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The victory of caste arithmetic

May 11, 2007 18:19 IST
Tilak, taraazu aur talwaar, Inko maaro joote chaar!' Does anyone remember that slogan?

I guess not. The new one is 'Brahmin shankh bajaayegaa, Haathi chaltaa jaayega!"

Both battle-cries were raised by the Bahujan Samaj Party at different points in its career. They mark the evolution of the party from confrontation with Brahmins (Tilak), Vaishyas (Taraazu), and Kshatriyas (Talwaar) to one of gradual accommodation.

That confrontation was always a bit artificial in the context of Uttar Pradesh. Anyone who goes down to the grassroots finds that the Dalits' real battle was not with the upper castes as much as with the 'Other Backward Castes'.

This is a point that was grasped very early on by the late Kanshi Ram, founder of the Bahujan Samaj Party. (We were friends for decades, going back to a time when the Bahujan Samaj Party had not yet been founded.) And he discussed his long-term plans with me a couple of times.

Kanshi Ram put it very simply. The landless labourer, he said, would never be accepted as a partner in power by the middle castes, the OBCs, that had come to the forefront as the owners of the land. The Dalits could not come to power on their own, no matter that they constituted roughly 25 per cent of the population. It thus made sense to join
hands with the Brahmins, using that term as a shorthand for all those at the very top of the caste hierarchy.

Mayawati's antipathy for Mulayam Singh Yadav is famous, but it would not matter even if the latter were one of the former's rakhi brothers. The bedrock of the Samajwadi Party is the Yadav sub-caste, the dominant OBC group in Uttar Pradesh. The natural constituencies of the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party were always going to clash.

Kanshi Ram's plans called for forging the Dalits into a coherent formation as a first step. Once the Bahujan Samaj Party was certain of its Dalit votebank, it was time for the second step, namely the alliance with the upper castes.

But the Bahujan Samaj Party needed time to overcome the suspicion of the upper castes. Everyone talks about Mayawati's strategy in being liberal in handing out party tickets to Brahmin candidates in this Vidhan Sabha election. It is, however, not the first time that she has done so. She was generous with Brahmin and Thakur (Kshatriya) candidates even in 2002, in the last polls.

The Bahujan Samaj Party did very well the last time too. As I recall, 17 of the roughly 130 Bahujan Samaj Party MLAs were Brahmins. Several Bahujan Samaj Party MLAs were lured away to support Mulayam Singh Yadav in controversial circumstances. It did not escape Mayawati's attention that 16 of those 17 Brahmin MLAs stood true to her.

In 2007 the Bahujan Samaj Party leader went all out to woo the 'Savarna'. The time was propitious, given the upper castes' own disenchantment with their own traditional parties, particularly the Bharatiya Janata Party.

The BJP should have grasped the significance of the fact that Mayawati's Brahmin MLAs preferred to stand by her when Mulayam Singh Yadav set about splitting the Bahujan Samaj Party.

Instead, his path was smoothed by Kesri Nath Tripathi, the BJP leader who was then speaker of the Uttar Pradesh Vidhan Sabha. His controversial decision to treat defections as a continuing process rather than a one-time act subsequently drew the censure of the Supreme Court itself.

To paraphrase a quotation famous in French history, this was not just a crime, it was a blunder. It left the upper castes, traditional supporters of the party, with the impression that the BJP was working hand in hand with the Samajwadi Party. This was to prove costly for the BJP given the caste politics of Uttar Pradesh.

There is a certain amount of tension between the upper castes and the OBCs, which support the Samajwadi Party. So, where could an upper caste voter turn given that the mood of the day was to turn out Mulayam Singh Yadav?

The BJP, it was felt, was taking the upper castes for granted. The Congress is a non-entity. And here came Mayawati, a consistent foe of the Samajwadi Party boss since 1995, promising to wipe out everything that Mulayam Singh Yadav represents. The strategy, as we all know, has been hugely successful, giving Uttar Pradesh its first chief minister with a clear mandate since Kalyan Singh swept to power in 1991.

I am happy that India's largest state has been rescued from political turmoil by the clear verdict. I am also glad that both the BJP and the Samajwadi Party have been taught a lesson. Nevertheless, I must enter one caveat.

What we have seen in 2007 is the victory of caste arithmetic. Uttar Pradesh, by and large, was not voting for a specific programme. (Mayawati barely bothered to issue a manifesto!) No, the voters felt their primary identity was that of a Brahmin, or a Dalit, or a Muslim, or a Rajput, or whatever else. When are we going to think of ourselves as individuals, people who deserve a measure of development, rather than as faceless bricks in the caste pyramid?

Everyone is talking about 'social engineering' as the cause of Mayawati's victory. I venture to disagree. 'Social engineering' calls for the diminution of caste identity; what we have seen is caste identification being strengthened through the mechanism of democratic elections.

The founder of the Bahujan Samaj Party is no longer with us to enjoy his party's greatest success so far in its 23-year career. I pray that his chosen successor becomes a leader not just of the Brahmins and the Dalits but of all Uttar Pradesh. Our largest state, one-sixth of India's population, deserves no less.

I cannot conclude without noting that it is not just politicians who deserve to learn a lesson from the recent polls. So do pollsters and the press. We all, including me, completely misread the mood in Uttar Pradesh.

T V R Shenoy