Is UP Politics in For Another Wave of Social Churning?

Despite the BJP's confidence, changing realities on the ground mean that the party's electoral arithmetic in UP may not work as expected.

BJP supporters cheer during Prime Minister Narendra Modi's rally in Deoria. Credit: Titash Sen

BJP supporters cheer during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rally in Deoria. Credit: Titash Sen

Azamgarh (Uttar Pradesh): With the last phase of Uttar Pradesh’s election set for March 8, the BJP has already declared victory in the state’s assembly polls. BJP leaders have said that two factors – one political and one arithmetical – will help them secure an unprecedented win. One, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity across all sections of Hindus will break into the existing caste alliances to lend an advantage to the party. Two, the BJP claims that its social engineering formula of uniting the ‘forward’ caste groups, non-Yadav OBCs and non-Jatav Dalits is the largest social coalition in the electoral playground, if compared to other political fronts.

However, a careful scrutiny of the electoral terrain will reveal that the BJP’s formula is only partially successful, at best.

The social coalition the BJP is banking on is a complex mix of caste groups. If one leaves aside Muslims (19% of the population), Yadavs (around 10%) and Jatavs (around 17% of the roughly 21% Dalits), the BJP is left with only around 54% of the electorate from which to create a support base. This means that its formula to strike an alliance of ‘forward’ castes (20%), non-Yadav OBCs (around 30% but distributed unequally in different constituencies) and non-Jatav Dalits (around 5%) is more a compulsion than a clever political tactic.

A large number of castes constitute the non-Yadav OBCs. Nishad, Kurmi, Jat, Koeri, Rajbhar, Maurya, Prajapati, Shakya and their many sub-castes, with different pockets of political influence, are part of this group. The problem for the BJP, however, is that it is not the only party competing on this turf. In fact, while the other parties in the fray – Samajwadi Party (SP), Congress, Bahujan Samaj Party, Rashtriya Lok Dal and other small parties – have historical support in the 30% non-Yadav OBC population, the BJP started working among these groups with renewed vigour only recently.

Since most of these groups remain backward and poor, the BJP has undoubtedly emerged as a new alternative for this section. Its campaign against Yadavs for having cornered all the resources over the last two decades has put it in an advantageous position.

However, most political analysts in UP believe that the saffron party may not get the wholehearted support of this group, as they are mostly divided into different castes and sub-castes, each of whom is historically aligned with one or the other party depending on the region.

Therefore, to claim that the whole 30% chunk of voters is supporting the BJP is a bit of an exaggeration. “Look at Jats, a part of this 30%. They have already deserted the BJP in western UP, if reports are to be believed. Similarly, Kurmis, Patels, Nishads, Koeris too will not vote en masse for the BJP,” Deenbandhu Tiwari, a political analyst based in Varanasi, told The Wire.

Tiwari may not be off the mark. Across various regions of UP, non-Yadav OBCs are the most scattered lot. They hardly identify themselves as one united political whole. In contrast, because of three decades of identity-driven assertive politics in UP led by different parties, Yadavs, Jatav and Jats think of themselves as dominant political entities. Together with Muslims, who are antithetical to the BJP, they were successful in forming formidable political fronts.

BJP’s campaign among non-Yadav OBC groups

The BJP, on the other hand, has sought to garner support from these groups not on the basis of any assertive movement against the ‘forward’ castes, who still own the maximum resources in UP, but by advancing a three-pronged strategy.

First, it has appointed leaders from these groups to important party posts. For example, ahead of the polls, it ignored many other top leaders of the state unit to elevate the not-so-powerful legislator Keshav Prasad Maurya as the president of of the state unit. Similarly, it managed to attract many non-Yadav OBC leaders from other parties, the most prominent being former BSP member and leader of the opposition, Swami Prasad Maurya.

In addition, the party has struck pre-poll alliances with small parties that command a large section of these groups. Apna Dal, considered to be a Kurmi party led by central minister Anupriya Patel, and the Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party (SBSP), which articulates the concerns of Rajbhars, led by Om Prakash Rajbhar, are its allies. While Kurmis are influential in Awadh and Poorvanchal, Rajbhars are numerically quite strong in some pockets of eastern UP.

Second, along with this identity-driven representative politics, it has advanced an aggressive anti-Yadav rhetoric among these groups. The constant refrain in this section was that Yadavs were appointed to government jobs during the SP’s rule. While The Wire could not independently verify the truth of the claim, it was one of the most common complaints of non-Yadav backward class youth. The idea that Yadavs have become prosperous at their cost is what the BJP has been largely successful in portraying.

Third, the Hindu-nationalist party has projected Modi, who also comes from a small OBC community, the Ghanchis in Gujarat, as their leader.

The case of Nizamabad

This combined strategy has clearly given the BJP a lead among these groups, but whether this will be enough for it to form the government is in question.

