Caste seems to be again emerging as a major mobilisational tactic in the run-up to the >2017 Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh . It reminds me of a folk proverb, ‘ Phir baital usi daal par (The baital is sitting on the same branch again)’. Freedom fighter and ideologue of the socialist movement in India, Ram Manohar Lohia, had rightly pointed out that “Indian politics is like an insurance policy. You do not have to invest any premium. Caste may be successfully used as and when required and it will yield back the premium with positive returns and added interest.” Political parties are inventing new methods of electoral >polarisation of caste ahead of the elections .
Parties in India have their ‘base votes’, i.e. the votes of the caste that is powerful under the leadership of a particular party. In U.P., parties are exploring the possibility of ‘stepney caste votes’ to add to their base votes by trying to enter into various kinds of alliances with different castes. In this way electoral democracy is turning into a ‘castocracy’( jatitantra ). One of the strategies to garner stepney votes is by forming alliances with caste-based parties. Many numerically sizeable castes have formed their small caste-based political parties with which bigger political players such as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Samajwadi Party (SP) are forming alliances.
BJP’s alliance spree For instance, the >BJP has an alliance with the Apna Dal (considered to be the party of the Kurmis) and Suheldev Bhartiya Samaj Party (considered to be the party of the Rajbhars). The talk in political circles is that the BJP is working to stitch similar alliances in eastern U.P. with the Janvadi Party and other small parties which are influential among MBC castes such as Lonia, Nonia, Gole-Thakur, Lonia-Chauhan and Dhobhi. The SP is likely to form alliance with the Rashtriya Lok Dal (considered to be the party of the Jats).
>The BJP’s strategy is to focus on the non-Jatav Dalit votes and non-Yadav backward caste votes to add to their core savarna (forward caste) vote bank. To appease its savarna base, the BJP is offering them representation at the organisational level and showcasing its commitment towards Brahminical-Hindutva agendas such as the construction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya. But more importantly, the party is targeting backward castes and Dalit castes. Taking a leaf out of the Bahujan Samaj Party’s (BSP) playbook, the BJP is luring these castes by providing organisational representation, organising caste-based rallies, celebrating festivals in the memory of their heroes and constructing their temples. For the first time it has ensured reservation in posts in the various party committees from booth level to the State level and assigned responsibilities to Dalits, backwards and women. By naming Keshav Prasad Maurya as its State unit president, the party has signalled the importance of castes such as Maurya, Murav and Kachhi to its scheme of things. Plans are also afoot to rope in former Chief Minister Kalyan Singh and his son Rajbir for campaigning in order to win Lodh-Nishad votes.
BJP president >Amit Shah has begun attending caste-based rallies in U.P. He recently addressed rallies of the Maurya and Patel castes at Andawa in Allahabad. At another rally organised at the time of BJP national executive meeting in Allahabad, Prime Minister Narendra Modi mentioned Nishad Raj (deity of the Nishads) at least three times with an eye on the Nishad, Mallah, Kewat communities.
The BSP is falling back on its tried-and-tested ‘social engineering’ effort aimed at Dalit-Brahmin concord besides striving to forge a Dalit-Muslim alliance. Party chief Mayawati plans to offer tickets to Brahmins in large numbers in the forthcoming elections. She has also tried to rein in the party’s Dalit and backward caste leaders’ from aggressively criticising Brahminical rituals and traditions.
From espousing the cause of ‘Bahujan Hitay, Bahujan Sukhay’ in the past — focusing on the disadvantaged communities — she is now advocating a more inclusive ‘Sarvajan Hitay, Sarvajan Sukhay’ line. The BSP provides representation to all castes from the booth level to the State-level committees but without compromising on Dalit and OBC representation.
At the same time, with the BJP looking to poach on her core Dalit vote base, Ms. Mayawati is working on a strategy of keeping her support intact by invigorating the ‘Dalit Bhaichara’ campaign in the reserved constituencies. Simultaneously, she has put a stop to such campaigns in general constituencies in order to attract voters of other castes through broader Bhaichara Samiti campaigns. At a recent meeting in Lucknow, the BSP chief exhorted party leaders and grass-roots workers not to assume that Dalit votes will automatically come to BSP candidates in her name, and urged them to go door-to-door.
SP forced to recalibrate The SP’s landslide win in the last elections was built on the edifice of Yadav-Muslim support, but this time the resentment of Muslims towards the party is palpable. This time, the SP is giving utmost importance to the MBCs. To this end, the party has been trying to confer Scheduled Caste (SC) status on several communities since 2005 when Mulayam Singh Yadav was the Chief Minister. Back then, the State government made amendments in the Uttar Pradesh Public Services (Reservation for Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and other Backward Classes) Act, 1994 to include 17 castes in the SC category, but the move did not get the Central government nod. His son and current Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav has also been rebuffed twice, but the SP is persisting with the demand. The party’s Brahmin outreach is also on course with its celebrations of Parshuram Jayanti and its Brahmin Sammelan.
As the countdown to the Assembly elections begins, it is evident that caste as a tool of electoral mobilisation has lost none of its salience in India’s most-populated State.
Badri Narayan is Professor, Centre for the Study of Discrimination and Exclusion, School of Social Sciences, JNU.