The breaking news is the Congress' discovery of caste in a State synonymous with caste

If election waves could be conjured up in party backrooms, the Congress should have already won Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections-2012 by a mile and more. The loudest noise in this poll season has been around the Congress, with party and pundits alike predicting an ‘almost-there' power burst from the slowest runner on the field.

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This is hugely counter-intuitive in a State where the Congress has no machinery, no leadership, and little evidence of a committed voter base. It also conflicts with ground reports suggesting a pitched battle for top honours between the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and a resurgent Samajwadi Party (SP), followed by the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), but not necessarily in that order.

Up until two months ago, the consensus was that the Congress, which had briefly dazzled in 2009 with 21 Lok Sabha seats against 20 and 23 won by the BSP and the SP, would revert in the Assembly election to its designated place at the bottom of the heap. The party was seen to be hamstrung on multiple counts: corruption charges made worse by Anna Hazare's war-like bombardments, relentless bad news on inflation and Congress star son Rahul Gandhi's fleeting forays that appeared to impact prime time news more than the voters. There was a lazy air to the Congress when every other party seemed to know the importance of tireless leg work in India's star political State: with its many imponderables, oversized cast of big and bit players, and fluctuating caste and community loyalties, U.P. befuddled the sharpest of political minds.

Yet by December 2011, Congress propagandists had sold the line that the party was set for a super-hero sized revival in poll-bound U.P. A look at the party's candidate selection explained why. The Congress has always affected a dislike for caste with Rajiv Gandhi famously comparing caste to cancer in a crushing put down of the OBC (Other Backward Class) movement that followed the implementation of the Mandal Commission's report. Though Brahmins, Muslims and Dalits traditionally formed the Congress' vote base in U.P., the party preferred to frame this support in pan-national terms, clearly unable and unwilling to break away from Jawaharlal Nehru's overarching Constitutional vision. It stuck to this position even after the advent of identity politics under the stewardship of Mulayam Singh and Mayawati.

So, the breaking news in this election is that the Congress has finally taken the caste bull by its horns. Indeed, the secret of the Congress' current confidence is its discovery of caste in a State almost synonymous with caste! In the Congress' list are around 100 OBC and Most Backward Class (MBC) candidates, with the party's presumed Chief Ministerial nominee being Kurmi leader Beni Prasad Verma. (Incidentally, he lost his deposit in the 2007 election). This is how Congress managers have pitched their strategy: With OBCs, Kurmis in particular, making up its base, the party will get its “plus” votes from Muslims and Brahmins, thus beating its caste-building rivals at their own game.

The Congress should have known who it was taking on. Caste-building in U.P. goes back to Charan Singh who put together the formidable AJGAR (Ahir/Yadav, Jat, Gujjar, Rajput) combination. In the early 90's, the BJP ideologue, Govindacharya, gave caste-building a new spin: he called it “social engineering” and co-opted sections of the OBCs into the BJP's essentially forward caste support base. As part of this project, the party projected OBC Lodh leader Kalyan Singh who became Chief Minister, though he eventually departed owing to tensions between the two caste groups. Searching for his own formula, Mulayam Singh added Muslims to his Yadav base. And in 2007, Mayawati rode into history books with her spectacular rainbow combination of Dalits, forward castes, OBCs and MBCs. In the U.P. House of 403, the BSP pole-vaulted from 91 seats with a 23 per cent vote share in 2002 to 206 seats with a 30.5 per cent vote share in 2007 – a 7.5 percentage point jump that made the BSP the first party to get an absolute majority in 17 years. And with that, “plus” votes (votes other than the base vote), a coinage of that election, entered the vocabulary of journalists, politicians and pollsters.

Today, the chemistry that brought the BSP to power has dissipated. The forward castes who queued up behind “Behenji,” marvelling at her many qualities, including her grip over the administration, have fragmented in favour of the BJP, and astonishingly towards the SP, which they abhorred, in some places. In retrospect, it would seem that it wasn't a change of heart that facilitated the forward caste movement towards the Dalit-based BSP, but a determination to oust the then Mulayam Singh regime. Today, as the BSP — a house badly in disorder because of wholesale dismissal of ministers and sacking of half the sitting MLAs — struggles to keep its place, it is the SP that seems ahead in the “plus” vote calculations, with the party looking to add forward castes and a chunk of MBCs to its support base of Yadavs and Muslims.

It ought to be clear to anyone watching U.P. that the core vote is a loyal vote that takes years to build. For all their disillusionment with Mayawati, her Dalit voters will not easily desert her. The same is true of the Yadavs for whom the SP was and will be supreme. The first preference of the forward castes will always be the BJP though this group has since started voting tactically to be able to get a share in power. When a party's core vote fragments, it is a sign of danger. And without the core vote, there can be no “plus” votes.

In battleground U.P, the BSP and the SP are naturally advantaged because of their loyal vote base. The BSP is the only party with an assured and transferable base vote. So Mayawati will have only herself to blame if she surrenders her party's unbeatable USP. The Congress, a late starter in the caste business, must ask itself if it can manufacture an overnight core vote, let alone build a castle upon it. For its part, the BJP, which has brought back Uma Bharti in a desperate move, must know the glory days have long since gone.

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