Outcomes in Bihar and U.P. will primarily define the shape of the 16th Lok Sabha as the religion vs. caste question plays out

The results of the 2009 Lok Sabha election were interpreted as a definitive reversal of the Congress decline that started in 1989 and a demonstration of the limits of political mobilisation based on caste and religion. These assumptions appear challenged now, on the eve of the 16th general election.

While the Congress has not kept up its momentum, the BJP, after being out of power for a decade, seems to have recovered some lost ground. The key questions on everyone’s mind seem to be whether the Congress will score its lowest tally and the BJP its highest. The change in the fortunes of both parties was in some ways foretold in the 2009 results.

In that election, national issues drove the outcome, contrary to what was by then received wisdom — that the general election in India had become an aggregate of several regional elections. The welfare politics of the United Progressive Alliance-1 and the perception of its being a performing government were pan-Indian in nature. The prospects of a national agenda, as opposed to particular issues concerning a caste or region, have only brightened since.

The anti-corruption movement and the protests across the country after the Delhi gang rape in December 2012 were clear indicators of such pan-Indian concerns leading to political mobilisation. Is there any such sentiment sweeping across the country now, and if yes, what is it? The BJP hopes that concerns over corruption, leadership and stability cut across regions and castes, and that it stands to benefit from them.

Secondly, the 2009 results indicated that the voting preferences of various castes and classes had become less divergent than before; also that, the variation in the preferences of women and men and the urban and rural electorate had narrowed. Two subsequent Assembly elections in the heartland of identity politics underlined this trend.

The huge victory of Nitish Kumar in Bihar in 2010 and of Akhilesh Yadav in Uttar Pradesh in 2012 was grounded in a rainbow social coalition that brought together all castes and communities. The implication of loosening of caste as a primary identity is that it opens up immense possibilities for the BJP, though this by no means marks the end of caste-based parties such as the Rashtriya Janata Dal, the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party. The search for universal causes is the propelling force of the Aam Aadmi Party. However, in the heartland, over the past 25 years, caste and religion have alternated as the primary force of political identity. If it is religion this time, the BJP will stand to gain.

After being relatively insignificant in the formation of the last two Lok Sabhas, the outcomes in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh will primarily define the shape of the 16th Lok Sabha as the religion vs. caste question plays out. Indications of a religious polarisation are visible in both States. Unless it gets a majority of the 120 seats here, the BJP will have limited chances at forming a government at the Centre. That is why the 2014 election will be fought in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar more than in any other State — by the BJP and those who want to stop it.

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