Caste combinations no longer a sure antidote to Hindutva
The BJP in UP has been able to attract the lower OBCs and even some non-Jatav Dalits, giving the grand coalition a tough fight...
There has been an enduring belief among political commentators for some time past: caste-based coalitions can stop Hindutva in its tracks.
For, while Hindutva seeks to forge a pan-Hindu identity as a counter to secular democracy, caste-based politics among the backward castes unsettles this pan-Hindu self as a hierarchical arrangement that is not in the best interests of castes that are in the middle and bottom of the caste hierarchy.
The hypothesis faces its most crucial test in these Lok Sabha elections, as the SP, BSP and RLD come together to stem the BJP’s tide in Uttar Pradesh.
The reason: caste may no longer be Hindutva’s sure antidote, as the BJP has built up a support base among lower OBCs in north India in the last few years.
In other words, those castes that felt that the Mandal discourse promised but did not fully deliver representation to them have veered around to the BJP as an alternative avenue for power.
There are many among the lower OBCs who believe that Samajwadi Party promised social justice to all backward castes but offered positions mainly to Yadavs, the caste of Mulayam Singh Yadav.
Similarly, Mayawati’s core base remains that of her leather working caste among Dalits, with other Dalit castes looking for other avenues, particularly the BJP.
The BJP, which had built a support base among the lower OBCs since its rise around 1990, intensified this outreach during the term of the Narendra Modi government.
Their early leadership in north and central India was either upper caste or non-Yadav OBC. Uma Bharti and Kalyan Singh, both Lodhs, were prime examples of the latter.
In later years, the smaller OBC castes became the mainstay of the BJP, be it Narendra Modi in Gujarat, Shivraj Singh Chouhan in Madhya Pradesh or Sushil Modi in Bihar.
In the 2017 UP assembly results, upper castes and lower OBCs seem to have converged around the BJP in larger numbers.
In an election in which the BJP swept, the Trivedi Centre for Political Data in Ashoka University found that the representation of Yadavs in the UP assembly fell. They now comprise just 17 per cent of the OBC MLAs. Kurmi representation has increased from 11 per cent to 28 per cent of the OBCs, making the trajectory of the change very clear.
The Apna Dal is still allied with the BJP in order to retain the Kurmi votes.
In this sense, Hindutva has also made caste – seen beyond its traditional social base of upper castes – a key force multiplier.
In other words, the present contest for UP’s 80 seats is a fight between the upper castes, lower OBCs and some lower Dalit castes, on the one hand, and the Yadavs, Jatavs, Muslims and Jats as a combined political constituency, on the other.
The fight is between two large, caste-based coalitions rather than between Hindutva as a hierarchical, upper caste, arrangement and a Dalit-OBC-Muslim combine.
It is this arithmetic that is preventing a BJP collapse in UP despite the grand alliance. The saffron party is locked in a key battle with the grand coalition.
What has helped the BJP in its bid to include the lower OBCs is the fact that, unlike other parties, the BJP has more seats to spare for these castes in an election, as it has no need to offer representation to Muslims.
The results of the coming election will decide whether the grand coalition of the SP and BSP is as potent as it was in 1993, when the two parties came together at the height of the Ram Janmabhumi polarisation. And they succeeded in the effort, though the grand alliance came apart in 1995 when SP workers attacked Mayawati in a Lucknow guest house.
After 23 years, the two parties have made common cause again to stop the march of the BJP, which has dramatically swept the state in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls and the 2017 state assembly polls.
The idea: employing cleavages of caste to stop the rise of Hindutva.
However, feedback coming from the ground points to a tougher-than-expected fight in UP. Travelling through UP for Asiaville, political analyst Sajjan Kumar senses a setback for the saffron party in west UP but a revival in parts of central UP.
It seems that there is going to be a tough fight between the grand alliance and the BJP in the state, with the Congress playing spoilsport for the former on some seats.
Caste, in other words, is not necessarily an antidote to Hindutva. The latter can also marshal caste combines in ways that act as a force multiplier.
And in this there is a pattern: while the dominant or numerically large backward castes stick to the grand coalition in alliance with Muslims, the smaller OBC castes align with Hindutva.
These castes feel that they were promised social justice and greater representation but denied this, making them look for greener pastures – which the BJP, unencumbered by the need to give representation to Muslims – could offer.
These small castes cannot hope to dominate politics alone, in alliance with Muslims, but want to seek greater representation – in line with the Mandal promise – from the BJP. The SP and the BSP, they feel, failed to walk the talk so far as offering them a share of power is concerned.
The lower OBCs and non-Jatav Dalits in UP may be small as individual castes, but their combined impact on poll outcomes is bigger when they converge on one party.
They also feel that Modi himself comes from a smaller OBC caste – the ghanchis of Gujarat.
A significant reason for the rise and rise of the BJP in UP is the weight these small groups add to the BJP’s traditional, upper caste, base.
Unless the grand alliance breaks this pattern, the fight in UP will be keen and the BJP will be no pushover.