Mandate 2017: Comment

From Identity Politics to Aspirational Politics

AK Verma is director, Centre for the Study of Society and Politics, Kanpur
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Name of the change

THE RECENTLY HELD Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Manipur, Goa and Punjab have vindicated Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party’s stand on many hard decisions taken over the past three years. The sweeping victory of the party in UP and Uttarakhand stunned all. No less significant has been the BJP’s performance in Manipur, where the party had hardly any presence earlier; the party’s occupying political space in this tiny but sensitive border state of the Northeast could be crucial for concerns of national security. It is also interesting that though the BJP won seven seats less than Congress here, its vote share of 36.3 per cent was higher than the Congress figure of 35.1 per cent.

In Goa, a small state with great significance, the BJP won 13 seats and the Congress 17, but the BJP’s vote share of 32.5 per cent was again higher than the Congress’ 28.4 per cent. Punjab, as expected, had to slip out of Akali Dal-BJP hands as the alliance had ruled the state for two terms. The bipolar politics of Punjab had alternated between the Akali Dal-BJP and Congress, and in the last Assembly elections of 2012, many had expected the alliance to lose. People were fed up with the menace of drugs, arms, daaru, administrative apathy and arrogance. The Aam Aadmi Party, which performed well in Punjab during the 2014 General Election, was upbeat about forming a government in the state in 2017, but some last-minute allegations against AAP brought disrepute to the party and turned many voters away (and to the Congress).

Uttarakhand is also a bipolar state, with power switching between the Congress and BJP, but this year’s mandate for the latter is so massive—it has won 56 of its 70 Assembly seats with 46.5 per cent of all votes cast— that the former has been decimated. The most dramatic and puzzling mandate of all is the one secured by the BJP in UP, where the party won 312 seats with 39.7 per cent of all votes. If we add the 13 seats of its allies Apna Dal (AD) and Suheldev Bhartiya Samaj Party (SBSP), the NDA tally goes up to 325 seats, with a 41.4 per cent vote share. The NDA coalition has trounced the much-hyped Samajwadi Party-Congress combine, whose slogan of ‘UP Ko Yeh Saath Pasand Hai’ was totally off the mark and failed to capture the electorate’s imagination. On the other hand, the BJP nearly replicated its Lok Sabha performance of 2014, when it got 42.3 per cent of the state’s votes (emerging on top in as many as 337 Assembly segments).

Since 2007, the electors of UP have maintained their record of giving a clear mandate to their choice. In 2007, they gave majority to Mayawati, who won 206 of UP’s 403 seats. In 2012, the SP got 226 seats, and in the 2014 General Election, the BJP swept the state. One difference from earlier Assembly elections is that both the Mayawati and Akhilesh governments had been formed on a meagre vote share of 29 per cent and 30 per cent respectively. But this time, the BJP got about 10 percentage points more than that, a performance surpassed only by the Congress in 1952 (390 seats, 47.9 per cent votes) and the Janata Party post-Emergency in 1977 (352 seats, 47.8 per cent votes). So, BJP’s performance in UP is the third best post-independence.

Is the UP mandate a riddle? Not really, except the emphatic nature of the BJP victory. In several field studies by the Centre for the Study of Society and Politics, Kanpur, since July 2016, many factors were found to be at work that pointed to this possibility. In the eight months leading up to the Assembly polls, analysts had noticed an extraordinary democratic upsurge in UP. Many were convinced that there was a massive OBC shift, a substantial Dalit shift and a small Muslim shift towards the BJP. And, there were several reasons for this democratic upsurge. This upsurge hinged on a societal transition from identity politics to aspirational politics. In short, people in the state were fed up with caste and identity politics, which they found could not be a substitute for substantive politics that could fulfil their social and economic aspirations.

