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BJP's staggering near 50% vote share in Uttar Pradesh indicates change in usual caste politics, party's influence across communities

Usually, the rest of India looks down on Uttar Pradesh, which I believe is quite unfair. In many parts of the country, the migrant natives of Uttar Pradesh are tormented by local politics. In places like Maharashtra and Gujarat, where people from Uttar Pradesh have done really well as hardworking contributors to the economy, they have been manhandled in the past.

There was a television show on a news channel a few years ago that reflected this. It had polled Indians on culture and music and so on. The questions included ones like which is the best ever cinema song. On that particular question, experts in the studio were completely wrong as they had picked classics by Lata Mangeshkar and Kishore Kumar. But what was, in fact, seen as the all-time best song was something very recent. I think it was from a Shah Rukh Khan film.

Another question that flabbergasted the experts was on the favourite state of India, meaning which did Indians see as the best. The experts picked Goa and Kerala, except for Rajiv Shukla, who insisted that the most popular state among Indians would be Uttar Pradesh. He turned out to be right, to the shock of the others, who probably saw Uttar Pradesh the same way many urban Indians do — as a "bimaru state".

 BJPs staggering near 50% vote share in Uttar Pradesh indicates change in usual caste politics, partys influence across communities

File image of UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. PTI

However, in this election, Uttar Pradesh has certainly become the favourite. Whether one wants the BJP to win or the SP-BSP alliance, it is becoming clear that Uttar Pradesh will decide whether Narendra Modi will remain prime minister.

The state sends 80 MPs to the Lok Sabha. The BJP had won 71 of these 80 constituencies in 2014. If the BJP again wins Uttar Pradesh, it will have substantially upended the conventional political science theories that centre around caste. The understanding is that political parties have a primary caste base. For instance, the BJP in Gujarat is a party mainly of Patels, the Samajwadi Party and Janata Dal (Secular) of the Yadavs and so on. The party keeps these communities with it by sharing political power with them, giving its members tickets to contest polls and ministries and other perks.

Once in power, it also ensures that political patronage in the form of government jobs and reservations and such direct means of payback are enforced. These caste-based parties are able to transfer their votes when they form alliances, and therefore, alliances are politically beneficial.

The BJP, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, appears to be altering this tradition in North Indian states. It is overturning in noticeable ways the traditional, caste-based politics. It doesn't make sense for a single party to approach 50 percent of the vote share. This is because its patronage will be distributed over a much wider social grouping, where each community gets less. But the BJP, indeed, touched 50 percent of the vote share in Gujarat and is approaching it even in India's most populous state.

You could argue that it is possible for a party to offer so much more than its rivals that it can legitimately command the support of half or more of the voters. Perhaps. But it is difficult to see this happening in a nation as poor as India where poverty and unemployment are facts of life. It is the middle class that can afford to pick a government on the basis of military action abroad.

For most of us, real delivery by the government is something that affects everyday life. The fact is that no government can produce much difference in everyday life for all, and therefore, it is is vital that community interests be secured through political patronage.

The BJP won a staggering 42 percent of the votes in Uttar Pradesh in 2014. It held on to this three years later, taking 41 percent in 2017's Assembly election. Staggering because such a large vote share has not been required to win Uttar Pradesh before. The Samajwadi Party had won a full majority in 2012 with 29 percent of the vote.

Modi's post-caste coalition seems to have changed the game. Mayawati secured 20 percent of the votes in 2014 but won zero seats. The Samajwadi Party got 22 percent and won only five. If there is a total transfer of votes from one party to another, or vice versa, in their alliance this time, the two sides are dead even in their match-up. In that sense, it will be a match between the old caste politics and something new, which we have not fully understood.

In the 2017 Assembly polls, the Samajwadi Party had won 28 percent of the votes and the BSP 22 percent, giving them a little more allowance to transfer losses, making this contest so interesting.

At one point of time, Congress used to be the Indian party that was above caste. It did claim to represent Dalit, Muslim and Adivasi interests, but it was never a caste-based party. The BJP appears to have fully taken over this post-caste identity, though with the important qualification that it only seeks Hindu votes.

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Updated Date: May 05, 2019 09:42:23 IST