An Upper Caste-led Coalition May Help the Congress Mount a Good Contest in UP

The party has hinted that while Sheila Dikshit may formally lead the campaign, Priyanka Gandhi will be given important responsibilities in the state.

 Consolidating the Brahmins will mean a definite setback for the BJP. Credit: PTI

Consolidating the Brahmins will mean a definite setback for the BJP. Credit: PTI

Keeping in mind their campaign strategist Prashant Kishor’s suggestion to have a Brahmin chief ministerial face in the upcoming Uttar Pradesh (UP) polls, the Congress may announce former Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit as its leader in UP.

Brahmins form almost 10% of UP’s population. Ever since Other Backward Classes (OBC)-Dalit politics evolved in the state, with the rise of the Samajwadi Party (SP) and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) respectively, Brahmins have relied on tactically aligning with one or the other of these parties. The landed community of Brahmins is often seen bargaining for its interests with one of these parties just ahead of elections. The leader of the BSP Mayawati’s victory in 2007 was largely attributed to her implausible alliance with Brahmins – what many referred to as ‘social engineering’.

The Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) has been the natural ally of the Brahmins on non-electoral fronts. In the 2014 elections, the Brahmins declared their unequivocal support for Narendra Modi. However, in the run-up to the UP assembly polls, the BJP, too, has focused on working out an alternative backward class electorate comprising non-Yadav OBCs and non-Jatav Dalits, apart from a few dominant caste groups like Thakurs. (Yadavs comprise the core support group for the SP and Jatavs form the main constituency of the BSP.) This means that Brahmins may have to look out for a tactical alliance yet again. It is against this context that the Congress’s decision to have a Brahmin chief ministerial candidate stands out. If this comes to pass, a Brahmin will be in the electoral race for the top post for the first time after 1988, when N.D. Tiwari was the chief minister.

Alongside this decision, the party has also hinted that Priyanka Gandhi may be given some important responsibilities in UP. Speaking to The Wire, a Lucknow-based Congress leader said: “In the last few elections in UP, Priyanka has campaigned in Amethi and Rai Bareily, not as a party leader but as a member of the Gandhi family. This time, her focus will be the entire UP and she will handle some significant political responsibilities.”

Clearly, some thinking is behind this. With another Brahmin leader, Rita Bahuguna, and upper caste leader, Nirmal Khatri, whose caste has a negligible presence in UP, the party is clearly trying to draw together a loose coalition of upper caste groups, with Brahmins at the centre. With this probable coalition, the party has to rely on its established support base, especially among Dalits. Rahul Gandhi has been campaigning in areas dominated by non-Jatav Dalits, especially in the drought-affected Bundelkhand. And so have other Congress leaders of the state.

The decision makes one thing clear – the Congress is not trying to win in the UP polls but wants to save face from a complete rout. This coalition may help them mount a good contest in at least 100 of a total of 403 constituencies. And precisely because of this, the chances of Brahmins consolidating in support of the Congress are minimal, especially given the fact that they have historically exercised their influence directly and indirectly to remain in the corridors of power.

The implications for UP politics

Even if the Congress has only some degree of success with it, this tactic will have far-reaching implications for the elections. Consolidating the Brahmins will mean a definite setback for the BJP, which is leaving no stone unturned to win back power. The elections will then be a clear four-cornered fight – with the BJP, SP, BSP and Congress in a cutthroat race for power. All the concerned parties will try to butter up as many community groups as possible. Barring the BJP, all will try to woo the Muslims, who form a little over 20% of UP’s population. Except the SP, the other three parties will fight for the votes of the Dalit community, which constitutes 19% of the state’s population.

In the 2012 election, Akhilesh Yadav won 224 seats and only a little more than 29% of the votes. The BJP was a distant third in the last assembly election with only 15% of the vote share. This time around, however, the BJP is in a much better position, in relying upon an alternative OBC-Dalit-Thakur alliance. Given this scenario, regional players like the Ajit Singh-led Rashtriya Lok Dal and Apna Dal will play a crucial role. Pre-poll alliances with these parties will also become extremely significant.

The Congress finished fourth in 2012, with around 12% of the votes. However, in the run-up to the 2016 polls, it has become the first party to set the ball rolling.

This turns out to be quite an ironic situation – and the other parties will undoubtedly soon follow suit, with more spectacular announcements. However, to what extent such announcements and electoral ploys will actually work on the ground is something that will become clear only over the next few months.