In the Muslim-dominant Nizamabad constituency in Azamgarh, for instance, the RSS and BJP adopted a novel method to garner support.

Nizamabad is famous for its internationally-renowned black pottery. Made with a particular variety of clay found only in this area, black pottery, which has geographical indication status, is a combination of fine craftsmanship and hard work. The artists who make this belong to the Prajapati community, are mostly poor and live in dismal conditions, although many successive state governments have recognised their art and given them awards. Their wages remain low and demand for the traditional art has shrunk in recent years.

Prajapatis, who are numerically influential in the seat, have been supporting the SP all these years. Much of the labour economy of the area depends on pottery and allied businesses.

However, the BJP has worked on them by exploiting the class divisions among the group. While most in the community are poor, there are some who are extremely poor. The latter are those who do not know the art of black pottery and, therefore, cast idols of Hindu gods and goddesses, which sell for only Rs 25 a pair. As the cast of the idols are available in the market, their work does not require the training that black potters need, although they too put in an equal amount of hard work.

In contrast, the black potters get mass orders from city-based distributors, who then sell it internationally. Since the distributors corner most of the profits in the absence of any government regulation, the wages of the artists have remained abysmally low.

The BJP has succeeded in driving a wedge among the Prajapatis by highlighting only the problems of idol makers. “While the black potters get all the attention, these murtikars (idol makers) who do such great service to the Hindu religion by making idols have been ignored by all the governments in the past. We want them to have the same recognition as the black potters,” a city-based RSS pracharak told The Wire.

Clay idols at a murti-maker's workshop in Nizamabad. Credit: Titash Sen

Clay idols at a murti-maker’s workshop in Nizamabad. Credit: Titash Sen

This has divided the Prajapatis into two identifiable groups – one supporting the SP and the other the BJP.

Across many constituencies of Awadh and Poorvanchal, the BJP has combined its larger political strategies with such divisive tactics on the ground. It has carried out a similar campaign with non-Jatav Dalits, advancing the idea that the BSP represents only Jatavs or Chamars.

“One can say that while the SP-Congress and the BSP barely addressed their concerns over all these years, the BJP, in its electoral scheme of things, has further divided these working class groups,” Jai Prakash Rai ‘Dhoomketu’, a Mau-based poet, told The Wire.

A social churning?

In this complex electoral equation, the case of Nizamabad indicates both the success and limitations of the BJP. While it may gain a section of Prajapati votes this time around, it will still lose out on the section which has traditionally supported the SP.

The BJP has clearly made a dent in the group, but to claim that all non-Yadav voters will vote for it may only help the party stay ahead in the PR-driven battle of perception.

large section of Jats who voted for the BJP in the 2014 parliamentary polls seem to have deserted the party in 2017. Similarly, The Wire noted a large section of Kurmis remains with the SP in Awadh and Poorvanchal. “We will stay with Beni Prasad Verma,” said Vijay Verma, a Kurmi resident of Barabanki, which is known to be a Kurmi-dominant region. Beni Prasad is a Rajya Sabha MP from the Congress and exercises significant influence in the area.

Similarly, Pasis, a Dalit community, also seemed divided between the BJP and BSP. In fact, many reports suggest that Mayawati has managed to consolidate a large section of non-Jatav Dalits. No great shift towards the BJP was noticeable among non-Jatav Dalits, except for the Khatiks.

In addition, both the SP and the BSP have a historical advantage over the BJP in representing leaders from these communities, each having their own pockets of influence. This puts the BJP at a disadvantage, as it is fighting to win the confidence of only 54% of the electorate.

The emergent trends in UP indicate an undercurrent of a peculiar kind of social churning at play.

Through the 1980s and 1990s, UP, inspired by the anti-corruption movement led by Jayaprakash Narayan, saw an upsurge in assertive movements against the ‘upper’ caste-dominated feudal agrarian economy. This was primarily led by Mulayam Singh Yadav, who managed to consolidate OBCs under his leadership. In the 1990s, when the Sangh parivar-led Ram janmabhoomi movement gripped state politics, Mulayam won the confidence of Muslims and forged the winnable Muslim-Yadav social coalition.

During the same period, Kanshi Ram led Dalits to form one of the biggest parties in UP – the BSP.

Yet, “the ideological and organisational deterioration,” as political scientist Sudha Pai put it, has led to the rise of not just bahubalis or strongmen in all parties but also has precipitated a political vacuum. The communities which feel left out of the political system now want a share of this space.

The BJP has unsuccessfully been trying to enter this space for many years now. In the 1960s under the leadership of Deen Dayal Upadhyay, its former avatar Jan Sangh had mooted the idea of reaching out to OBCs and Dalits who were then Congress supporters. Rajnath Singh, in his tenure as chief minister from 2000-2002, drew from this idea to create a fissure in the dominant OBC-Dalit politics of UP. He brought leaders like Om Prakash Rajbhar, currently SBSP chief, into the BJP fold.

