UP’s Mahagathbandhan is Not Down and Out

The fact that the grand alliance has held on to its social base in 2019 will enable it to exploit the contradictions inherent in the base stitched together by the BJP.

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s success in stemming the anticipated decline in Uttar Pradesh, where its tally of 62 seats is just nine less than what it won in 2014, has had political pundits sound the death knell of the mahagathbandhan, or grand alliance, comprising the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD).

These pundits, however, gloss over the contradictions inherent in the enormous social base that the BJP has crafted for itself. The most backward class will soon be at loggerheads with the dominant groups among the Other Backward Classes, and both will soon discover the BJP’s predilection for the upper castes.

The mahagathbandhan will be in a position to exploit these contradictions once they come to the fore, because its social base hasn’t been swamped by the BJP. The alliance’s social base, in the main, draws on the support of Dalits, Yadavs and Muslims.

The post-poll survey of the Lokniti-CSDS (Centre for the Study of Developing Societies) shows that 75% of Jatavs, 42% of non-Jatavs, 60% of Yadavs and 73% of Muslims voted for the mahagathbandhan.

In 2014, when the BSP, SP and RLD fought separately, the Lokniti-CSDS data shows that only 68% of Jatavs and 29% of non-Jatav Dalits supported the BSP. And only 53% of Yadavs voted for the SP. The Muslims were split among different parties in 2014, with the SP securing the lion’s share – 58% of their votes.

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These comparative figures suggest that the alliance in 2019 consolidated the social base of its constituents better than what each could achieve on its own in 2014. It tripled its seats in the Lok Sabha, from five in 2014 to 15 in 2019. This compares favourably with the one seat each the Congress bagged in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Bihar, where its other partners failed to open their account. The Congress drew a blank in Rajasthan and Haryana.

The mahagathbandhan in Uttar Pradesh underperformed because it was popularly perceived to represent the Jatav subcaste among Dalits and the Yadav caste among the OBCs. It triggered a reaction among non-Jatav Dalits and non-Yadav OBCs, which swung behind the BJP. Neither the Dalits nor the OBCs are homogeneous groups, but it is also true that the BJP accentuated the degrees of separateness and differences among them for political mobilisation.

BJP’s political project – dividing OBCs and Dalits

The BJP began its project of dividing the OBCs and Dalits in 2001, when the then Uttar Pradesh chief minister, Rajnath Singh, appointed the Hukum Singh Committee to rationalise the reservation structure in government services. The committee divided the OBCs into backward, more backward and most backward classes. The government rightly justified the subcategorisation on the grounds that the benefits of reservation should be distributed as equitably as possible among all groups in the OBC and Scheduled Caste categories.

Among the OBCs, only one caste – Yadav – was deemed backwards and granted 5% reservation in jobs. The committee’s view was that the Yadavs, who constituted nearly 20% of Uttar Pradesh’s OBC population, had a 33% share in jobs reserved for the OBCs.

Likewise, the committee split the Scheduled Castes into Group A and Group B. The Jatavs were the only Dalit subcaste placed in Group A and given 10% reservation. The committee said the Jatavs were 56% of UP’s Dalit population and accounted for 33% of jobs reserved for the Scheduled Castes.

Even though the committee’s report was not implemented, its logic of separating Jatavs and Yadavs from the others was invoked to demonise and isolate them in the political realm thereon. It was said that the Yadavs and Jatavs had appropriated the biggest slice of the reservation cake because their patrons – BSP and SP – did not rationalise the reservation structure during the years they were in power in Uttar Pradesh, particularly from 2007, when the BSP came to power, followed by the SP in 2012. This was an important reason why most backward castes voted for the BJP in significant numbers in 2014.

Uttar Pradesh chief minister Adityanath. Credit: PTI

Uttar Pradesh chief minister Adityanath. Credit: PTI

Yogi’s quest: consolidating the base of most backward castes

In his quest to consolidate them, BJP chief minister Adityanath appointed a social justice committee headed by retired Allahabad high court judge, Raghvendra Kumar, in May 2018. His report was submitted late last year. Although it was not made public, selective portions of it were leaked to the press in the months leading to the election.

According to the leaked portions of the report, the Kumar committee, too, has divided the OBCs into three categories. However, the Kumar committee has placed the Jats, Kurmis, Sonars and a few small castes alongside the Yadavs in the backward class category, which has been assigned 7% reservation.

The more backward class, which has been allocated 11% reservation, consists of castes such as the Gujjars, Mauryas, Prajapatis, Telis and Lodhs. The most backward class, which comprises castes such as the Nishad, Rajbhar and Kashyap, have been given 9% reservation. The Kumar committee is supposed to have sub-categorised the Scheduled Castes as well, but the details of it are not known.

BJP’s caste conundrum

The Kumar report, however, has the potential of tearing apart the enormous social base that the BJP has stitched together. Its implementation will anger castes such as the Yadavs, Kurmis and Jats, who will be eligible to compete for just 7% of jobs and not 27%, as they currently do.

According to the Hukum Singh Committee, the Kurmis had a 12.49% share of government jobs and the Jats 6.85% in 2001. The Lodhs accounted for 4.17% of jobs and the Gujjars 2.07%. Sub-categorisation will see them competing for fewer jobs than before. All of them are landowning castes, concentrated in pockets, and numerous. The BJP will find it risky to alienate them.

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At the same time, the BJP will also find it difficult to engage in dilatory tactics. This is because it has won the support of the most backward castes on the promise of sub-categorising the OBCs. An inordinate delay in implementing the Kumar report will be hard for the BJP government to justify, particularly against the backdrop of the Modi government introducing 10% reservation for the economically weaker sections among social groups outside the reservation pool until now. These groups largely comprise the upper castes.

Should Adityanath implement the Kumar report, he will anger the dominant groups among the OBCs. In case he does not, he will alienate the most backward castes. It is here that the mahagathbandhan’s success in preserving its social base assumes importance – it gave as many as 19 tickets to non-Yadav OBCs, who will work to rally their castes against the BJP.

Yet another contradiction will emerge once the Supreme Court decides whether the 10% reservation for economically weaker sections violates the constitution. In case it is upheld, the mahagathbandhan will likely ask for proportional representation or distribution of jobs according to the population of Dalits, OBCs and the higher castes. It will do so because the Lok Sabha election has underscored to it the futility of courting the upper castes – it gave 20 tickets to the upper castes, who, nevertheless, overwhelmingly voted for the BJP.

The tactics of demonising and othering social groups have given a huge mandate to the BJP, which will, sooner than later, have to pay a price for it.

Ajaz Ashraf is a Delhi-based journalist.