UP breaks caste mould; old poll arithmetic goes awry

It’s not over yet, but already the outlines of what could happen in Uttar Pradesh are visible. Opinion polls, exit polls and post-poll surveys often tend to go wrong, especially when it comes to translating vote shares into seats in a first-past-the-post system. That, too, in a four-cornered contest, where margins of victories tend to be small.

But the broad trajectories cannot be denied. A CNN-IBN-The Week post-poll survey gives the Samajwadi party (SP) 34 percent of the vote and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) 24 percent – a gap wide enough to withstand skepticism.

So, from all accounts, the Samajwadi Party looks likely to either emerge as the single largest party or even with a majority of its own. The BSP could be second, with a sharply depleted strength, the BJP third and the Congress fourth. Rahul Gandhi’s efforts have been in vain.

If she fails to come back to power, it means caste alone is not enough to get you through. AFP

However, it is not the purpose of this article to focus on winners and losers, but to make broader points about long-term trends in the Indian polity – as reinforced by the Uttar Pradesh results, and likely trends in Punjab, Uttarakhand, Goa and Manipur.

Trend 1: Class is emerging as a new factor and challenging caste and religion.

A big takeout from Uttar Pradesh could be that all castes – including the Dalits – are beginning to vote not only by caste, but also by their new-found class.

If Mayawati fails to come back to power, it means caste alone is not enough to get you through. Caste loyalties work when identity alone is overwhelmingly important and there is some existential threat to castes (or religions) for some reason.

Consider the numbers shown by the CNN-IBN-The Week poll. According to this post-poll survey, which took care to ask how castes and religious communities may have voted, Muslims did not vote more than usual for the Samajwadi Party at around 49 percent. Nor did they get too swayed by the Congress’ quota promise – even though they liked the idea. This suggests that the Muslim vote is a partial myth – since a majority of them (51 percent) votes for other parties, including Congress and BSP.

While Mulayam Singh’s so-called Yadav core vote remains with him, he seems to have lost some support even here (down from 73 percent to 68 percent), and has instead gained among Brahmins (up 11 percent to 21 percent).

Most surprising, Mayawati’s core vote of Jatavs actually seems to be willing to give SP a chance, with 21 percent of Jatavs (up 17 percent) voting for the party.

What all this suggests is that Dalits who have moved out of the identity phase of development and self-respect are now beginning to vote with their class interests – the so-called bijli-sadak-pani vote. Brahmins – once a solid vote bank for the Congress or the BJP – are willing to test the waters with SP.

We will have to await the final polling figures for a more detailed analysis, but the early results show that caste is no longer the overwhelming reason to vote for a particular party.

Trend 2: Shift towards the regionalisation of politics is clear – and inevitable.

The Uttar Pradesh elections emphasise the reality that national parties and causes are almost irrelevant in most state assembly elections. This is why the Congress and BJP are fighting for the bottom two slots – and not the first two.

The overwhelming majority of Indian states are now run either by regional parties, or national parties in combination with regional parties (Bihar, Maharashtra, Kerala). Alternatively, the choice is between a national party and a regional one (Assam).

Where national parties seem to rule – Gujarat, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh – the triumph, in fact, is not really that of the national parties, but strong regional leaders. Narendra Modi in Gujarat, BS Yeddyurappa in Karnataka, Raman Singh in Chhattisgarh, Shivraj Singh Chauhan in MP, and YSR in Andhra Pradesh (in the last election) – were the real vote winners in their respective states. If the Congress wins Punjab this time, it will be because of strong local leadership in the form of Amarinder Singh.

Continues on next page..

This is not to deny the importance of party organisation and ideology, but the essential ingredient in winning any major state now is to have either a regional agenda or a strong regional leader who can steer the national parties to victory. The Congress, which seems less comfortable with regional satraps compared to the BJP, is thus less likely to win future confrontations at the state level unless it emphasises on local leaders. A Beni Prasad Verma is neither here nor there. It has no replacement for YSR in Andhra, and Kiran Reddy is likely to lead it to defeat.

In Andhra, the Congress needs a strong regional leader – and it has one in Chiranjeevi of the Praja Rajyam, which merged itself in the Congress. But the party does not seem willing to risk strong regional leaders – as its decision to turf out Jagan Reddy after YSR’s death shows.

Though Rahul Gandhi may end up having egg on his face after Uttar Pradesh, the message to the Congress is not that he is a zero, but that the party has no leadership in UP. Rahul can be a hero only if he can rely on developing more regional heroes in the states. Having the family as a centralising influence may work for national elections, but not for regional elections.

In essence, India is federating politically at a rapid pace – and no one can stop this process.

Trend 3: Past achievement is no longer enough. Electorate aspirations are spiralling.

Few people disagree with the proposition that Mayawati improved the law and order situation and gave Dalits a reason to think they are now no longer excluded from the power or social structure.

However, this is not going to be enough. The electorate will always ask for more. Elections are about the future, and not the past. If parties want to succeed they will have to offer a future, not talk about the past. If the Akali Dal-BJP combine loses in Punjab, it will be because it did not offer something for the future – for its past record on growth is not bad at all. Ditto for Uttarakhand.

Like BJP’s India Shining campaign in 2004 – which only angered the poor who felt left out – Mayawati’s achievements in law and order and improving growth in the state have been taken for granted. What worked in 2007 may not work in 2012. She would have had a better chance if she had talked about what was ahead in her next administration rather than what she did in the past. This is the reason why a section of the Dalits, too, may have shifted allegiance.

There is a message in this for Nitish Kumar as well.

Rahul Gandhi’s efforts to discredit Mayawati may have actually forced Dalits to re-examine what she had done for them, and they may have shifted to SP in the process – since that party seemed to talk development rather than sectarianism.

The Congress, to its credit, offered one new thing – a quota for Muslims – but this was too little, too late for a party that came to power at the centre in 2004 and instituted the Sachar committee. It’s delivery on promises to Muslims was poor.

The BJP tried to play the quota card in reverse – by trying to scare OBCs about the possibility of Muslims eating into their shares. But it is not clear if this got them any extra votes. The BJP, too, had little to offer for the future.

Trend 4:  But there is still space for parties based on identity.

Religion has lost its ability to deliver a core vote for any party – unless there is any existential threat to a community, as was the case in 1991 and 2002 with Muslims. But those fears are abating.

There is no pure Hindu vote, there is no Muslim vote. Or, for that matter, a pure caste vote.

However, there is still space for parties to win votes on the basis of an identity projection. This is why Mulayam Singh gets 68 percent of the Yadav vote.

However, missing in this whole picture is a Muslim party – given that UP has 18 percent Muslims. One needs to see whether the Peace Party of India will develop as a Muslim party like AUDF in Assam, MIM in Hyderabad and IUML n Kerala.

The UP results are not clear on this, but it seems likely that ultimately all communities will rediscover the power of agency – and would not want to be represented by proxy. This is what the Kerala model suggests – where each community has its own party.

In the ultimate analysis, all communities – religious or caste – want to be represented by leaders who have a real share of power and are not token representatives.

The big national parties have to promote genuine leaders from major communities to carry weight with these communities.