When Mayawati resorted to Dalit politics, she was myopic in her perception of Dalits. She focused on only one caste, of Jatavs, and neglected the 66 Ati-Dalits like Balmikis, Dhanuks, Dhobis, Doms, Khatiks, Kols, Koris, Pasis and so on who formed a substantial chunk of Dalit society. One wonders why only 48 per cent of Dalits were drawn to the electoral process in UP and 52 per cent had been keeping away. Similarly, when Mulayam Singh Yadav or his son Akhilesh Yadav came to power, they also mostly favoured Yadavs and excluded the More Backward and the Most Backward groups. When complaints were raised, Akhilesh took an easy route out by recommending the transfer of 17 castes from the Most Backward category to the Schedule Caste category. But this did not wash away the sin of discrimination against them.

Thus the state’s More Backwards, Most Backwards and Ati Dalits grew disenchanted with identity politics and caste-based parties, and began to look for alternative platforms that would take note of their aspirations. The BJP recognised the alienation of the marginalised and quickly integrated them in both their leadership structure and legislative base. In terms of leadership, the BJP roped in Anupriya Patel, an NDA ally and leader of the Apna Dal that represents Kurmis and Patels (More Backwards), and inducted her in the Modi Cabinet as a Minister of State (for Health and Family Welfare). The party also made Keshav Prasad Maurya, representing Most Backwards, the state BJP president. But the masterstroke was yet to come. The BJP allotted 130 of its 370 tickets to More Backwards and Most Backwards, giving the remaining 33 tickets to its OBC allies—AD and SBSP and other independents. Overall, it gave over 40 per cent of its tickets to More Backwards and Most Backwards, a share that is almost equivalent to their share in the state’s population. OBCs in UP could not have asked for anything more, and the entire community was filled with euphoria over a newfound sense of empowerment. This contributed greatly to the BJP’s landslide victory. According to CSDS data, in 2017, 52 per cent More Backwards and 54 per cent Most Backwards have voted BJP, an accretion of 32 per cent and 37 per cent in their votes respectively since 2012.

The democratic upsurge did not stop here. Even Dalits voted heavily for the BJP, and CSDS data from its post-poll 2017 study shows that 24 per cent Ati Dalits voted for the BJP this time, an accretion of 21 per cent over the party’s 2012 vote share among them. Traditional Dalit voters of BSP appear hesitant to publicly admit their switch, and hence the exact magnitude of Dalit support for the BJP may not have been captured adequately by the CSDS study. The same may be true of the More Backwards and Most Backwards, who may also have voted overwhelmingly for the BJP.

The most surprising indications of the upsurge have come from the Muslim-dominant Fatehpur and Terai belts, including Lakhimpur Kheri. In several villages in Fatehpur, Muslims were upbeat about demonetisation and openly disclosed a preference for the BJP, whereas in Lakhimpur Kheri, young educated Muslim girl students spoke of their resolve to vote for Modi on the issue of triple talaq. Though the CSDS data shows that only 6.7 per cent Muslims have voted BJP this year, given the dynamics within the community, an even higher percentage of Muslims might have voted for Modi’s party.

The BJP has been working to transform its traditional constituency and shift its attention from urban middle-class and upper- caste voters and traders to OBCs, Dalits and Muslims. In doing so, the party has even annoyed its earlier vote bank through a series of policy interventions. Its tax reporting measures resulted in a 41- day bullion strike in the country, its move to institute a Real Estate Regulatory Authority put of realtors, and its crackdown on black money and through demonetisation angered many cash-happy traders. In spite of all that, the party still enjoys the support of upper- caste middle-class traders, as they hardly have any other option.

The BJP has also established a close connect with the people. Rahul Gandhi of the Congress had once mocked the Modi Government as a ‘suit boot ki sarkar’, implying that the Centre was working for the urban rich. But Modi countered the criticism with a massive rural drive in which he took several steps for the good of poor farmers. He initiated the neem coating of urea, for example, which eased urea availability as fertiliser. He introduced a soil-health card, arranged free LPG cylinders for village women under the Ujjwala Scheme, assured villagers that the first cabinet meeting of the new BJP government in UP after the polls would waive off agricultural loans of small and marginal farmers and purchase their agricultural produce at a minimum support price. That is why 32 per cent of rural residents voted BJP as opposed to only 14 per cent in 2012.

