Indian elections, especially in northern states, have always been more captivating than the finest of Hollywood thrillers. This interesting contrast between a thriller movie and a close election arises from the fact that though the characters and the screenplay are largely predictable, the ending is not. The dynamic determinants in elections have always been sharp. One such determinant particular to the ongoing Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections is the caste factor.
Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) attempt to play their hand at caste politics had failed miserably in the 2015 Bihar Assembly election. In that regard, it is interesting to see if the party have rethought their strategy.
Surendra Yadav, a resident of Budhipur Village of Ghazipur constituency, represented by minister of state (Rail) Manoj Sinha, said: “All the Mauryas, Chauhans and Binds of the constituency of this Assembly segment are voting for the BJP this time around... they had had voted for the Samajwadi Party (SP) in the 2012 elections."
“No caste... only Modi. Bhumihars are voting for a Apna Dal (BJP alliance partner ) candidate, Neel Ratan Patel, in Sewapuri and the Patels are voting for a Bhumihar BJP candidate, Surendra Singh, in the adjoining Rohania constituency,” said Manohar Patel, a Babupurwa village resident of Sewapuri constituency in Varanasi, represented by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
In a caste ridden state like Uttar Pradesh, BJP’s management of different social segments without upsetting any others seems to be paying dividends. The party has diligently designed a model to defeat the caste champions SP, on their own turf.
The prelude to the battle lay in consolidating the traditional upper caste vote base by acknowledging them and in bringing non-Yadav OBC’s and non-Jatav SC votes into the BJP fold, by igniting dissonance and attracting them using Modi's charisma.
BJP has always been perceived as a party belonging to a certain caste and class. Most of its national faces have for long been reinforcing this image. Kalyan Singh was an exception, as he managed to gain political power and position while effectively maintaining his status among the cadre as well as the masses. His support base, in contrast to today's BJP leaders, was strongly rooted among the OBCs.
After his withdrawal from the electoral landscape of UP, BJP were left with hardly any other OBC face – someone who has had acceptability among the OBC masses.
Then came the era of 'Modi magic' in Indian politics. He not only presented himself as a mascot of development but also complemented his persona with modern day gadgets, an elegant dressing sense and his honesty about his humble background. This made Modi the tallest OBC leader in contemporary Indian politics. His likeability cut across social and economic classes and he soon developed a pan-India image.
Banking on his image, the BJP have been successful in implementing a three-pronged strategy in Uttar Pradesh:
Dethroning Mulayam Singh
Displacing the SP patriarch from the unstated position of an 'OBC messiah' has been the first accomplished agenda of the BJP. Mulayam, who till recently was the tallest OBC leader – not just of UP but also the country – has been reduced to a Yadav leader.
Mulayam has largely been (dis)credited with the superlative preference assigned to Yadavs for government appointments and premium postings. The BJP, using this, were successfully in instigating a feeling of dissonance and disgruntlement among non-Yadav OBCs.
The theory was successfully subscribed to by the target segment. Keshav Maurya was made UP BJP president and many of the OBC leaders joined the party with much fanfare. Alliances with two caste based political outfits further augmented the BJP’s position among non-Yadav OBCs, especially in eastern Uttar Pradesh.
Unlike popular media perception, the note ban has been hugely beneficial for the BJP. The drastic decision was perceived as a step towards 'right wing communism'. The poor and the down trodden – largely belonging to SC/ST and OBC categories – found satisfaction in seeing the foul riches being stripped away from the corrupt.
Many in the state hope that a subsequent chunk of that money will be coming their way. The political merits of the move were repeatedly ratified in BJP's electoral engagements since demonetisation.
Primacy of non-Yadav OBCs
BJP's final masterstroke was to give preference to non-Yadav OBCs while distributing tickets for unreserved seats. Sections with higher population and higher voting percentages received a higher share in ticket distribution. This strengthened BJP's position among non-Yadav votes.
The strategy, though a risky proposition, helped the BJP significantly as other parties could not keep pace with the political dynamics and hence failed to leverage the opportunity. Naveen Pandey, a teacher, wrote on Facebook: “Many of the Brahmins have approached me to vote for the Brahmin candidate contesting from my Assembly constituency of Jangipur and not for an OBC candidate fielded by the BJP.” He further writes “it is not just me and my family but 60-70 percent of the Brahmins in my village who are going to vote for BJP.”
The net gain for BJP has been a wider acceptability among a majority of social groups of the state, that brings it closer to the finishing line. SP largely appear to be the favourites among Yadavs, Muslims and other traditional socialists, which restrict its prospects.
Bahujan Samaj Party, on the other hand, does not seem to be receiving the warmth of any social groups other than its traditional Jatav votes and Muslims, especially those from belonging to rural areas and the conservatives. A section of non-Jatav SC votes have moved to the BJP and the social groups that joined the BSP faction in the 2007 UP Assembly elections have largely deserted.
It is a tough race and any one can win. But at the macro level, 30 percent of the total polled vote is the minimum yardstick of winning the state. At constituency level, 60,000 is the minimum votes needed to win. This is possible only when a large group votes in favour of a particular party.
The social engineering employed by BJP appears to enjoy greater acceptability among the wider social groups and the party may have finally mastered the art of caste politics.
The author is professor, faculty of management studies, Banaras Hindu University.
Updated Date: Mar 03, 2017 17:55 PM