Breaking The Caste Code In Uttar Pradesh
Rajesh Singh

It is election season in Uttar Pradesh. The four major political parties in the fray are seeking to win the people’s affection on the promise of developmental governance. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is promoting Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Sab ka saath, sab ka vikas’ formula; the ruling Samajwadi Party (SP) is pounding the media with publicity material highlighting the Government’s development record; the Congress has bluntly said the State will see progress only under its regime; and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) has linked x with the empowerment of the underprivileged classes. But there is another factor besides development which none of these parties wants to openly acknowledge — and it’s caste. Cracking the caste code holds the key to success in the State. All parties are burning the midnight oil to do so.

It can be argued that caste is an over-rated element and that the 2014 Lok Sabha election demonstrated it. The BJP and its allies could not have won the 73 seats they did out of the 80 on offer, had caste divisions played out. The fact is, caste demarcations were diluted but not significantly reduced. Let us remember that the BJP’s alliance with a prominent leader of the Kushwaha community and a popular leader of the Patel community helped the party enormously in its caste calculations. Moreover, contrary to popular belief, people did vote along caste lines. The Yadavs voted largely — significantly more than 50 per cent — for the SP, as they have been doing since the 1990’s. And the Scheduled Castes backed the BSP. The non-Yadav votes went largely to the BJP — as it has been happening for years now. So did the upper caste votes.

The coming Assembly election, in early 2017, will not be any different. It can see a further deepening of caste affiliations. The myth of ‘caste-less voting’ should be discarded at the earliest. But then, if caste considerations are so obvious and fixed, why do we keep getting different results in Uttar Pradesh? Again, there have not been ‘different’ results over the last 25 years in the State. It has been either the SP or the BSP which has won. This is testimony to the fact that voters have stuck to caste preferences.

The alternation in Government has had to do with caste/religious alliances, nothing more. In 2007, BSP leader Mayawati secured the Brahmin and Muslim support and romped home. But her Scheduled Caste votes remained intact. In 2012, the SP, projecting the young Akhilesh Yadav as its chief ministerial candidate, won back the Muslim support and also gained a sizeable section of upper caste votes. But the party won eventually on the strength of its Yadav vote-bank. It must, therefore, be understood that a shift in caste groups from one party to another is not the same as ‘crossing caste boundaries’. Such would be the case if a particular caste group itself splits in its allegiance significantly enough and moves to other parties.

We now come to an important question. If caste politics is so entrenched in Uttar Pradesh, how is it that we had a near uninterrupted rule of the Congress there since independence right until the eighties? Why did not the opposing caste formations not result in conflicts and deviations from the Congress? After all, caste loyalties have had the strength to spawn the two most powerful regional parties in the State. The underlying belief in the theory is that caste conflicts in the political arena came to dominate in the post-Mandal era.

It is true that the post-Mandal period brought in by VP Singh, accentuated caste-based identity and led to political — though not necessarily social — empowerment of what came to be called the ‘Other Backward Classes’ (OBC). Riding on caste sentiments, the BSP too exploited the Scheduled Castes for votes. But it would be wrong to conclude that caste politics did not exist in the State before the Mandal recommendations for reservation for OBCs came into effect.

The Congress dominated Uttar Pradesh until the late 1980’s because of the TINA (there is no alternative) factor. But within the party, caste always played a role. In those years, most local and national leaders belonged to the upper castes. Govind Ballabh Pant, Kamalapati Tripathi, Veer Bahadur Singh, VP Singh, Sripati Mishra, HN Bahuguna, ND Tiwari —they were all upper caste Congress Chief Ministers of the State. Some of them had the reputation of promoting their caste-interests at the cost of others. The other castes and classes seethed at their own neglect but had nowhere to go. The Mandal development opened the doors to them and gave a defining twist to politics in the State.

It can be said that, today nearly every caste group has a party of its choice. The Mandal agitation threw up leaders such as Mulayam Singh Yadav, who broke ranks from VP Singh and floated the SP. It forced the BJP — which, like the Congress, was viewed as an upper caste party — to reach out to the backward classes. Kalyan Singh became the party’s most prominent and forceful OBC face. Over the years, many more have come to the fore, with the result that the BJP now has a formidable presence among the non-Yadav OBCs in the State. Others have benefitted too, even if in small measures. Ajit Singh is a Jat leader; while in the Congress, his father Charan Singh could never push Jat identity politics because of the stranglehold of powerful upper caste leaders.

