The BJP's New Caste Politics in Uttar Pradesh

The task of the opposition will not be complete only by forming a political alliance.

The likelihood that the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) will enter into political alliances with the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Congress in Uttar Pradesh is surely giving nightmares to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) regime. Political pundits understood that the SP-BSP-Congress alliance will be a formidable challenge to Hindutva politics, especially in UP, where the BJP won 71 parliamentary seats in the last general elections. Therefore, if the BJP has to repeat its 2014 performance, its strategy would be to disturb the formation of such a grand alliance. The BJP also knows that in UP, there are not many political parties with whom it can form an electoral alliance. Therefore, to challenge the political alliance between the opposition parties, it is working mainly to consolidate and expand the broad social base that had voted for the BJP in the earlier elections.

In the 2014 general elections and later in the 2017 assembly elections in UP, the BJP had devised a strategy of ‘divide and rule’ to counter its opposition. Within the Dalits and the OBCs, the most economically backward sections and the most socially disadvantaged groups were categorically mobilised into the Hindutva fold. For large sections within the socially deprived groups, popular collective homogenous nomenclature like Dalit/Bahujan/Pichda (backward) are not simply available. People often utilise the narrow caste categories to articulate their political claims. BJP’s strategy has been to expand the caste-based social divide to suggest that one single caste should not be the sole appropriator of the power on the behalf of all the collective castes. The BJP has politicised certain marginalised castes and groups and has placed them against the conventional political domination of the Yadav, Jatav and the Muslim communities.

The BJP is better in its social engineering as it has successfully alienated the dominant political actors as insignificant political opponents now. The BJP has redefined itself as an innovative party by expanding its social base into the lower OBCs and the most politically marginalised Dalit groups that are often counted as insignificant in the conventional political calculations of the SP and the BSP. The BJP has engineered caste factions within the collective traditional vote of the SP and the BSP and its shift has improved the BJP’s vote share from 15% in 2012 to 42% in 2017 assembly elections. It appears that the BJP is confident of retaining its social base in the upcoming elections too and therefore, the political alliance of the opposition appears a little weak here.

The BJP achieved such impressive social alliance by adopting three different political strategies: First, the BJP understands that the caste system is still operative and different caste groups do not have social alliances or fraternal relationships. Castes still function with distrust, animosity and jealousy towards each other and there is no reformist force that can challenge such caste divisions. Modern democracy further allows the resurrections of social segments and factions to make distinct political claims. The BJP showed no interest in reforming the caste fragments, instead it encourages and politicises caste division so that no political collective, such as the Dalits or the OBC, can be formed. It understands that any such formation may challenge the domination of the social elites.

Therefore, aiding and promoting those caste groups that are willing to disturb the collective identity of the Dalits and the OBCs has become a prime strategy. Among the Dalits, the BJP is eyeing mainly to promote the Rajbhar, Pasi, Dhobi and Khatik castes as a counter block against the Jatav leadership of the BSP. Within the OBCs, the BJP has priorities the Mauryas, Kurmis and Lodhs as the leading flag bearers of Hindutva politics. The SP, thus, will be restricted as a Yadav-dominated Party. The everyday social differences between caste groups are consciously manipulated to convert it into stiff social and political rivalries.

Second, there are various political announcements and policy-level promises by the BJP to keep the caste tussle alive. For example, the state government has shown keen interest in the bifurcation of the reservation policy. It helps the party to popularise that the Yadavs, Jatavs and some other castes have monopolised most of the benefits of the reservation policy and therefore, it is time to reform the policy so that the benefits can also reach the most-backward castes. Such agenda cunningly portrays certain Dalit and OBC castes as the new middle class or dominant castes and place the other marginalised groups against them. It fosters distrust and enmity within the same social base and allows the upper caste elites to retain its domination over major economic and political resources.

Third, the BJP communalises certain cultural-folk entitlements attached to social and religious beliefs of the lower castes. Large sections of the Dalit-OBCs are still attached to the Hindu religious traditions and overwhelmingly participate in various local rituals and folklore. The RSS-BJP has systematically intervened into the cultural spheres and often manipulated these local traditions to raise communal clashes against the Muslims. The local deities, folk heroes, village traditions and other cultural artefacts are manoeuvred systematically to build a bond with the Hindutva’s politics. Further, the BJP builds the anti-Muslim hatred by communalising socially sensitive issues like cow protection, Ram Temple and of ‘protecting the dignity of Hindu women’ against the Muslim aggressor (love jihad). The everyday intervention of the RSS-BJP in the religious and cultural milieu of the lower castes has helped the party to gain its support.

Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati. Credit: PTI

Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati. Credit: PTI

It appears that such Machiavellian strategies had proved efficient and yielded results effectively paid the dividends to the BJP during the earlier elections and even in the upcoming elections it will be banking mostly on such strategies. However, this time, the party has very little to offer on substantive question of social and economic justice. The material conditions of the lower OBCs and the non-Jatav Dalits have not at all improved on any indicators of human development. These groups are still socially discriminated, persecuted and surviving under precarious poverty. The BJP slogan ‘Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas’ has not uplifted these communities from its wretched conditions and they are still far away from the corridors of power. It is only the communal and caste polarisation that has kept these communities under BJP’s umbrella.

The SP-BSP-Congress alliance is looking impressive on paper. The Yadav-Jatav-Muslim combination appears a winnable social engineering strategy for the opposition today. However, there is a high possibility that the RSS-BJP brigade can mobilise a bigger social collective than this. On ground, the BJP is effectively executing its own brand of caste-communal politics, against which the opposition is yet to devise any comprehensive strategy. Therefore, the task of the opposition will not be complete only by forming a political alliance.

It can become a formidable political force only if the alliance works to expand its social base and connect the other marginalised groups as equal partners. The challenges before the alliance are to work on the (negative) stereotypes associated with it and to overcome its one caste-centric character. It has to expand its social base to ensure a greater participation of other marginalised communities in the party’s functioning and power structure. Simultaneously, the alliance also needs to announce a new agenda of economic welfare to challenge the rhetoric of BJP’s development. An impressive ideological assertion based on the values of social justice and socialism can dismantle BJP’s divisive social engineering in the upcoming elections.

Harish S. Wankhede is assistant professor at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, School of Social Sciences, New Delhi.