The Irony of BSP and SP Going From Being Anti-Brahmin to Now Wooing Them

The effort by BSP, followed by the SP, to lure Brahmins would appear an ill-convinced strategy as they have not lost elections because the community has stopped voting for them.

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On November 20, 2018, Twitter co-founder and CEO Jack Dorsey sparked controversy by holding a poster that read “Smash Brahmanical Patriarchy“.

This made Congress leader Manish Tewari furious.

Although Brahmanism is an ideology and theoretically not equated to any particular social group, but in popular reception, anti-Brahmanism is often interpreted as being anti-Brahmin, which is also evident in Tewari’s tweet.

Even though there was no substance behind Tewari’s claim, he would not have thought that three years later, the flag-bearers of Mandal politics, whom he blamed, in Uttar Pradesh – Bahujan Samaj Party [BSP] and Samajwadi Party [SP] – would take his claim so seriously.

The announcement by BSP, which was followed by SP, to hold Brahmin Sammelans (Prabudh Varg Sammelan) across the state to woo the community to revive their electoral fortunes, gives rise to the host of issues. Is BJP forcing parties like BSP and SP to redefine their politics? What happens to their anchoring principles of social justice and secularism in the process of this re-envisioning? Would such a move yield electoral dividends for these parties?

The effort by SP and BSP to lure Brahmins would appear an ill-convinced strategy as they have not lost elections because the community has stopped voting for them. Rather, one of the prime reasons behind their electoral debacle is the shift of non-Yadav OBCs and non-Jatav Dalits towards the BJP.

For instance, data from the Lokniti-CSDS post-poll survey on Lok Sabha Elections 2019 suggests that 72% of non-Yadav and non-Koeri-kurmi OBCs have voted for the BJP, and only 18% of them have voted for the gathbandhan. Such a decisive shift of lower OBCs and Dalits is puzzling, primarily because their representation in the BJP is marginal and not proportionate to their share in the population. A total of 44.9% ‘upper’ castes, as opposed to 19.7% OBCs, were fielded by the BJP in UP.

Also read: Heading Towards the UP Polls, What Lies Ahead for Akhilesh Yadav?

No economic progress

What explains the shift of lower OBC and Dalit votes towards a party primarily dominated by ‘upper’ castes? How has the BJP managed to penetrate the imagination of these communities without stoking discontent among its own core voters?

It can be said that these groups have switched their allegiance because Mandal politics has neither benefitted them materially (in terms of jobs and education) nor politically (political representation and recognition), and most of the advantages have been cornered by some influential castes. These claims are not entirely ungrounded.

For example, the commission, appointed in October 2017, to look into the matter of sub-categorisation within the OBCs at the central level observed that according to the last three years data of OBC’s admissions to Central higher education institutions, including universities, IITs, NITs, IIMs and AIIMS, 97% of Central OBC quota benefits have gone to just under 25% of all sub-castes classified as OBCs. Around 983 OBC communities — 37% of the total — have zero representation in jobs and admissions. Besides, just 10 communities of OBCs have availed 24.95% of jobs and admissions.

It appears that reservation has worked as a double-edged sword. Although it was instrumental in uniting the disparate ‘lower’ castes against the dominance of ‘upper’ castes, at the same time, such a skewed and uneven distribution of the benefits of reservation has proven to be a severe handicap for the larger solidarity and collective action. It also partly explains the increasing number of caste-specific outfits (such as the Nishad Party) and loyalty towards a single jati, which is used as a bargaining chip to appeal to particular castes, bereft of any larger concerns.

Consequently, it paved the way for the BJP to mobilise the ‘lower’ castes into its fold without offering any tangible benefits or representation. Thus, the massive fragmentation amid a rampant BJP is the twin crisis that Mandal politics is witnessing recently.

Also read: UP: Will Rivalry Between Two Caste-Based Parties Over the Nishad Community Benefit the BJP?

Lessons on caste politics from SP-BSP’s electoral rout

In spite of the fact that the concerns of lower OBCs and Dalits are genuine, BSP and SP have been reluctant to take their grievances seriously and even failed to acknowledge them. The inability and unwillingness to comprehend the reasons for their electoral rout has resulted in drastic changes in these two parties’ electoral strategies in each successive election.

To illustrate, SP fought the 2017 assembly elections on the plank of development; symbolised in the slogan kaam bolta hai (construction of expressways and metros, distribution of laptops, etc.), but had to switch to social justice; embodied in the idea of samajik nyaay se mahaparivartan, in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. But it failed miserably on both occasions.