Likewise, Jagjivan Ram, a tall Scheduled Caste leader in the Congress, never got the due he deserved because of the domination of the upper caste lobby in the party. He eventually quit in the wake of the Emergency, but his daughter Meira Kumar failed to take his legacy forward in his home State of Bihar because she was subsumed in the larger politics of the Congress and remained content with the situation. In any case, at least in Uttar Pradesh, the so-called Dalit space got occupied by Mayawati and her BSP; for the likes of Meira Kuma, it became difficult to exploit her lineage. In sum, the proliferation and the success of caste-based parties in Uttar Pradesh should disabuse anyone of the notion that the State has moved away from identity politics.

As has been mentioned before, caste politics did not make a debut in the aftermath of Mandal development. There had been attempts in Uttar Pradesh even from the 1960s to craft such politics, in the little space the Congress had left for the opposition. In his insightful book, India’s Silent Revolution:The Rise of the Low Castes in North Indian Politics, (Permanent Black, 2003), author and socio-political commentator Christophe Jaffrelot writes, “From the late 1960s onwards, the OBCs were to advance through the socialist movements and Charan Singh’s political parties. The former — especially the parties of Ram Manohar Lohia — were quick to use reservations as a means of politicising the lower castes. While the southern pattern of low caste mobilisation linked ethnicisation and strategies of empowerment, what one can call ‘quota politics’, in the north the latter was the key factor.”

Jaffrelot too acknowledges that north Indian politicians who promoted the cause of the low castes were few in number till the late 1960s because “the Congress was dominated at the Centre by progressive leaders who did not regard caste as a relevant category for state-sponsored social change…” He says the senior leadership of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) — Somnath Chatterjee and Bhogendra Jha — received the Mandal Commission recommendations with skepticism. He promptly reminds the readers that the two were Brahmins and adds that other leaders of the party were whole-heartedly supportive of the recommendations. As for the Communist Party of India, the author says that they became “aware of the necessity to take caste seriously into account in 1992, in the post-Mandal context partly under the impetus of Inderjit (sic) Gupta”.

Interestingly, Ram Manohar Lohia who was among the first, if not the first, to incorporate caste politics into the socialist ideology, headed the Praja Socialist Party (PSP) which was dominated by upper castes and showed little interest in uplifting the lower castes. Jaffrelot writes, “A survey conducted in 1967-68 showed that its leaders and MPs belonged to the upper caste intelligentsia: 75 per cent of its 40 top leaders were from the upper castes (including 50 per cent of Brahmins) whereas the lower castes accounted for only 12.5 per cent.” Lohia was to dismantle this mindset, though he used the peasant movement to further his goal instead of plunging head-on into crass caste politics.

Lohia had a lofty reason. He believed, according to Jaffrelot, that the caste system was “responsible for the recurrent invasions India endured in its long history because ‘it renders nine-tenths of the population into onlookers, in fact listless and completely disinterested spectators of grim national tragedies’.” Thus, for Lohia, caste politics was about nationalism and not so much about identities to be exploited for the sake of votes. The author quotes from the socialist leader to emphasise this point. According to Lohia, “The shudra too has his shortcomings. He has an even narrower outlook.” He believed that, if the Scheduled Castes were pushed to positions of power, they would gain a broader viewpoint and contribute to national development.

Charan Singh was the other non-Congress leader to mix case politics with peasant politics to begin with, and then graduate to open support for identity politics through reservations. It must be underlined that Charan Singh came into his own after he quit the Congress and subsequently floated the Lok Dal. He was to hold the Congress responsible for ignoring the sentiments of the backward castes. Nevertheless, his fervour for the Mandal panel recommendations died down after he realised that the community he represented, the Jats, did not find mention in the list of castes to gain from the reservations. He returned to his old position that rejected caste per se. It is pertinent to mention that today, the Jats are up in arms demanding reservation. We have already had a violent Jat agitation in Haryana in the past months, and the Jat leaders have threatened another one if their demands are not met. Instead of working for a caste-less society, as their leader Charan Singh preferred, they want quotas to reinforce their caste identity.

