The results of the recent Uttar Pradesh assembly polls herald the arrival of a unique political formula, one which will have a forceful impact on electoral politics throughout India for years to come. As the most populated and politically most significant state in India, Uttar Pradesh has long paved the way for new political ideologies – be it the saffron wave or the bahujan politics that banked on the votes of the majority, the former untouchable castes, the Dalits. With the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) gaining a thumping majority in mid-May, a newfound alliance of Dalits and upper castes (mostly Brahmin and Bania) has proved to be a formidable combination. In its aftermath, political pundits are lauding the victory of this unlikely coalition as an innovative experiment in social engineering, as overseen by BSP supremo Mayawati.
Mayawati, India’s first Dalit woman chief minister, has now been sworn in to the post in Uttar Pradesh for a fourth time. With the BSP’s clear majority of 206 out of 403 assembly seats, UP is experiencing its first single-party majority in 17 years, since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was in power at the height of the ‘Ram Janmabhoomi’ movement. The most significant change to come about in recent elections has been the decisive entry of deprived castes into mainstream politics, and today there appears to be a realistic opportunity for the Dalit-majority BSP to play a critical role in national politics. Most immediately, this refers to the election of the next president of India, coming up in June. For their part, Mayawati’s supporters have already begun to chant: “Now New Delhi!”
A significant part of the BSP’s success can, of course, be put down to anti-incumbency sentiment. Poor governance has not helped the Samajwadi Party’s image – in particular, the breakdown in law enforcement as made evident in the Nithari child-murders case, the recent murders of several politicians, and the sheer hooliganism of Chief Minister Mulayam Singh’s administration. Even film star Amitabh Bachchan’s much-advertised slogan ‘UP mein hai dum, kyonki jurm yahan hai kum’ (UP is powerful, because there is less crime here) did little to change the discontent directed at Mulayam.
Another factor in the BSP’s favour was the proactive role of the Election Commission, in ensuring that Dalits could vote in large numbers in the seven rounds of phased polling. The elections also saw a large paramilitary presence – almost 500,000 personnel – which some say was the largest deployment of security forces to have taken place in an Indian election. Such a security cover undoubtedly contributed to another record: for perhaps the first time since Independence, no violence occurred during the UP polls. In certain pockets of eastern UP, Dalits were able to cast their votes for the first time ever.
Rise of regional parties
The political transition in Uttar Pradesh between 1999 and 2007 is fairly easy to trace. During that period, people in the marginalised sections of society became politically aware and united. This was also a period of the progressive weakening of the Congress party. From Independence until 1980, the Congress was the undisputed strongman among Indian political parties, and was largely propped up by a vote bank of Dalits, Muslims and Brahmins. This was a period of upper-caste supremacy, when the Brahmins and Kshatriyas had the upper hand and played a decisive role in the larger Indian political system, as well as in the powerhouse of Uttar Pradesh. For years, the lower castes languished, but their search for political identity, self-empowerment and political power steadily strengthened. It was when the Congress began to lose the longstanding support of these groups in the late 1980s that its power rapidly declined.
V P Singh’s decision to implement the report of the Mandal Commission in 1990, recommending reservation for Other Backward Castes (OBCs) in educational institutions and government jobs, acted as a significant catalyst, particularly within the lower and ‘backward’ castes. Their attempts to gain power subsequently became significantly more vocal. A new era of politics was thus emerging. At the national level, the Third Front of non-Congress and non-BJP parties came into being, and a new face, H D Deve Gowda, became prime minister – the first time a state-level politician had reached such a high office. Regional parties started to flex their muscles, and began to look for ways to shake up the political system in Uttar Pradesh. Thereafter, every regional party felt free to dream – and scheme – of having its own prime minister.
This was also the beginning of hung assemblies in UP, with no political party able to win a clear majority. But political analysts who predicted that such a situation would continue for decades have now been proved wrong. The BSP’s win in May has turned longstanding political formulas on their heads: the ‘royal sceptre’ has been decisively placed in the hand of a Dalit ki beti, a daughter of the lower caste, this time unfettered by coalition partners and sharing arrangements that constrained her previous stints as chief minister.
Bahujan to sarvajan
Caste has long been the basis of Indian election formulas. The BSP had also subscribed to the arithmetic of caste, with its perspective that a small number of upper castes were exploiting and reigning over 85 percent of UP’s population – the backward and Dalit castes. The strength of the regional parties that began to sprout during the late 1990s was based on low castes and minorities. While the Congress and the BJP proclaimed that they did not believe in the caste formula, behind the scenes they played the same game, and prepared to respond to the strategy of the regional parties.
In the lead-up to the recent election, however, the BSP had changed its stance. It abandoned its policy of cursing Manuwad, the ascription of all upper-caste evil to the sage Manu, and the party’s members instead began to talk of sarvajan (all the people), not only bahujan (the majority). Satish Chandra Mishra, an upper-caste lawyer, is credited with the successful implementation of this strategy. As Mishra gained her confidence, Mayawati made him Advocate General of Uttar Pradesh in 2002. Since this was the period when the BSP was trying to woo the upper castes, Mayawati found in Mishra the most acceptable Brahmin face, and she eventually made him a member of the Rajya Sabha, the upper house in the national parliament, and then general secretary of the BSP. Mishra was instrumental in bringing in more Brahmins to the BSP, and 48 out of 86 Brahmin BSP candidates won the 2007 election.