“While it tried to become the voice of these groups, the BJP also advanced the idea of Hindutva among these communities,” said Awadhesh Pradhan, a Hindi professor at the Banaras Hindu University.

Currently, BJP president Amit Shah has managed to achieve partial success in implementing this strategy.

However, this social churning, which is leading to further fragmentation of OBC-Dalit assertive politics, is not just the BJP’s making. Both the SP and BSP have had a lot to contribute, as sentiments articulated against Yadavs and Jatavs by these groups reflect.

Consequently, UP has been witnessing the birth of many smaller parties, which voice the concerns of one particular caste group. For instance, at least three Nishad parties have emerged. Nishads are a group of different caste groups who live along the innumerable rivers of UP and are considered fishermen communities, although many of them no longer practice this profession.

“History is the mother of all politics. We try to inculcate among Nishads a sense of pride through their glorious history. We want to be a part of the political system by winning seats and not just asserting our voice,” Sanjay Kumar Nishad of Nirbal Indian Shoshit Hamara Aam Dal (Nishad) party, which has some influence in Poorvanchal, told The Wire.

The Nishad Party led by Sanjay Kumar Nishad has become a significant presence in Poorvanchal, where it is likely to divide the BJP's vote share. Credit: Titash Sen

The Nishad Party led by Sanjay Kumar Nishad has become a significant presence in Poorvanchal, where it is likely to divide the BJP’s vote share. Credit: Titash Sen

He claims to have great support among Nishads and has mostly nominated candidates from other castes to strike a winnable social coalition. Pragatisheel Manav Samaj Party, with a good presence in the lower Awadh region, also represents Nishads and follows the same strategy.

Similarly, the SBSP represents Rajbhars and is fighting elections as an ally of the BJP. Apna Dal of Kurmis is also a case in point.

This is not only the case among Hindus. The emergence of the Peace Party of India led by Ayub Ansari, which represents the voice of Pasmanda Muslims, points towards a similar churning. It feels that backward Muslims have been repressed by the Ashraf elite class in politics and is there to change this.

While the Apna Dal (Anupriya Patel group) and SBSP are BJP’s allies, the Nishad Party, Peace Party of India, Apna Dal (led by Anupriya’s mother Krishna Patel) and Jan Adhikar Party under Babu Singh Kushwaha are fighting together as one political front.

Krishna broke away from her daughter after she joined the BJP. Kushwaha, on the other hand, was a prominent BSP leader for 27 years before he was accused of murdering two doctors who had blown the lid off the National Rural Health Mission scam, in which he was the main accused. He later joined the BJP but finally had to float his own party.

This alliance may considerably hamper the BJP’s chances in the 2017 polls. Its campaign has mostly concentrated on attacking the BJP, which is targeting the same groups.

If one looks at the political trajectory of these parties, they have consolidated their caste groups by injecting a sense of pride in them through various means, and by promising that their fight is to get political representation in the system and not merely build a widespread rights-based movement.

In a state where electoral dynamics is dictated by caste coalitions, each party’s intention has been to cut out its own playing field – the larger political tactic adopted by all identity-driven political parties, including the SP and the BSP.

However, while this has led to a great churning in UP politics, it lacks direction as of now. “At one level, they want to consolidate their caste groups and have a voice in the system, at another level they have not been able to prevent BJP making inroads in their communities. The Sangh parivar has managed to popularise Hindutva’s agenda among these groups.” said Basant Rajbhar, a candidate fighting the election in Mau from a CPI(ML-Liberation) ticket.

The BJP’s campaign among non-Yadav OBCs is different from how it works among ‘forward’ castes. Among these groups, it combines an anti-Dalit and anti-Muslim rhetoric to get space.

For example, one of the favourite slogans of Om Prakash of the SBSP is “Murgi charegi bharauti mein, anda degi chamrauti mein (The hen will get its food in a Rajbhar home, but will lay eggs only in a Chamar home)”. Through this slogan, a veiled attack against Mayawati who is the metaphorical hen, Om Prakash makes it clear that his main opposition is the BSP, which Rajbhars have historically supported. Similarly, the BJP is the main enemy of the Nishad Party, as Nishads have mostly voted for the saffron party.

The 2017 assembly polls, therefore, is an open game.

However, what is clear is that identity-based assertions in UP are in a state of flux, with no clear political directions. Whether this fragmentation of OBC-Dalit politics would have any long-term impact on the state’s dynamics remains to be seen. That the lower echelons among the OBCs and Dalits are now experimenting electorally against the dominant sections of their own groups is a visible trend in the assembly elections. The national parties, in such a context, are only interested in striking pre-electoral alliances with them instead of trying to address their concerns.

Perhaps it may take another few years for such trends to completely mature. We may then see what one could call the second wave of identity-based assertive politics in UP.