Bywords in Bundelkhand

On the SP’s problems in rebranding and the BJP’s success in repositioning itself

Updated - December 04, 2021 10:46 pm IST

Published - February 28, 2017 12:15 am IST

In the small cantonment town of Babina, about 20 km from Jhansi, we join an ongoing conversation inside a tailor’s shop. It is a diverse group, Hindu and Muslim, forward caste and backward caste, and some are voting for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) while others for the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), but no one will vote for the Samajwadi Party (SP) in this shop.

“Village after village has emptied out due to Yadav terror. You can go two km from the neher (canal), and see for yourself if I am lying,” whispers the Muslim tailor. He alleges that local Yadavs, under the cover of SP rule, have aggressively seized land from the locals. The fear is palpable; as a Yadav elder walks by the shop, everyone goes silent.

“Akhilesh has done good work, but we can’t have an SP candidate win from here. I will have to vote for the BSP this time,” says the tailor. Mr. Yadav, the incumbent Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, went to the polls showcasing his development work, and he remains highly popular across a broad swathe of the population. His slogan “ Kaam Bolta Hai ” (the work speaks for itself) aims at building a narrative around economic development and popular government-run programmes, but Mr. Yadav has a problem. Whether fair or not, throughout U.P., his party’s organisation is still largely associated with Yadav domination of the local bureaucracy, police, and social structure — and ruling through fear and violence while diverting resources towards their own caste.

Even after a very public battle to rid the SP of undesirable elements, Mr. Yadav has been unable to rebrand the SP as a party primarily concerned with broad-based development (consistent with his own reputation), as opposed to a party that primarily caters to the interests of Yadavs.

SP’s organisational trap

The challenges Mr. Yadav faces in rebranding the SP in his own image raise an important question about electoral politics. Can a political leader ever really dissociate himself from his larger party organisation and the social movement that created it? Since its founding, the SP continues to derive its organisational strength from the support of the All-India Yadav Mahasabha, which promotes a view of a Yadav community that is imbued with extraordinary political skill and a capacity for “muscular” politics. This is not a party structure built to simply take orders from the top; rather, at every level, it is nested within the logic of caste assertion in politics. Simply put, while the Chief Minister Yadav may be able to separate himself from his father at the helm of the party, he cannot separate himself from the party structure his father built.

We meet a family from the backward class (OBC) Rajbhar community on the outskirts of Babina, sitting and chatting in front of their home; all had voted for the SP in the previous Assembly election in 2012, but all will vote for the BJP this time. This region of U.P., Bundelkhand, has been going through a drought over the past few years, and Mr. Yadav’s government has provided relief by depositing money (based on agricultural landholding) to affected farmers. The family, like many others around, seem unclear on how much money was owed to them, but they repeat a rumour we hear often — money was disproportionately diverted to Yadavs and they got very little. True or not, the perception is important. “It isn’t just about doing work, we want someone who treats us all equally,” says a middle-aged man. His younger brother, busy fixing a bicycle, looks up and jumps in: “Akhilesh has done work, but the people working underneath him are rotten. What is Akhilesh supposed to do, bechara (unfortunate one)?”

Repeatedly, one hears this sort of explicitly economic rationale for deserting the SP. It isn’t about caste solidarity. After all, the Rajbhar community is numerically far too small to command a candidate from their own caste in any of the major parties. Rather, it is about fair access to benefits irrespective of caste or religion.

The case for BJP

The Rajbhar man looks up again from the bicycle he’s working on and says, “We need someone like Narendra Modi, who is with all castes.” This language is not unique to the region. In Farrukhabad, next to a bridge over the Ganges, we meet a small shop owner from the OBC Lodh caste who complains, “ Hamari ginti nahin hoti (we are never counted),” bemoaning the fact that his community is not explicitly counted in the caste/religion arithmetic of SP and BSP. Like the Rajbhar family, the shopkeeper’s hopes ride on the BJP. The popular view of the BJP from the ground is of a party that does not see caste, and certainly does not work for a single caste like the Jatavs (BSP) or the Yadavs (SP).

This is an extraordinary reversal from the politics of the 1990s in U.P. The electoral rise of the BSP and SP was built upon a narrative of upper caste domination of the bureaucracy and of parties like the BJP, against which subjugated groups, like the Dalits, OBCs, and Muslims, had to forcefully assert their power. Today, many of those same backward classes seem more willing to ally with upper castes than with Yadavs.

It would be naive to believe that this new image of the BJP isn’t at least in part due to Hindu consolidation through the ideology of Hindutva, but it would be overly simplistic and essentialist to argue that support for the BJP is completely driven by it. The BJP is now led by a backward class leader, in Mr. Modi, and it has been out of power in U.P. since 2002, a period over which the BSP and SP have taken turns demonstrating their identity-based biases to voters in the State. The BJP promises to be something different.

Taking everyone along

A political campaign that started out with larger debates about development and law and order has reverted to the same bald-faced caste/religion arithmetic that has characterised U.P. politics for decades. But the arithmetic is driven by the exact opposite phenomenon as the 1990s, a desire to remove caste and religion as the basis for economic distribution rather than the explicit assertion of it (as in the 1990s).

It’s a stark reminder that politics has a way of eventually catching up with political science. While Jatavs (13% according to the 2011 Census), Muslims (19% according to the 2011 Census), and Yadavs (purportedly around 10%) are numerically large groups, even combined they are far from a majority of the population of U.P. And these groups largely split their support between two parties. In the long run, a party logic that only distributes to a defined small fraction of the population cannot sustain the broad coalitions, across caste and religion, required to win elections. It’s a principle that is showing its teeth at a most inconvenient time for Akhilesh Yadav.

Neelanjan Sircar, Bhanu Joshi and Ashish Ranjan are affiliated with the Centre for Policy Research in Delhi.

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