The BSP’s campaign slogans from the past election also reflected this shift in caste alignment and the use of the party’s symbol of the elephant over time. From ‘Chad gundo ki chaati par – mohar lagegi hathi par’ (Knocking down ruffians – the seal will be put on the elephant), the attempt to woo the upper caste was apparent in the religious symbolism of ‘Hathi nahi Ganesh hai – Brahma, Vishnu, Mahesh hai’ (It is not an elephant, but lord Ganesh – the creator, the preserver and the destroyer.) and ‘Brahmin Shankh bajayega – hathi badta jayega’ (The Brahmin will blow the conch – the elephant will surge forward).
The BSP is now 23 years old. When Mayawati’s mentor Kanshi Ram founded the party, he coined the slogan, “Share at par with involvement”, and the goal of the BSP was political representation in proportion to population size. Initially, the party had to rely on tenuous alliances to make any headway in state politics. In 1993, the BSP came to power and formed a government with the Samajwadi Party, which had a hold on the OBCs, particularly the Yadavs. In the evolving formulation of UP politics, the upper-caste-leaning BJP actually supported the BSP in the 1997 elections, and Mayawati subsequently became chief minister for the first time. Now, a decade later, the BSP has reached a position of being able to form a government by itself. It has been a slow, steady and strategic build up of strength in India’s politically most-significant state.
In UP, the ability of the Dalits and the upper castes, particularly Brahmins, to coalesce, marks a great change in the social and political equation, and holds the promise of a stable formula, according to some. Furthermore, this success has set the regional parties’ sights even higher. If in coming parliamentary elections, after a year and a half, the BSP were to win 60 more seats in UP, Mayawati’s chances of becoming prime minister of India would be very strong. Although seven past prime ministers have hailed from UP, during times of hung assemblies and parliaments the state’s politics became weak, and left the field open for regional parties of South India to play a more prominent role in New Delhi. Led by Mayawati, the resurgence of one-party domination in UP now signals the return of the state as the kingmaker.
Muslim vote bank
In the BJP-led coalition government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, politicians from Andhra Pradesh were very powerful in the Centre. The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government of Manmohan Singh owes its gratitude to the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the left parties, which are currently extremely influential.
Many now say that if Mayawati’s government is able to strengthen Uttar Pradesh in central politics, the perceptions of minorities could simultaneously change. Up to this point, the minority vote bank has been scattered, largely attached to various state-level regional parties, and with the Congress at the national level. In the mid-1990s in UP, with a weak Congress party and the opportunistic alliance of the BJP and the BSP, minority votes went increasingly to the Samajwadi Party and whosoever else was perceived to be secular. The so-called Muslim parties were unsuccessful in wooing the UP vote bank, and failed to win the sympathy even of the Muslims. Now, the Muslim vote bank in UP again seems to be turning towards the BSP – and the party leadership is keeping a careful watch over these voters. Said to be very close to Mayawati, Nasimuddin Siddiqui, the popular youth leader from Banda District, has become the minority face of the BSP.
In the aftermath of the recent elections, attention must be paid to the failures of the Samajwadi Party, the BJP and Congress in UP. Their trump cards have proved ineffective. The high-profile road show of Rahul Gandhi, as well as the campaigning by his mother and sister, did not make a dent in the triumphant march of the elephant. In May 2007, the Congress won a mere 21 seats – two fewer, even, than in 2002.
While the Congress saw the worst results in the UP polls, the BJP’s dreams also came crashing to the ground. After gaining power in Punjab and Uttarakhand, the BJP was expecting significantly better results in UP. Party leaders were hoping that the saffron wave would sweep India. Indeed, a UP win could have paved the way for clinching Goa, Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat – and the road to Delhi would have been clear. Instead, the BJP has to take a hard look at its poll strategy, and perhaps remodel its party structure in UP. In 2002, the BJP won 88 seats in Uttar Pradesh; this time, it could gain no more than 50. The fall-guy for the BJP would be the party’s national president, Rajnath Singh, who could not even save the party in his own state.
The same may happen with the Samajwadi Party, which only won 97 out of 403 seats in the state assembly. SP leaders are now seriously thinking about how to restructure the party. During the run-up to the May elections, chief ministers from various South Indian states streamed up to UP to campaign for Mulayam Singh Yadav, who had been dreaming of forming a Third Front with these states for the next Lok Sabha parliamentary elections in 2009. This dream, too, now lies in tatters.
While the UP elections of 2007 have clearly marked a significant shift in how Indian political parties will fashion their political formulas in the days to come, there is, however, little hope for an overall change in the system. Parties in power in the past, after all, have made hundreds of promises during election campaigns, many of which remain flagrantly unfulfilled to this day. While one hopes that Mayawati’s new government atop the elephant will not tread the same path, the Indian masses have developed a wary view of the politicians of any political party – and to break that mindset will require a long, long ride. What the public of UP hopes is that four-time Chief Minister Mayawati will be as good in governance this time as she is in forging winning alliances.
Exit and opinion polls were a flop once again in the recent UP election. No major political pundit or psephologist predicted the BSP winning a full majority, including those at Star News, the Indian Express, CNN, IBN7, NDTV, India TV or Sahara TV. Instead, each of these foresaw a hung assembly, suggesting that the BSP would get between 103 and 168 seats. Quite a few surveys gave the BJP more than 100 seats, although it eventually won just half that. While many put the BSP and the SP in the same range, the SP eventually wound up with less than half of the BSP’s seats. Besides the fact that psephology is an inexact science, one might suggest that class and caste bias leads to such skewed predictions, perhaps?
~Pratap Somvanshi is the Kanpur-based Resident Editor of the Hindi daily Amar Ujala.