ON MARCH 15TH last year, just a day after the Samajwadi Party wrested back the Gorakhpur and Phulpur Lok Sabha seats from the BJP with the help of its arch-rival Bahujan Samaj Party, Congress President Rahul Gandhi hailed the late Kanshi Ram on his 84th birth anniversary with this: “Kanshi Ram was a great social reformer. His untiring efforts to bring oppressed social groups into the mainstream has left an indelible mark on the Indian polity.” Seen as an overture to the BSP chief Mayawati, this gesture came after the Congress forfeited its deposit in both constituencies; its alliance with the SP for the 2017 UP Assembly elections had failed and the party needed the BSP’s help in UP for the 2019 General Election. With 80 seats, this state accounts for around 15 per cent of the Lok Sabha, and the Congress could ill afford to be an also-ran here again.
For the BSP, which rebuffed Congress’ overtures and announced an alliance instead with the SP in mid- January this year, this is the third such partnership, the first in more than two decades. Its first pre-poll deal was with the SP in 1993, an experiment that spectacularly fell apart in 1995. The second was with the Congress in 1996.
The state has been in political flux for four decades and caste politics has played a major role. In 1991, with Chandra Shekhar as the Congress-backed Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi was keen on Dalit support to help his party regain power in that year’s General Election. Since its 1989 defeat, the Congress had been under the onslaught of regional parties and needed to address the steady loss since 1977 of its once-bankable Dalit vote. The BSP, built by Kanshi Ram on the foundation of the Backward and Minority Community Employees’ Federation and the Dalit Shoshit Samaj Sangharsh Samiti, was now a political force. By the early 90s, the party had gained the support of Jatavs and some Kurmis, and his party—led later by Mayawati—soon boasted of over two-thirds of UP’s Dalit vote. With other groups such as Muslims added on, this spelt a BSP ascent from 9 per cent of the popular vote in 1991 to 30 per cent in the 2007 state elections. Back in 1991, Congress MP and Scheduled Caste leader Chinta Mohan set up a meeting for Rajiv Gandhi with Kanshi Ram, a friend of Mohan’s, and they agreed that the BSP would field candidates in UP constituencies where anti-Congress parties were strong to divide such votes and enable Congress wins. Kanshi Ram, a pragmatic leader, was willing to help the Congress in that election. Harikesh Bahadur, a Congress Working Committee member, was enlisted to coordinate the plan with the BSP chief and identify seats. Rajiv Gandhi detailed the plan at a CWC meeting that year. However, it fell apart after his mid-election assassination at Sriperumbudur. PV Narasimha Rao, who took charge of the Congress, showed little interest in following up the deal, but kept his channels of communication open with the BSP chief. His government ran its full term, at the end of which the Congress formed an alliance with the BSP in 1996.
By 1992, the Ram Janmabhoomi movement led by BJP’s LK Advani was heading for a peak and the state was in turbulence. Shaken by the BJP’s popularity, the regional parties tried to circle their wagons in defence. Their arithmetic logic was that a social coalition of Dalits, OBCs and Muslims would be a bulwark against the BJP. But both SP’s Mulayam Singh Yadav and BSP’s Kanshi Ram were aware that such a grouping would need to forge a unity based on class interests. This was what Mayawati was referring to when she recently described the SP-BSP tie-up as a “natural alliance” that would “last well beyond the Lok Sabha elections, even into the next state elections”. The party’s slogan for the 1993 state elections, when the two parties allied for the first time, was ‘Mile Mulayam, Kanshi Ram, hawa ho gayi Jai Shri Ram’ (When Mulayam and Kanshi Ram meet, Jai Shri Ram fails), and it proved to be a major moment in UP politics, with the SP and BSP winning 109 and 67 seats respectively. The BJP got 177 seats, and while it emerged the largest party—on the strength of the Ram Mandir movement that had resulted in the demolition of a disputed structure in Ayodhya on December 6th, 1992—it fell short of majority and could not form a government in Lucknow. The SP-BSP alliance took power, but came apart amidst much rancour after the infamous Mirabai Road Guest House incident of 1995, in which SP supporters and lumpen elements attacked Mayawati, who was in conference with her MLAs. It was BJP MLA Brahm Dutt Dwivedi who rushed her to safety, paving the way for a later alliance of the BSP with the BJP. Analysts maintain the Dalit-OBC social coalition had begun to unravel soon after the SP-BSP government was formed, with Dalits in UP at the receiving end of Yadav aggression, and it had lurched from one crisis to another anyway. There are other tales of ill will between the two parties involving insults taken by Mulayam Singh Yadav from Kanshi Ram over such matters as seating arrangements (a stool left by the latter for the former).
