Return of the Brahmin

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Who will win the race for the highest caste vote in UP? Kumar Anshuman reports on a community’s struggle to regain political glory

ON 25 SEPTEMBER, Satish Chandra Mishra, general secretary and Rajya Sabha MP of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), was in Gorakhpur to address a gathering of Brahmins and Dalits. This was the first in a series of ‘bhaichaara’ (brotherhood) meetings planned by the party to get Brahmins back into its fold. At the meeting, Mishra tried his best to enthuse the gathered Brahmins. “The honour and respect of Brahmins in Uttar Pradesh had gone up when the BSP was in power between 2007 and 2012. Around 20 ministers and some top state bureaucrats were Brahmins,” he claimed before the crowd. “If 14 per cent Brahmins join hands with 24 per cent Dalits, no one can stop the BSP from getting a two-thirds majority in UP.” Mishra will hold another meeting in Western Uttar Pradesh in late October. BSP MLA Ramveer Upadhyay, who is in charge of the Brahmin mobilisation team in the region, says his fellow caste members are inclined to choose the BSP over other parties even if their ideology suits them better. “Brahmins were given their due only by the BSP in recent times. They have tried and tested everyone and know their interests are best served by Behen Mayawati,” he says. The BSP is not alone in wooing the state’s Brahmins. With elections round the corner, there is a sudden clamour for the caste group’s votes from all contenders in the state.

Brahmins, who constitute around 12 per cent of the state’s population, are the largest chunk after Dalits (21 per cent) and Muslims (18 per cent). But, except for one or two occasions in the past, political parties have not courted Brahmins proactively. “After a long time, Brahmins are being given so much importance in UP politics. Everyone is counting on them,” says RP Pathak, professor of Political Science at Banaras Hindu University (BHU). “The reason is that other vote chunks like Muslims and Dalits are aligned with political parties and hardly change their allegiances. Brahmins as a chunk are still experimenting with who would serve them better. The opportunity to convince Brahmins [of this] is open to every political party.”

In a cabinet reshuffle in September, Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party (SP) inducted two new Brahmin faces, Manoj Pandey and Shivakant Ojha, and promoted Abhishek Mishra as minister of state with independent charge. “Don’t see it as a step to appease a particular caste,” says Abhishek Mishra. “The Chief Minister takes notes of the performance of every party MLA and minister, and responsibilities are distributed accordingly.” The ruling party may be defensive about pandering to a community, but at a time when its rivals are leaving no stone unturned, it too must go all out to capture the Brahmin imagination.

It came as no surprise when Shiv Pratap Shukla, a former BJP MLA and minister in the Kalyan Singh government, was nominated to the Rajya Sabha by the BJP in June this year. In 2002, Shukla had lost an Assembly election in Gorakhpur to a candidate backed by BJP MP Yogi Adityanath and spent a decade-and-a-half in the cold. Until now. Shukla’s return is strategic. Brahmin leaders in the BJP had been feeling neglected for some time, and bringing back one of their own sends out a positive signal.

The Congress, which has hired political strategist Prashant Kishor to change its fortunes in UP, is depending heavily on the Brahmin swing vote. The party has nominated Sheila Dikshit as its chief ministerial candidate, going against its practice of naming the Chief Minister only after the results. Dikshit is the daughter-in-law of Uma Shankar Dikshit, an erstwhile Brahmin face of the UP Congress who had served as a Union minister and governor. Also, from 1984 and 1989, she had represented the Kannauj Parliamentary constituency of UP.