Modi also took several measures for the urban youth, women and poor. His drive for financial inclusion through the Jan Dhan Yojna was a hit, and millions of accounts were opened by the poor at banks to facilitate the Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) of subsidies. About 74 schemes of various ministries were using the DBT mechanism by May 2016, and the Government proposes to place more than 600 other schemes under it this financial year.

The Modi Government also took several policy initiatives in the domain of social security, like the Atal Pension Yojna, Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana and Gramin Awas Yojana that gave the poor hope on owning a small house of their own. The Prime Minister’s initiative on youth entrepreneurship, and his Make in India, Start- up India and other campaigns, meanwhile, offered a window to the country’s unemployed youth who were unhappy that casteism in appointments and service delivery in UP under the Akhilesh government had gotten out of hand.

The Prime Minister also kept the common man engaged through his All India Radio programme, Mann ki Baat. By regularly addressing people directly, Modi made them realise that here was a leader who was in touch with them. This not only added to his mass popularity, it has the potential to positively impact the outcome of the 2019 General Election.

BEFORE THE POLLS, there was a lot of noise in UP about the SP-Congress alliance. Few talked about the BJP’s alliances with parties like the AD and SBSP. The AD had won one seat in the 2012 Assembly and the SBSP none. But they represented More Backwards (Kurmi and Patels) and Most Backwards (Rajbhars). The SBSP was polling about 500,000 votes in previous polls and showed an average of about 9,000 votes per constituency. The Kurmi votes were far more numerous. These marginal parties may not be strong enough on their own to win elections, but as add-ons for a mainstream party, they can change outcomes. This is precisely what happened in many constituencies.

The UP verdict was a clear rejection of the Akhilesh Yadav model of development. The former Chief Minister was given to boasting that his development was visible while Modi’s was ‘in the air’. The electorate thought otherwise. Akhilesh’s development had two weaknesses: one, it was not inclusive, helping one particular caste to the exclusion of others, and two, it was overwhelmed by his poor record on law-and-order. He spent crores of public money advertising his projects, but failed to realise that these claims did not impress the common man. In contrast, Modi’s developmental schemes were slowly but surely winning the poor and marginalised over.

The SP-Congress alliance was also seen as irrational. The SP was founded on anti-Congressism and the ideological basis of the party was not in sync with that of the Congress. Akhilesh suddenly decided to go for an alliance with the grand old party without explaining the rationale of his decision. The only argument he gave was that by this alliance, they could win 300 seats or more. In the event, the alliance turned out to be disaster for both. For Akhilesh, it was unwise. On his own, he might have done better. The premise of transferability of votes of alliance partners (on the Bihar model) has proved to be a myth in UP. For the Congress, the alliance was suicidal. One, by ceding 298 seats to the SP, it literally offered its Muslim votes to the SP on a platter in those constituencies, a mistake the party had made in 1996, when it struck an alliance with Mayawati’s BSP and offered its Dalit votes to her in UP. Secondly, the Congress seems to have paid little attention to the 2019 General Election. These Assembly polls were a platform to galvanise its party apparatus and cadre for the Lok Sabha polls to come. By leaving most of UP’s constituencies for an ally to contest, the party apparatus might disintegrate beyond repair in India’s most populous state.

The other major party in UP, the BSP, failed to understand that social coalitions are not mechanical processes that can be terminated at will to opt for another. These experiments take time and should not be a matter of political convenience; they must also reflect a coming together of communities at the grassroots level. After failing to consolidate her Dalit-Brahmin social engineering formula, Mayawati suddenly resorted to an arbitrary Dalit-Muslim social pact without convincing either group why they should join hands. Mayawati also lost her upper-caste votes after the infamous Dayashankar Singh episode in which Naseemuddin indulged in vulgar remarks against the wife and daughter of Dayashankar. It not only pushed Thakurs, but even Brahmins and other upper- castes away from the BSP. This is reflected in the CSDS data. She also lost Dalit votes, especially of Pasis, Balmikis, Koris and Khatiks, as she was seen to have been unfair to them.

The electoral results herald a new era in inclusive and aspirational politics. This could accelerate the Prime Minister’s development programme and give the BJP a handle for a victory in 2019 that would renew his mandate.