Kanshi Ram was willing to help the Congress in the 1991 election. The alliance fell apart after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination. PV Narasimha Rao showed little interest in following up the deal
In subsequent years, Mayawati remained opposed to an alliance with the SP. “We wanted to unite the ‘Bahujan Samaj’ under the leadership of someone from the Bahujan Samaj,” she explained back then, “We also wanted to checkmate the BJP’s growth on the temple issue. But the experiment failed because of Mulayam’s selfish politics.”
Sensing an opportunity in gaining access to a Dalit vote bank, the BJP supported Mayawati as Chief Minister in mid-1995. It lasted four months before the BJP withdrew its backing. Her second stint as Chief Minister with BJP support came in 1997 after a phase of President’s Rule. It wasn’t until 2007, however, that she achieved power in Lucknow on her own party’s success after enlisting the support of Muslims and some upper castes to go with her Dalit vote base. In that election, a BSP slogan hit out at the SP without naming it: ‘Chadh gundon ki chhaati par, mohar lagegi haathi par’ (Not to goons but to the BSP’s elephant symbol will the vote go). By then, the party had moved on from its earlier caste-provocative slogans such as ‘Tilak taraazu aur talvaar, inko maaro jutey chaar’ (vermillion, weighing scale and sword, hit them with shoes) to the relatively inclusive appeal of ‘Haathi nahin, Ganesh hai, Brahma Vishnu Mahesh hai’ (No elephant this, it’s Ganesh, and so also Brahma Vishnu Mahesh). This was aimed at upper castes, who had begun to feel restive in UP by then.
HOWEVER, THE BSP’S power in UP peaked more than a decade ago. Since then, it’s hold on its Dalit votebank has weakened. While Mayawati’s caste group of Jatavs—or more broadly Chamars—has stayed loyal, ‘Mahadalits’ have drifted to the BJP, just as large numbers of non-Yadav OBCs have left the SP for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party. This was the result of BJP President Amit Shah’s efforts to broaden the party’s support beyond upper castes, and gave the BJP a sweep of UP in the 2014 General Election (the NDA bagged 73 of the state’s 80 Lok Sabha seats) and also the 2017 Assembly polls.
Both the BSP and SP have been in decline, the former since 2007 and the latter since 2012. In 2004, Mayawati’s party had got 19 Lok Sabha seats, but five years later won only 20 despite the Left Front projecting her as its candidate for Prime Minister. In the last Assembly elections, the BSP got only 14 seats. The SP, which peaked in 2012 with 224 Assembly seats, won only five Lok Sabha seats just two years later, all family constituencies. In 2017, in spite of an alliance with the Congress, the SP’s Assembly tally dwindled to 47 seats. Clearly, fear of the BJP is what has brought the two parties together for 2019.
The moot question is: will a revival of the earlier Dalit-OBC-Muslim social coalition project work? The BSP is headed by Kanshi Ram’s protégé, and the SP by Mulayam Singh Yadav’s son, Akhilesh Yadav, and while both parties have moved from niche caste groups (with a play for Muslim swing votes) to broader politics, it’s unclear how they will overcome ground-level divides between their respective core voters. Also, will they revert to identity politics to consolidate their Dalit and OBC vote bases in the face of BJP’s threat?
Will a revival of the Dalit-OBC-Muslim coalition project work? While Mayawati’s BSP and Akhilesh Yadav’s SP have moved from niche caste groups to broader politics, it’s unclear how they will overcome ground-level divides between their core voters
After the Gorakhpur and Phulpur victories, the leadership of the two parties attributed their decision to join forces to ‘pressure from below’. In an interview to Business Standard just before the tie-up, Mulayam Singh Yadav said, “Everyone knows whose vote share Mayawati’s party will damage. What are the benefits of this alliance for my party? We have workers who have worked for the party for many years. Their tickets would be compromised in the event of an alliance…. I have forbidden this alliance.” Left unsaid was his apprehension that the BJP may leverage the frustration of SP ticket aspirants to its advantage. By each agreeing to contest just 38 Lok Sabha seats out of 80, leaders of both the SP and BSP may have taken the risk of vulnerability to the BJP.
As for the social cohesion plans for Dalits, OBCs and Muslims, there is little empirical evidence so far to suggest that the two partners’ respective caste bases will vote for each other’s candidates across the state. In Gorakhpur, the Nishad Party was adopted by the SP and the BSP stayed out of the contest. At best, it has been suggested that the BSP is capable of transferring its loyal votes to other parties, but the SP’s vote base is relatively intransigent in this respect.
