In UP, the BJP focused carefully on the sub-caste divisions within the Dalits and also gave a large number of tickets to SC candidates from sub-castes, asserts Ashok K Lahiri.
Decisive electoral mandates, as in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, are a welcome trend. It denies 'coalition compulsion' as an excuse for non-performance.
After fractured electoral verdicts during 1993-2007, UP returned single party absolute majorities to the assembly in 2007 and 2012. But these two earlier verdicts were not as overwhelming as a single party’s victory in three quarters of the seats in 2017.
Dismissing this verdict as only polarisation is an oversimplification. A lot more is at work.
The manifestoes of both the winner and the runner-up, namely the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Samajwadi Party, emphasised the development agenda. This included promises of 24X7 power supply, clean piped water and toilets, and four-lane highways connecting cities and districts.
The two main losers -- the Rashtriya Lok Dal and the Bahujan Samaj Party -- released either a much less well-articulated manifesto only five days before the polls (the RLD) or no manifesto at all (the BSP).
The decimation of the RLD and the BSP, which accompanied the BJP's sweeping victory, may reflect an enduring decline in the salience of identity-based politics.
Take the RLD first. With remarkable flexibility, Ajit Singh, its leader, served as a central government minister under V P Singh, P V Narasimha Rao, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh.
The tenacious loyalty of the predominantly Jat voters in western UP, a patrimony from Chaudhary Charan Singh, helped him to do so. But the loyalty has frayed and its vote share is down from a peak of 3.7 per cent in 2007 to 1.8 per cent in 2017.
Contesting in 357 of the 403 seats, it won only one, and forfeited its deposit in all but three.
Some may have seen the RLD withering away. But the BSP's decline has been as startling as the unanticipated scale of the BJP's victory, even for exit pollsters.
Since its founding in 1984, the BSP's rise in UP in two decades, under Mayawati and her mentor, Kanshi Ram, was meteoric.
From a little less than 10 per cent of the votes in both the 1989 Lok Sabha and 1991 assembly elections, it secured 30.4 per cent in 2007 assembly and 27.4 per cent in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections.
UP gave it absolute majority to rule during 2007-2012, and made it the third-largest national party in 2009.
Equally meteoric has been its decline in UP. Its vote share declined to 19.6 per cent in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, and in the assembly elections to 26 per cent in 2012 and 22.2 in 2017.
Electoral swings in favour or against a political party are known to have reversed in the past.
After a resounding defeat in the post-Emergency 1977 Lok Sabha elections, Indira Gandhi bounced back to power in 1980. After getting trounced in the 1984 Lok Sabha elections and securing only two seats, the BJP won an absolute majority in 2014.
But, in UP, the swing in the BSP's fortunes is likely to endure. It is going the same way in UP as in Uttarakhand and Punjab in the past.
The BSP's main political plank has been the mobilisation of the Scheduled Castes or Dalits, victims of age-old injustices. With the Dalits constituting 20.7 per cent of its population according to the 2011 Census, UP was fertile ground for BSP politics.
But, UP is not alone in having a large proportion of Dalits in its population. In 2011, SCs constituted 31.9 per cent of the population in Punjab, 25.2 per cent in Himachal Pradesh, 23.5 per cent in West Bengal, and 20.2 per cent in Haryana. In all these states, electorally, the BSP has been a minor player or on the decline.
Take Uttarakhand and Punjab, which went to polls around the same time as UP in 2017.
SCs, a sizable 15.2 per cent of the population of Uttarakhand, are concentrated in about a dozen assembly seats around Haridwar. But the BSP failed to win any seats in Uttarakhand in 2017, and its vote share, around 11-12 per cent in the previous three assembly elections, declined to 7 per cent.
Punjab has the largest concentration of SCs in the country, with the proportion of SCs in its population steadily increasing from 26.9 per cent in 1981 to 31.9 per cent in 2011.
Furthermore, the SCs are mainly located in the districts of Amritsar, Gurdaspur, Hoshiarpur, Jalandhar, Ludhiana, Patiala and Sangrur, another favourable factor for their gainful mobilisation.
Still, the BSP not only failed to win any seats in the 2017 Punjab elections, its vote share, after declining from 16.3 per cent in 1992 to 6.4 per cent in 1997, dwindled to 1.5 per cent.
No single caste on its own has the numerical strength to deliver a victory in all but a few constituencies.
Caste mattered in Indian politics, and still does. It matters in the design of winning strategies for mobilising not one but many identity groups. As the BJP and the Congress in Uttarakhand, and these two and the Shiromani Akali Dal in Punjab, started to accommodate the SCs, the BSP declined in these two states.
It declined in UP as the BJP mastered its strategy of accommodating SCs and emphasising its development agenda.
In UP, the BJP focused carefully on the sub-caste divisions within the Dalits, and worked out alliances with Apna Dal and Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party, set up by two founder members of the BSP and close associates of Kanshi Ram -- Sone Lal Patel (Apna Dal), a Kurmi, and Om Prakash Rajbhar (SBSP), a Rajbhar.
Furthermore, the BJP gave a large number of tickets to SC candidates from sub-castes such as Pasis, Koris and Valmikis, which are distinct from Mayawati’s Jatavs. With some dilution of caste prejudices and alternative parties offering accommodation, many Dalits may have shaken off their loyalties to the BSP.
Furthermore, with some, albeit inadequate, empowerment already achieved, development rather than caste-based politics may have been perceived as not only the most potent tool for further empowerment but also the need.
After all, relative to the rest of the country, in almost every socio-economic sphere, UP, trapped in identity politics, has fallen far behind.
For example, its per capita income, which was more or less equal to the national level in 1951, is down to about the nation’s two-fifths in 2014-15. The UP verdict may be an ardent appeal for liberation from the stigma of being Bimaru, an acronym covering Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh.
The writer is an economist.
Photograph: PTI Photo.