This is the draft of the edit I wrote for EPW published in the 18-24 April, 2009 edition.
[Uttar Pradesh as a bellwether province in the Indian general elections; then and now.]
For many elections after independence, Uttar Pradesh (UP) remained central to the formation of any government at the Centre. It was, and remains, the largest contributor of parliamentarians to the Lok Sabha. UP’s centrality to Indian politics also derived from the fact that it played the role of a political bellwether in the first nine elections. The party which won UP formed the government at the Centre. But it was not merely an electoral bellwether but also was the arena where the strategy of social coalitions forming a majority under the Congress umbrella was built and worked out. The ability of the Congress in welding and managing an electorally successful social alliance of Brahmins, Dalits and Muslims has been much commented upon as has been the gradual withering away of this bloc with the emergence of caste and religion based politics.
With the decline of the Congress’ social alliance, also declined UP’s role as political bellwether of national electoral contests. On the debris of the Congress’ social alliance emerged two different forms of political forces. On the one hand were the caste-community based political parties – the Samajwadi Party (SP) and its earlier version, the Janata Dal, and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), and on the other was the religion defined BJP.
The SP represented the interests of that peasantry which had benefitted from the abolition of zamindari (large landed estates) but still felt their social progress hindered due to lack of education, political power and ritual status. This section is popularly referred to as the other backward classes (OBC) and the yadavs formed the dominant group within them. The SP managed to weld a political alliance of the yadavs with the muslims which, though smaller than the earlier Congress social alliance, became a powerful political force in the fragmented stage of post-Mandal UP.
The BSP consolidated the Dalit vote under its banner. Even though there was one attempt by the SP and BSP (representing broadly the shudra and dalit castes respectively) in the mid 1990s, to come together in a political alliance, it was a disaster. While the social groups represented by these parties were all struggling for similar demands, the distinctions between their class and social backgrounds proved insurmountable. The rich peasant base of the SP, while ritually below the upper castes and struggling for a foothold in the urban networks of power and privilege, were – crucially – outside the stigma of untouchability. The dalits, on the other hand, were largely left out of landed property and remained severely discriminated and marginalised. But, unlike the OBC caste-communities, some dalits had managed to use reservations to breach the barricades to Government service, and thus power. Given the impossibility of further radical land reforms, it proved impossible for these two socially discriminated groups to ally politically with each other as they were fighting for a share of the same pie.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), in contrast, tried to weld a dominant political constituency around a radical-right Hindutva agenda. Their core support came from the two upper castes of brahmins and rajputs. The upper castes seemed to find refuge and defence against the assertive lower castes in the BJP, but could never attract a sufficiently large OBC or dalit bloc to augment their position and thus found themselves inadequate without political allies. They did try to revive the old Congress alliance, sans muslims, by propping the BSP up and making Mayawati the chief minister twice. This too proved unworkable since the dalits, unlike in the earlier decades, were not anymore willing to be passive recipients of patronage.
The BSP and its leader Mayawati learnt the, seemingly, correct lessons from the fragmentation of the 1990s. She had already consolidated the dalit vote into a formidable bloc as the BSP and had learnt to leverage it for political positions. She now worked to build bridges with the brahmin voters and also bring the muslims closer to the BSP. It was a mirror of the old Congress social alliance, but now under the leadership of the dalits. This strategy was a winner in the UP legislative assembly elections in the summer of 2007, when the BSP rode on a dalit, brahmin, muslim consolidation to become the first party in many years to get a simple majority.
But social prejudice and contempt for the supposedly untouchable dalits remains strong, specially among the upper castes. The immediate reason for the brahmins coming to the dalit dominated BSP in 2007 – the need to defeat the SP and the political challenge of the OBCS – no longer remains a pressing issue. Further, the strong anti-incumbency against SP too is not a factor anymore, rather Mayawati could herself be the target of some incipient anti-incumbency feelings. This parliamentary election is therefore a litmus test for Mayawati’s new political alliance. If the upper castes remain largely with the BSP under dalit leadership, it could signal the birth of a new dominant power group in UP politics. It would also have wider implications for politics and social life in India as the willingness of the upper castes to continue in a political alliance dominated by dalits could indicate a weakening of the caste prejudice among the former. In that sense, the results from UP could again be a bellwether in this election and, will therefore, be eagerly awaited.
~~ ~~ ~~