‘Reverse engineering’ in Uttar Pradesh

IN INDIA, Congress MP Rahul Gandhi’s boastful remark about his family’s achievements and role in "dividing Pakistan" has stirred a hornet’s nest. Gandhi claimed virtual omnipotence for the Nehru-Gandhi clan and declared: "[When] my family decides to do anything, it does it — be it the freedom struggle, the division of Pakistan, or taking India to the 21st century."

By Praful Bidwai

Published: Sun 22 Apr 2007, 8:23 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 1:06 AM

Pakistan’s break-up happened largely because of internal reasons, in particular, the West Pakistan elite’s failure to accommodate the aspirations of the East Bengali people, and its army’s genocidal operations. India basically played midwife in Bangladesh’s birth.

However, the domestic impact of Gandhi’s statement may not boost Congress workers’ morale. But it will certainly give the party’s opponents a stick to beat it with.

The claim that the Babri mosque wouldn’t have been razed had a Gandhi been in power is incompatible with the ethos of democracy. It also sits ill with the Congress’s record since the early 1980s — of making compromises with different communalists, and its "soft-Hindutva" line which led to the opening of the Babri complex.

Gandhi hasn’t matured enough to sense the public’s pulse. Or else, he wouldn’t have repeatedly said: "I’m a Hindustani… Development, not caste, is my concern."

Gandhi should know that in UP, caste has a double meaning. It connotes hierarchy. But it’s also an instrument of self-assertion of subaltern, underprivileged and low castes, including Dalits and Other Backward Classes (OBCs).

The second, emancipatory, meaning is more important than the first. So subaltern Dalits, MBCs (most backward classes) and OBCs are quite unashamed of pursuing "caste-driven" agendas.

Even the upper castes have half-reconciled themselves to the Forward March of the Backwards. The Bahujan Samaj Party is now successfully wooing its traditional enemies, Brahmins and other savarnas. It has fielded 139 upper-caste candidates, including 86 Brahmins, 14 Banias and 38 Rajputs, besides 110 OBCs, 61 Muslims and only 93 Dalits.

The BSP’s meteoric rise in UP — from a mere 9.4 per cent vote-share and 12 Assembly seats in 1991 to a 23.1 per cent vote and 98 seats in 2002, and a forecast total of 140-155 seats according to opinion polls — is part of a larger phenomenon.

This is the rise of subaltern groups like Yadavs, Jats and Gujjars to electoral dominance through their search for direct representation for themselves, rather than through established parties.

Now, even smaller OBC groups like the Kurmis want to break out of the Yadav-dominated Samajwadi Party, as Beni Prasad Verma has done. This is leading to political fragmentation, but also greater underclass representation.

The process is driven by the aspirations of the weak to be recognised as independent political agents. It has eroded the base of the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party.

The process began in 1984. In 2002, a huge, decisive change took place. The Congress’s vote-share in UP fell from 51 per cent to a mere nine per cent.

The BJP was the earliest beneficiary of this decline — because of its aggressive mobilisation around the Ayodhya issue. By 1993, it emerged as UP’s single largest party, with 33.3 per cent of the vote. The Samajwadi Party and BSP trailed it with 21.8 and 19.6 per cent votes. But soon, both these subaltern-group parties overtook the BJP/Congress.

By 2002, they commanded an impressive 48 per cent of UP’s total vote and 60 per cent of Assembly seats. By the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, their combined vote-share had risen to 60 per cent. They now control 57 of UP’s 80 Lok Sabha seats.

They are raiding the base of the Congress and the BJP.

The 2004 election saw fierce competition for upper-caste votes between the SP, BSP and BJP. The BJP’s UP tally fell from 57 (of 85 seats) to just 10 seats (of 80). An NDTV exit-poll after the first phase of the 7-phase elections forecasts a decline of upper-caste support for the BJP, from 72 to 50 per cent.

Behind these figures lies a major political shift. This is the transformation of the electoral competition. The BSP party is now trying to co-opt the upper castes, especially Brahmins, on its own terms.

This is an electoral-political phenomenon without precedent. It’s the exact opposite of what the Congress did in its heyday in UP, by building an upper caste-dominated coalition, incorporating Dalits and Muslims.

It’s also the reverse of what the BJP did in the 1990s in recruiting some OBC support — by combining mandal (OBC politics) and kamandal (upper-caste Hindutva).

Now, for the first time, a Dalit force may be laying down the agenda, which its traditional enemies must respect. This is a major achievement.

Going by reports, UP’s Brahmins are deserting the BJP for the BSP. According to most opinion polls, the BSP is set to emerge as UP’s largest party. This can happen only if it wins many more votes than the proportion of Dalits in UP (21 per cent). Dalit power could present serious competition to OBC power — for the first time ever.

In UP, the real contest is between the BSP and the SP. The BJP will probably be reduced to an upper-caste party with a sprinkling of OBC support such as Kalyan Singh’s Lodhis.

The Congress doesn’t even know which social group(s) to target. It has no identifiable base of its own. It’s unable to relate to subaltern self-assertion. If the Congress targets the MBCs, who are largely unattached, it could make big gains. But it lacks that perspective.

The Congress could nevertheless be in the reckoning in UP if it wins 30 to 50 seats, and the BSP mops up 150 or 160. But if the Congress performs just as poorly as in 2002 (25 MLAs, 10 of whom quickly defected), then the BSP could ally with the BJP.

Instability is endemic to UP. No chief minister there has completed a full term since Sucheta Kripalani in the mid-1960s. Even the BSP’s rise/dominance may not last. But to take advantage of instability, the Congress must relate to major social processes reshaping UP’s politics. It’s not doing that!

Praful Bidwai is a veteran Indian journalist and commentator. He can be reached at praful@bol.net.in

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