In a similar vein, BSP tried to win over Muslims by giving over 100 tickets to them in the 2017 assembly elections, but this also failed to pay-off. BSP is now trying to do a similar experiment with the Brahmins. Thus, neither development-oriented nor Mandal style of politics seems to be paying dividends for these parties. No doubt, the BJP has redefined the electoral mobilisation based on caste by pitching some sections of the OBCs against the others. But instead of trying to win back the support of those social groups who have hitherto supported SP and BSP, these parties are trying to entice Brahmins.

Ironically, in this process of reimagining their politics, they are increasingly becoming indifferent towards the fundamental principles of Dalit-Bahujan politics: social justice and secularism. That is why we hardly see any spirited struggle by these parties on the vital issues of social justice such as the continued non-implementation of existing quotas and denial of OBC reservations in the National Eligibility Cum Entrance Test (NEET) for several years, the introduction of lateral entry without any provision of reservation in government jobs, government’s refusal to carry out caste census and the passage of EWS reservation, etc.

Besides, BSP’s Brahmin Sammelan in Ayodhya appeared to blur the distinction between BJP and BSP, which was evident in chanting of the Jai Shri Ram slogan and a promise to make the temple faster than the ruling dispensation.

Interestingly, instead of denouncing these events, Mayawati has announced to intensify the sammelans in the wake of FIR against the organisers for violating the COVID-19 protocols during BSP’s Kasganj sammelan. Ironically, BSP seems to be compromising on its core values in a context wherein caste-based atrocities and oppression have increased in recent years in Uttar Pradesh. The National Crime Record Bureau data recorded an increase of 7.3% in crimes against the Dalits between 2018 and 2019.

It must be noted that BSP’s assumption that Brahmins would vote for the party as they did in 2007 is too naive, as the political landscape has changed radically. The ascendant BJP has benefitted Brahmins in almost every sense, be it economically (10% EWS quota, disinvestment and privatisation), politically (number of ministers, MPs etc.), or culturally (cow vigilantism, thrust for vegetarianism and construction of Ram Mandir).

There is very little that SP or BSP can offer to Brahmins in comparison to the BJP in the current scenario. Therefore, the much-hyped Brahmin anguish with the BJP should be seen as a bargaining tactic to extract a greater share in power by the community within the BJP. There is hardly any substance in their anger: it has more to do with the hurt pride, which is evident in their cry over caste-based encounters (even of deadly criminals) and their reluctance to digest the Rajput dominance.

Also read: As UP Polls Inch Towards Bipolar Contest Between SP and BJP, Alliances Remain Crucial

Thus, it is doubtful that they would switch sides and join hands with those parties that challenged their socio-economic supremacy in the first place. Besides, the interests of the Brahmins and Dalit-Bahujans are largely antithetical. It is amply clear that BJP is setting the discourse, and these parties are dancing to their tunes. And in this process, parties are themselves becoming active agents of counter-revolution against Mandal politics rather than fighting against it.

Hence, it is not the Brahmin Sammalens that would revive their electoral fortunes. They need to devise a strategy that should be able to combine two things at once: continue adhering to the central concerns of social justice and secularism, yet reframing them in a manner that appeals and caters to the aspirations of new generations.

Additionally, they need to acknowledge the grievances of lower OBCs and Dalits and find ways to accommodate their interests. An increased number of tickets to candidates belonging to these social groups would be the first step in this direction. In this regard, they can learn from the tactics Tejashwi Yadav-led Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) employed during the Bihar elections last year.

It tried to stick to its ideological commitments of secularism and social justice by introducing reservation in party organisation for lower OBCs, vehemently opposing EWS reservation and Citizenship Amendment Act, and protesting against the dilution of SC/ST atrocities Act. It played a central role in the passage of resolutions in the state assembly both in support of caste-based census and against the pan India NRC. Instead of falling prey to the terms set by the BJP, Yadav and his party set the electoral agenda and surprised us with his leadership style, electoral promises, and ability to appeal and gain support across castes.

On the contrary, the SP and BSP have constantly failed to reinvent their politics in the right direction and lack an ideological anchor. That is why they appear to neither offer anything new to the electorate nor being sincere to their foundational values. However, it must be kept in mind that these parties cannot afford to be defensive on these vital issues as it can further alienate their core voters. The shift of Muslims towards All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) in Bihar must be seen as a warning sign for Bahujan politics across North India that Muslim votes can no longer be taken for granted.

Pankaj Kumar is a PhD scholar at Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.