Soon after Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid the foundation stone for the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya , the Samajwadi Party (SP) announced it would build a 108-feet tall statue of Parshuram , known as the sixth avatar of Lord Vishnu, in Uttar Pradesh. Not to be left behind, Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) chief Mayawati promised to build a bigger statue if she came back to power. Congress leader Jitin Prasada demanded that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government restore Parshuram Jayanti as a State holiday.
These promises and demands are being made to purportedly encash on the perceived discontent and growing sense of victimhood among the Brahmins in U.P., against the backdrop of incidents and crimes where they allege that members of the community were targeted by the police. Given that the government is headed by Yogi Adityanath, a Thakur by birth, the Opposition parties think they have found a chink in the BJP’s armour. They hope to play up the Brahmin-Thakur competitive rift in their favour.
A counterproductive move?
Brahmins constitute roughly 9% of U.P.’s population, according to one estimate, but enjoy disproportionate presence in the media, bureaucracy, education, economy, and judiciary. Their endorsement is sought when elections are round the corner because of their religious influence and cultural capital. While the Opposition’s move is, therefore, not entirely bereft of political pragmatism, their approach is built on obsolete assumptions and erroneous expectations.
For one, the BJP embodies the spirit, ideology and aspirations of the upper castes. In the 2019 general election, 82% of Brahmins voted for the BJP in U.P., according to a survey by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. Brahmins occupy important positions in the Adityanath government. Therefore, the Opposition seems socially disconnected when it imagines that the powerful Brahmin community would throw its weight behind them when the BJP is fulfilling the community’s various demands, including providing a quota for the upper caste poor and building the Ram Mandir.
Second, unlike marginalised communities, the Brahmins are not yearning for an icon. It may sound politically pragmatic to visit the homes of aggrieved Brahmin families, like Mr. Prasada did before the lockdown, to corner the BJP on law and order. But the possibility of achieving something concrete by erecting statues of Parshuram is limited. Doing so may limit the Opposition’s narrative as the BJP has built itself a broad coalition of disparate castes across regions. Also, Parshuram’s story does not enjoy the same emotional appeal among the Brahmins the way Lord Ram or Lord Shiva do, or Lord Krishna does among the Yadavs, or B.R. Ambedkar does among the Dalits. In 2017, for instance, when the BJP government cancelled Parshuram Jayanti as a public holiday, there was hardly any backlash from the community.
In fact, the Opposition’s move could end up alienating other communities averse to the Brahmins, in particular the Thakurs, whose ancestors Parshuram is believed to have slayed. This singular appeasement of Brahmins at a time when sections of Dalits and Other Backward Classes feel short-changed by the government could only push them away further from the Opposition.
A failed strategy
This is not the first time that the BSP and SP are trying to woo the Brahmins. Both SP president Akhilesh Yadav and Ms. Mayawati rewarded them with important posts while in power. Mr. Yadav even built a huge park in Lucknow after Janeshwar Mishra, a former party leader. Ms. Mayawati has regularly demanded a quota for the upper caste poor. However, under the changed scenario of a Narendra Modi-led BJP, and the limits of traditional caste arithmetic catching up, these strategies failed to produce results. The breakup of the SP-BSP alliance after a failed 2019 campaign and the shift of the two parties from the promise of social justice to appropriating Parshuram is perhaps a demonstration of their realisation that the utopian mobilisation of ‘85 vs 15’ (Bahujans versus upper castes) along with Muslims is not practical under the current wave of dominant Hindutva. The contradictions within castes hurt the two parties and haunt their prospects.
If the Opposition parties are interested in altering the political discourse, they need to build trust among the communities within the numerically dominant OBCs and Scheduled Castes who once supported them. For the SP, that would mean shedding its Yadav image and bridging gaps between the Yadavs and other OBCs and Dalits. For the BSP, it would mean building a stronger base of Dalit support beyond the Jatavs and winning back the trust of the MBCs. However, they have not shown any concrete strategy to do so. Playing politics over Parshuram only reflects their lack of imagination and vision.