart for the party for the 2024 general elections.

Until recently, the BSP was heralded for building a ‘silent revolution’ in India’s democracy as it made the Dalits a powerful political category in national politics. Though the Dalits emerged as vanguard leaders of Bahujan politics, the party failed to build a crucial Dalit-OBC unity in the state. Though BSP’s ability to mobilise the Dalit masses has depleted and it has been relegated as a narrow Jatav party, it remains a force in the state. In the current elections, if the party consolidates its strong Jatav base and also succeeds in mobilising the low-ranked OBCs under the Bahujan tag, it can re-emerge as a significant formation. Though the possibility of the BSP also gaining support from the Brahmins appears farfetched, based on its selection of upper caste candidates, it can also make a crucial dent in the BJP’s social base.

A four-cornered electoral contest would test each party’s capacity to improvise on its conventional support base. It will be difficult for the BJP to retain its lower caste support base as the SP and BSP would also be eyeing the same terrain. Because the marginalised groups are not satisfied with the performance of the Yogi regime, even a small shift of these groups towards the SP or the BSP will be a big jolt to the BJP’s prospects. BJP will depend on an aggressive ‘Hindutva agenda’ as there will be few takers for its ‘politics of development’ rhetoric.

Importantly, in such a context, it is the EBCs and the lowest Dalit castes that will gain better political visibility and more bargaining power. It will push all parties to democratise their organisational structures and allow the historically subaltern communities to engage in mainstream democratic processes as significant players.

(The writer teaches at the Centre for Political Studies, JNU)

(Published 29 November 2021, 04:59 IST)

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