As a group, Brahmins once had enormous political power in UP. India’s first three prime ministers were UP Brahmins. The state’s first Chief Minister was Govind Ballabh Pant, a Brahmin. “Brahmins have been associated with the Congress right from India’s freedom struggle and hence the party became a natural choice for them after Independence,” says Rajesh Pati Tripathi, state Congress leader and grandson of Kamlapati Tripathi, a former UP Chief Minister and prominent Brahmin leader. “The association continued till the late 80s. However, the base started shifting post the Ram Mandir movement in the state.” During the time the Congress held power in UP, it had a winning mix of Dalit, Muslim and Brahmin votes, with a Brahmin as the leader—the party’s chief ministers included Kamlapati Tripathi, HN Bahuguna and Sripati Mishra, all of the same caste. The last Brahmin Chief Minister of UP was ND Tiwari, who left office in 1989. “Two incidents happened which broke this formidable combination of Brahmins, Dalits and Muslims,” says BN Pandey, former dean of the Law faculty at BHU. “First it was the Ram Mandir movement, which alienated Muslims from Brahmins. The second was the Mandal Commission.” Muslims were put off by the Ayodhya movement and the role of Brahmins in it. The distance widened after the demolition of the Babri Mosque in1992. Post Mandal, upper castes started protesting further reservations, and the state’s Brahmins, being the most numerous of them, were seen at the forefront of the agitation. At the end of that turbulent phase, upper-caste hegemony lay broken, with power passing on to new social coalitions of Dalits and OBCs backed by Muslims led by Mayawati and Mulayam. While Mayawati led Dalits, Mulayam took OBCs and Muslims along with him. They even forged a political alliance in 1993, pushing Brahmins to insignificance in UP politics. “From a ruling class to suddenly being nowhere was a big moral loss for Brahmins who always thought they are born to rule,” says AK Verma, a Kanpur-based political scientist. The BSP’s slogan ‘Tilak, Taraazu aur Talwaar, Inko Maaro Joote Chaar’, asking for shoes thrown at Brahmins, Banias and Thakurs, added to their humiliation. They drifted towards the BJP, but their numbers were not enough for the party to offer them a leading role in state politics. Not one of the party’s three chief ministers —Kalyan Singh, Rajnath Singh and Ram Prakash Gupta—was Brahmin.

After the fall of the NDA Government under AB Vajpayee, the disappointment among BJP-inclined Brahmins grew further. It was a turbulent political period in UP, and Mayawati became Chief Minister thrice, even though her governments were fragile. She held sway over Dalits, but needed other castes for an Assembly majority. In a well-planned strategy, she coined a new slogan in 2005: ‘Brahmin Dalit bhai bhai’. She organised Brahmin brotherhood meetings across the state with Satish Chandra Mishra at the forefront. The idea clicked and Brahmins warmed to the party. “UP had had no Brahmin CM for the past 15 years and there was no way Brahmins could claim supremacy,” says Verma. “[They] had no choice but to realise the new equations under which they wouldn’t be the king but they could at least be the kingmaker.” It was a return to the old days, when Brahmins and Dalits were together politically. The difference was that Dalits were the leaders now and Brahmins had to play second fiddle. In the 2007 Assembly polls, Mayawati gave tickets to 86 Brahmins, of which 41 won. The slogans, playing on the party symbol, had changed to ‘Haathi Nahi Ganesh Hai, Brahma Vishnu Mahesh Hai’ (Not elephant but Ganesh, the Holy Trinity) and ‘Brahman Shankh Bajayega aur Haathi Badhta Jayega’ (The Brahmin will blow the conch and the elephant will progress). For the first time, Mayawati got power with a full majority in UP. The social engineering had worked in her favour. However, she hadn’t got all of the Brahmin vote. “If you look through the data, only 16 per cent Brahmins voted for the BSP, as against 44 per cent [for] the BJP,” says Pathak. “It is not only about Brahmin votes. The influence of Brahmins in changing the political narrative makes other castes follow them. It was perhaps this influence which led to Mayawati’s victory in 2007.”

Currently, the BJP seems to be the best bet for Brahmins. As part of its strategy, Modi celebrated Dussehra in Lucknow and chanted ‘Jai Sri Ram’, a throwback to the Mandir movement

Her popularity among Brahmins started waning as a number of cases were filed against members of the community under the SC- ST Prevention of Atrocities Act. In 2012, she gave tickets to 70 Brahmins, of which only 10 won. In contrast, the SP gave 45 tickets to Brahmins and 21 registered a victory, paving the way for Akhilesh Yadav to form the government in Lucknow. In the 2014 General Election, it was the BJP that got the overwhelming support of upper castes, including Brahmins, and even managed to get Dalits on board. “Brahmins are not aligned with any party. They are tactical voters who always end up on the winning side,” says Pathak. This sums up the importance of the Brahmin in UP’s political arena.

