Caste is one of the most important drivers of politics in North India. Poll-bound Uttar Pradesh is no exception to this general rule. For a long time, politics, as well as other spheres in the northern states of India, have been dominated by hierarchically superior castes. A sea change took place in the whole architecture of Indian politics in the 1990s. Uttar Pradesh notably became the biggest site of such churning. Forging a broad Bahujan identity against the historically powerful castes became the rallying point for emerging lower-caste politics.
How Bahujan parties became representative of a few voice castes: Socially and demographically dynamic groups among the lower castes became the standard bearers of such politics. Practically, this meant that parties that claimed to represent the whole Bahujan spectrum became units of a few powerful and vocal castes. Social groups that were politically nascent or operated on the fringes of Bahujan parties began to drift away, either forming autonomous political organizations or aligning themselves with other blocs. Instead of bridging this mistrust within their own hegemonic formation, parties such as the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) have been rather cold in their response to demands for greater accommodation. Instead, they took to courting the upper castes.
To illustrate, let’s take the example of SP. From a very pro-backward stance in the 1990s, it had practically transformed into a catch-all party by 2012, the last time it came to power in the state. In fact, in the 2012 elections, it fielded more upper caste candidates than even its main electoral group: the OBCs. Out of 398 applicants, 128 (32.1%) were from upper castes and 108 (27.1%) were OBCs, of whom almost 50% (53 out of 108) were Yadavs. The trend continued, more or less, in the 2017 assembly elections as well.
That marginalized social groups are disgruntled and drift towards the BJP seems quite natural with such a biased electoral strategy. It is therefore not surprising that the political scientist Gilles Verniers presents the SP as a conservative and elitist political formation.
Rethinking electoral strategies: In such a context, the first list of candidates announced by the PS indicates a reorganization of its political strategy. If the social origin of all the candidates is not yet known with precision, it is clear that the party has traced a new trajectory. By way of illustration, out of 159 candidates, 63 are OBCs, among which approximately 75% (48) of the tickets were allocated to non-Yadav OBCs. In addition, there appears to be a significant reduction in the number of seats allocated to upper caste candidates.
It remains to be seen whether such a political strategy would translate into concrete electoral dividends. Nonetheless, this should be seen as a welcome step, given the tiny number of tickets that have been given to non-powerful OBCs in previous elections. Welcome because Samajwadis have generally fought back vs. forward board polls without recognizing the unequal nature of the caste hierarchy within the former. Rise of the BJP and Fragmentation of Bahujan Politics: The rise of the BJP signifies not only a consolidation of conservative social groups, but also a new transition of power to hitherto unpoliticized groups and problems of social life. It brought the concerns of lower OBCs to the forefront and signaled a new percolation of political power. It is precisely in this sense that the fragmentation of Bahujan politics has been productive. Therefore, if Bahujan politics is to be revitalized, it must be redesigned along these new fault lines.
However, the BJP’s social engineering has not been without its challenges. On the contrary, the recent exodus of prominent OBC leaders from the party signals the impending implosion of its alliance of extremes. So, sensitization of Akhilesh Yadav to welcome newly politicized groups, to make a dent in the BJP seems like a step in the right direction.
Bahujan hegemony and the Samajwadi strategy: Faced with the tectonic rise of the BJP in UP, this seems to be the only viable strategy for the SP. However, for Samajwadis to remain politically relevant, they must have a long-term view of politics. While the SP has recently transformed its organizational demographics by giving representation to lower OBCs, the need is to institutionalize the same with measures such as reservation in the party structure.
Persistent gender blindness, evident in the dismal presence of female candidates, is another area Bahujan politics must systematically work on. Electorally, too, it is unwise to ignore gender as a potential political constituency, especially in light of the Congress party’s decision to field a large number of female candidates.
It is important to keep in mind that politics consists in imagining and building new bases of identity, to which a logic of temporality and contingency is always attached. In this sense, there are no pre-given or automatic political cleavages or identities, as traditional Marxists would have us believe. Political identities are transitory and require enormous efforts to be constructed. However, once certain cleavages or issues have been successfully brought to the table, there is no turning back.
If Bahujan politics in Uttar Pradesh and northern India is to remain viable, it can no longer afford to ignore the changes that the rise of the BJP has brought about. Navigating through the changing dynamics of the social maze is the only option available.
Surpriy Ranjan (firstname.lastname@example.org)
PhD student at the Center for Political Studies, JNU
Pankaj Kumar (email@example.com)
PhD student at the Center for Political Studies, JNU