As we can see, both Lohia and Charan Singh saw the upliftment of caste as a means to either build a strong nationalist outlook or cater to the interests of the peasant community. The third leader who waded into the scene, in the end 1980s, introduced a new and personal element: Reservation for OBCs as a means to uplift his own image — and perhaps save his chair from the growing clamour of Mandir activists on whose support he had become the Prime Minister. This was VP Singh, who quit the Congress and fashioned himself into a messiah of the backward classes. He wasn’t concerned about economic transformation of the OBCs, nor was he really bothered about their social empowerment. He wanted to politically empower himself by providing these classes quotas in jobs and education. He empowered the OBC political class, for sure, but sadly for him, failed to do so for himself. He had to bow out, and that was the end of his political career. The halo around him disappeared as quickly as it had come.

Mulayam Singh Yadav owes his rise in Uttar Pradesh to the caste identity politics initiated by VP Singh. There was another leader slowly working to exploit caste and contribute in equal measure to a changed political landscape of the State. That was Kanshi Ram. His was an interesting case. He had taken up the political cause of the Scheduled Castes. Unlike the OBCs, the Scheduled Castes already had reservations mandated by the Constitution of India, and nobody could take that away. His battle, therefore, was not for reservations. He looked around, and like a smart marketing man, found there was a desire (if there wasn’t, it could have been created) among the Scheduled Castes for a party of ‘their own’ to take on the might of the Congress, the so-called socialists and the BJP. While their quota was assured, what was not was their participation in the changing political narrative.

In his biography of Kanshi Ram, Leader of the Dalits (Penguin Viking, 2014), author and academic Badri Narayan writes that Kanshi Ram shrewdly attempted to bring the Scheduled Castes and the newly-empowered OBCs on the ‘bahujan’ platform. To this end, he promoted OBC leaders like SP Maurya and Sone Lal Patel — both of whom later quit the party, the former only recently, and Patel earlier on after it became clear that Kanshi Ram’s successor would be Mayawati. Badri Narayan quotes Kanshi Ram as saying, “In the last five years, we have been able to associate with only 600 castes, which accounts for nearly 10 per cent of the total castes. Thus, we see that just by associating with 600 castes our party has become the fourth largest party in the country. if we associate with 400 castes more then this value will reach to 1000 and the bahujan society will occupy the first position in the country.” This was number-crunching by a marketing genius.

But it was to never happen, simply because Mayawati disregarded the OBCs to the extent that she pitted them against the Scheduled Castes — the Yadavs versus the Jatavs, for instance. Moreover, later on, and perhaps as a means to neutralise the failure of getting in the OBCs, she experimented with winning the support of the upper castes, leaving one to wonder whether she had lost the focus Kanshi Ram had. As Badri Narayan remarks in his book, the migration from ‘bahujan’ to ‘sarvjan’ seems to have both astonished and confused her Scheduled Castes voters.

All the same, the BSP’s rise changed political equations dramatically in Uttar Pradesh. Contrary to popular belief, the BSP did not have an easy start, despite its strong Scheduled Castes vote base. In the 1991 Lok Sabha election, Mayawati lost her seat and the party’s vote share came down from 10 per cent to a little over eight per cent in the State. Kanshi Ram was the lone winner from Uttar Pradesh from the party. (This record was to be beaten in 2014 when the BSP gained not a single seat in the general election.) However, from thereon, the party went from strength to strength, though dipping and rising electorally, as is the nature of political parties.

Today’s Uttar Pradesh is a creation of this political history. Demographics may have changed, people’s aspirations may have been upgraded, and voters’ demands of their netas may reflect new global trends. And yet, the politics of caste lurks in the corner. Both the Congress and the BJP, national parties and vehemently in denial of pandering to caste politics, can wish away the SP and the BSP. But they cannot, as easily, wish away the caste foundations on which these two organisations are based and which has brought the likes of Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati to the pre-eminent positions they occupy. Caste-less politics, a lofty and desirable aim, is still to be born in Uttar Pradesh.

(The writer is a senior political commentator and public affairs analyst)

Published Date: 27th September 2016, Image Source:
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Vivekananda International Foundation)

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