Around 15 km from Varanasi city is Bharthara village under Rohania Assembly constituency. The village is home to a mix of castes: Yadavs, Rajputs and Kurmis. But Brahmins are the majority here, with more than half the votes. “There is a saying in Sanskrit that if the lion comes out of its laziness, no other animal would survive in the forest. If Brahmins get united, they can do whatever they want,” says Ghanshyam Mishra, former pradhan of Bharthara. “Brahmins are never united. In our village, a majority of Brahmin votes go to the BJP. However, candidate selection also matters.” About 4 km from the Rameshwaram temple in Bharthara, we meet Pandit Tara Shankar Pandey in the midst of his morning Sanskrit class. There are 10 students of various ages, all of them Brahmin. “More than supporting a party, Brahmins are interested in their caste winning the maximum seats,” says Pandit Pandey. “But they look for candidates who have numbers on their side. If there is a BSP Brahmin candidate, we assume he will get the base Dalit vote. If Brahmins think that their vote could make him win, they will go for it.” Sidhnath Tiwari, former sarpanch of Lohrapur, a neighbouring village, echoes the view. “We would not like to waste our votes just for a Brahmin candidate,” he says.

WITH FOUR MONTHS to the state elections, all political parties are aggressively campaigning for Brahmin votes. Mayawati has had a setback in former BSP MP and her close aide Brajesh Pathak joining the BJP in August this year. A prominent Brahmin face, Pathak had joined the BSP in 2004. In 2004, he won the Unnao Lok Sabha seat, which has a sizeable population of the caste group. “Mayawati has again developed feelings of hatred towards Brahmins. They are being sidelined,” alleges Pathak. “She has replaced 70 Brahmin candidates with Muslims with money power and criminal backgrounds for the next Assembly elections. I have joined the BJP as it is the only party which can do good for Brahmins.”

The Congress, whose hopes hinge on Brahmin votes, has been organising Brahmin sabhas across the state. “The Congress is not into caste politics. But if other organisations are inviting us to talk about Brahmins, there is no harm in it,” says Jitin Prasad, a senior Brahmin face of the party. The party feels that the projection of Sheila Dikshit as its chief ministerial candidate will attract Brahmins. “We have a leader who is from UP and experienced as a Delhi CM. It is only the Congress that has offered a Brahmin CM—in the past and now. Brahmins are excited as they couldn’t have asked for more,” says Rajesh Mishra, former MP from Varanasi and vice-president of the state Congress. But the ground realities suggest otherwise. Pramod Tiwari, a voter from Lohrapur village in Rohania, says, “The Congress doesn’t have a base vote. We will only vote if we see others voting for the party. Currently the BJP is the local favourite.” With senior Congress leader Rita Bahuguna Joshi set to switch over to the BJP any day now, Congress chances have dimmed further.

Under the current circumstances, it is the BJP that seems to be the best bet for Brahmins. The party has played its cards right so far. As part of its strategy, Prime Minister Modi celebrated Dussehra in Lucknow and even chanted ‘Jai Sri Ram’, a throwback to the Mandir movement. “Unlike Bihar, UP has sizeable upper-caste votes, including 12 per cent Brahmins and 7 per cent Thakurs,” says a senior BJP leader from the state. “Backed by OBC votes minus the Yadavs, the road to victory becomes easier for the BJP, and we are focused on that.”

The Modi Government is planning a Ramayan Museum in Ayodhya and 25 acres of land have been identified for the project. “The plan is not related to UP polls,” says Union Tourism Minister Mahesh Sharma, who is spearheading the project. All these efforts, however, are expected to come good when the state goes to the polls in February-March 2017.

With their star on the rise again, UP’s Brahmins are enjoying the attention being lavished on them. After all, whichever party comes to power, they will be the cheerleaders for the next government.