The BJP, in contrast, has much going for it in the social churn of UP. The most recent is the Centre’s decision to accord a 10-per cent quota in government jobs and educational institutions to the economically weak among General Category applicants. The move is perceived as a significant social reconciliation attempt by the Modi Government aimed at sections thus far excluded from the reservation pie, India’s upper castes. The BJP’s OBC and Dalit outreach under Modi had left many of these voters disenchanted. The EWS quota aims to bring the interests of the BJP’s traditional vote base in synchrony with those of its new supporters.
Also, the political scientist Kanchan Chandra argues that the BJP has succeeded in coalescing the interests of its upper-caste vote bank with that of subaltern groups over time by adopting and assimilating their cultural symbols into its projection of the new ‘model Hindu’, whether through affiliate organisations such as the Vanvasi Kalyan Kendra or by creating the Samajik Samrasta Manch to introduce Phule-Ambedkar thought into Hindutva philosophy, or through pan-India agitations such as the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. In addition, several of the party’s second-rung leadership has been drawn from these groups, breaching what was once primarily an upper-caste domain. According to Chandra, the BJP appeals to Dalits and OBCs by ‘a strong ideological and organisational infrastructure’. Further, ‘this infrastructure has become stronger and more innovative at a time when the BSP’s own has weakened.’
In all this, the Modi effect has had a major role. The Prime Minister’s own persona is not only seen as ‘transformative’, his OBC identity is flaunted from time to time even while it’s subsumed within the Sangh Parivar’s ideal of a cohesive saffron society. His humble origins as a tea-seller gel well with this appeal, especially in reaching out to what he classifies as his broad constituency: India’s aspirational classes.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s persona is not only seen as ‘transformative’, his OBC identity is flaunted even while it’s subsumed within the Sangh Parivar’s ideal of a cohesive saffron society. It may even have eclipsed Mayawati’s own identity appeal
In UP, Modi’s outreach may even have eclipsed Mayawati’s own identity appeal, reduced lately to Jatavs, the more assertive among Dalits. Sudha Pai and Jagpal Singh, in their study of the politicisation of Dalits and Most Backward Classes (MBCs, a subgroup of OBCs) in Meerut district, find that unlike the rise of the politically-conscious Jatavs, MBCs have yet to assume a distinct identity, as compared to assertive OBC groups like Yadavs, Kurmis and Gujjars. The credit for politicising Dalit groups such as Chamars under the socio-cultural process of Ambedkarisation goes to the BSP. Among Dalits, however, Balmikis are relatively less politicised and conscious of their caste identity. Again, while the more assertive OBCs such as Yadavs, ,Gujjars, Lodhs and Kurmis have been politicised since the 60s, MBCs such as Gadarias, Jogis, Dhiwars Nais and Kumhars have been awakened by BJP overtures to them, even if they are yet to assert their collective identities. The rise of identity consciousness among MBCs has led to both UP Deputy Chief Minister Keshav Prasad Maurya and Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath wooing sub-castes such as Prajapatis, Rajbhars, Nais, Savitas and Sens, among others. Gatherings of Nishads, Kashyaps, Binds, Kewats and Kahars have been addressed by them, as also representatives of Bhurjis, Bhadbhunjas, Kandus and Kasaudhans. Attention at these events was drawn to the welfare programmes undertaken by the Modi Government for OBCs. Together, these caste groups could shore up the BJP and efforts to woo them have been on since last year in anticipation of not just an SP-BSP alliance for the General Election, but also one with the Rashtriya Lok Dal, a part of this front in western UP.
In general, the BJP expects the Ujjwala scheme, Pradhan Mantri Awaas Yojana and others instituted by Modi in aid of the underprivileged to pay good electoral dividends in UP this summer. “We will go to the people mainly on the basis of the work done by our governments both at the Centre and in UP to achieve a target of 73-plus Lok Sabha seats in the state,” says a BJP leader. “The Government’s development agenda as felt directly by the people of UP over the last five years will ensure this.”
The sustained popularity of Modi is another positive that the BJP is counting on. The party plans to counter the SP-BSP alliance on the grounds that the latter’s sole agenda is to oust Modi from power and rubbish his welfare schemes rather than outline a blueprint of their own for the state’s development.
In 2014, the Modi tsunami gave the BJP more seats than it had won even at the height of the Ram Mandir movement in the early 90s. Of the 282 Lok Sabha seats that the saffron party won overall, a fourth came from UP, making Modi’s party the first in 30 years to achieve a parliamentary majority by itself. Modi’s decision to fight the elections from the ancient city of Varanasi also helped catapult the BJP to power in Delhi. No matter what shape the opposition takes, this is not a state Modi would risk letting slip out of his party’s grasp.