The flight of the backward castes

A  majority of the Jatavs are still with Mayawati in U.P., and most Yadavs with the SP, but there has been a shift in allegiance among the other Dalit and OBC communities

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:37 pm IST

Published - May 12, 2014 12:11 am IST

At almost every rally or, indeed, in the promotional film that was shown in Uttar Pradesh’s villages all through this election, Narendra Modi underlined his humble, backward caste origins. He even turned Priyanka Gandhi-Vadra’s barb about his “ neech rajniti ” (low-level politics) against her to say she had contempt for Other Backward Classes (OBC) like him.

For the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate, hammering home the message that he is an OBC was an imperative: it was, after all, the waning of backward class support for the party in U.P. in the late 1990s that saw its fortunes dip in the country’s most populous State. If the Ramjanmabhoomi movement consolidated the Hindu vote, handing the BJP 52, 52 and 57 Lok Sabha seats in 1991, 1996 and 1998 in U.P., in 1999, growing differences in the BJP’s State unit between the then U.P. Chief Minister, Kalyan Singh, an OBC from the Lodhi Rajput community, and his upper caste colleagues, ended in his publicly appealing to OBCs to vote only for OBCs, even if they weren’t from the BJP. The party’s U.P. Lok Sabha tally dipped to 26 and, soon after, in December that year, Mr. Singh quit the BJP. He returned in January 2004, leaving again in 2009. Back in the party now, he’s lost his magic, with his influence limited to the Lodhs.

Social churning in U.P.

The Ram temple’s shilanyas in Ayodhya in 1989, BJP veteran L.K. Advani’s Ramrath Yatra in 1990 and the Babri Masjid’s destruction in 1992, triggered off a series of communal incidents in U.P.; caste boundaries blurred, the Hindu-Muslim divide sharpened, and the lotus bloomed.

Recalling the early 1990s therefore is key to understanding the current social churning in U.P., that has seen sections of the OBCs (largely non-Yadav) and non-Jatav Dalits moving to the BJP. “The OBC consolidation seen after the Ramjanmabhoomi agitation is visible again, created again by communal violence and hard work by the RSS,” said Dr. Chandrabhushan Ankur, a historian at Gorakhpur University, adding, “also, this is the first time the RSS has permitted an OBC to be the prime ministerial candidate. That itself has sent out a message.”

Indeed, a rejuvenated Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) — with some help from U.P.’s ruling Samajwadi Party (SP) — created and exploited last year’s sectarian violence in Muzaffarnagar to break the Muslim-Jat harmony across west U.P.; other less significant communal incidents in U.P. over the last two years were similarly used to destroy social amity between sections of OBCs/Dalits and Muslims, ensuring that in certain areas they wouldn’t vote together. “In Faizabad, the relationship between Yadavs and Muslims has broken down; in Pratapgarh the equation between Dalits and Muslims has been shattered,” said Padma Singh, a social activist in Allahabad.

The BJP-RSS game plan was to create a Hindu-Muslim divide to detach sections of the OBCs and Dalits from the SP and the Bahujan Samaj Party — and Jats from the Rashtriya Lok Dal. The communal incidents set the stage; the RSS’s highly-charged campaign took it a step further, going door-to-door to Hindu homes. The message: thanks to growing prosperity, numbers and “protection” from the Akhilesh Yadav-led SP government, Muslims were now “even challenging” the powerful landowning Jats; and could, “perhaps,” even displace the Yadavs from their most favoured status. The Sangh’s pracharaks stressed that “predatory Muslims” had embarked on a “love jehad” to “violate the honour’’ of Hindu women, whether from the forward castes or Jat, Yadav, Dalit or any other backward community.

Virender Singh, a Jat farmer in Bijnor, who was arrested for making an inflammatory speech at the Jat mahapanchayat last year in Muzaffarnagar, when asked why some Dalits and OBCs were moving toward the BJP, responded belligerently, “Don’t they have mothers, daughters and sisters?” In Etawah, 400 kilometres from Muzaffarnagar, a Brahmin lawyer said, equally sharply, “Modi will teach the Muslims a lesson, and let them know they can’t fool around with our daughters.”

Having successfully created a Hindu-Muslim divide, and projected Mr. Modi as the first OBC who could become Prime Minister, the BJP reinforced its appeal to the numerically significant OBCs — close to 50 per cent of the population — by nominating OBC candidates in 28 of the State’s 80 seats. Subtly mixing religious mythology with social engineering, the BJP’s propaganda recalled that in the Ramayana , Nishad Raj helped Ram cross the Ganga to reach out to Nishads, Binds and Kushwahas, who live along the river’s banks.

The result: though a majority of U.P.’s 21 per cent Dalits, especially the Jatavs — BSP supremo Mayawati’s own community (12 of the 21 per cent) — are still solidly with her, and most Yadavs with the SP, there has been a shift in allegiance among the other Dalit and OBC communities.

“We voted BSP last time; this time, it will be the lotus,” said Ajay Pasi, in Indalpur, a Pasi-dominated village outside Allahabad, “We want change: the high prices have destroyed us…We think Modi will run a better government.” What about the next Assembly elections? “Oh, we’ll vote BSP again.”

In Sant Kabir Nagar’s Maghar village, the Nishads are split between the Peace Party’s Raja Ram Nishad and the BJP’s Sharad Tripathi. “We’ll vote either BJP or for the Peace Party, but there’s a buzz about the BJP, “ said Kishori Nishad. “Through TV and our mobile phones, we hear so much about Modi’s good work in Gujarat.”

For the moment, the BJP appears to have succeeded in uniting a majority of the upper castes with large sections of the OBCs. But given the traditional rivalries, and past history, can the party sustain this solidarity beyond this election?

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