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Beyond Uttar Pradesh

Will dalit politics across the country see a resurgence following the Bahujan Samaj Party's victory in Uttar Pradesh? While this depends on the political situation in specific states, the BSP's victory gives a new meaning to the category of 'sarva samaj' in redefining caste alignments for future electoral competition. At the same time, the BSP's victory poses a serious challenge to the two coalitions at the national level, the National Democratic Alliance and the United Progressive Alliance.


Beyond Uttar Pradesh

New Implications for Party Politics

Will dalit politics across the country see a resurgence following the Bahujan Samaj Party’s victory in Uttar Pradesh? While this depends on the political situation in specific states, the BSP’s victory gives a new meaning to the category of ‘sarva samaj’ in redefining caste alignments for future electoral competition. At the same time, the BSP’s victory poses a serious challenge to the two coalitions at the national level, the National Democratic Alliance and the United Progressive Alliance.


s the government of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) completes three years in office, the assembly election results in Uttar Pradesh (UP) have opened up several new possibilities in the arena of political competition in the country that would serve to mould future configurations as well. Ironically, the UP election results coincided with a rather politically naive statement on the part of the president, who as part of his address to Parliament on the occasion of the commemoration of 1857, spoke in favour of a two-party system. Mayawati’s victory in UP was actually postponing to the distant future any such textbook dreams of a competition between two political parties or forces.

The present party configuration at the centre is the outcome of three-pronged process that includes the “debate” on the issue of secularism, the communal onslaught on the polity by Hindutva politics, as well as the factor of anti-Congressism. The decline of the Congress post-1989 occasioned the re-emergence of the tradition of anti-Congressism. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) pushed itself onto the national political scene by taking advantage of this development, even as it attempted to give a majoritarian turn to democracy in India. The anti-Muslim majoritarian aggression that the BJP orchestrated caused unease among most political parties and led them to think of a configuration that would keep the BJP out of power. Thus was born the anti-BJPism of the mid-1990s that temporarily pushed aside anti-Congressism and helped the Congress survive. Ultimately, this gave rise to two coalitions that had two different organising principles: the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) that organised itself around the principle of non-Congressism and more recently the United Progressive Alliance that was developed around the principle of anti-BJPism. (The clumsy manner in which the latter contested the communal claims of BJP makes it difficult to call it a truly anti-communal front. So, the driving force was only to keep the BJP out of power.) For various reasons, some parties kept away from this twofold division. The Left Front retained its separate existence but was and has been a pivotal force in the UPA since its formation in 2004. As such, it cannot be described as strictly being outside of the twofold division though it is not a part of it either; the Nationalist Congress Party also agreed to be convinced by the UPA’s anti-communal logic; thus leaving the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) as the two major forces left out. It is interesting to note that the two parties are from the same state, which traditionally dominated Indian politics.

In the UP assembly elections held over April and May, it was the SP and the BSP that contested for overall domination of the state and it was the BSP that emerged the victor. But the UP assembly elections are not likely to remain confined to the state alone in their impact. This short note proposes to grapple with two aspects of this impact. One is the implications for the nature of political competition among parties and the other is the ideological and social base that politics could take in times to come.

Impact on Party Politics

Many expected the BSP to emerge as the leading party post-elections, but nobody expected it to win the way it finally did. This has given rise to discussions about the long-term impact of the BSP victory on UP politics. Another point making the rounds is the effect this will have on dalit politics in different parts of the country. The BSP victory is also going to affect nature of party competition in the country as a whole. This, it would do in three ways. First, it has yet again shown that the “national” political game is going to be played out through the prism of state politics. So, every party will have to evolve a differentiated, yet coherent political strategy that would enable it to attract voters at the state level but govern at the national level. This is a huge task, as it involves the disaggregation of social aspirations for purposes of mobilisation and then their aggregation for purposes of governance. So far, most parties have been at the most able to do one of these two things. The elections in UP are only a reminder of the complex task involved in this and it is quite possible that Mayawati too may not be able to handle this dilemma. In this sense, the UP scenario may be symptomatic of the pressure that democratic politics may face and in turn may impose on party politics. Already, we are witnessing this dimension of politics in many states.

Secondly, the fiasco that the “grand old party” of Hindutva politics met with in UP poses interesting possibilities. Perhaps it is only in the fitness of things that the BJP met with its just nemesis in the very state from where its tumultuous onward march had begun 16 years ago. Ever since its defeat in 2004, it was clear that the BJP had somewhat run out of steam. Its tired leadership was unable to rejuvenate the party and it had built up the party on such false premises that the new and so-called young leadership could not have carried it forward even if they had the political acumen to do so. The BJP too, for its part, was hoping to evolve a broader constituency just as the Congress had done over

Economic and Political Weekly May 26, 2007

the years, but with one difference. The BJP thought that hatred and suspicion could be durable principles for building a wider social constituency. By 1996, it had realised the difficulties of this strategy and turned to high voltage coalition politics; it sought to redefine itself by basing itself socially and politically on the upper castes and lower OBCs – the two sections that were ignored in the course of post-Mandal political set-up. This social engineering was premised on the assumption that Hindutva was capable of bringing these two sections together and was a sufficient reward for these sections for having come together. With the debacle in UP – it has gone down to 50 seats and 17 per cent of the vote share – the downslide in the fortunes of the BJP are only going to continue. It is unlikely that in the prevailing scenario in UP, the BJP would be able to pose a serious challenge to the Congress in the next electoral round in 2009.

Its most severe test would be in retaining the allies it currently has. For instance, the Telugu Desam Party never was a very willing ally; the Tamil allies and the Janata Dal (Secular) in Karnataka are with the BJP more due to compulsions of state level politics that any love for the BJP; and if Biju Janata Dal could ward off the Congress on its own in Orissa, it would not bother for the BJP. Shiv Sena, which ostensibly allied with BJP on ideological grounds, is losing its interest in the BJP. Thus, most of its allies are uncomfortable and unwilling partners (except perhaps the true blue anti-Congressists). As politics unfolds both at all-India level and state level, the relationship between the BJP and its allies would be reshaped. While at the national level, it seems somewhat unlikely that the Congress would be able to force a split in the NDA, the state level platforms abundantly provide for cracks to develop in the NDA. This will further isolate and emaciate the BJP. And if the NDA partners do not choose to join the Congress-led alliance, then the political scene becomes even more complex.

Thirdly, will the victory of the BSP rid politics of the decade-old political compulsions shaped by anti-Congressism vs anti-BJPism? Both Congress and BJP have lost salience in the politics of UP. While in many states the BJP does not matter much (in east and south), the Congress too, is a nonforce in quite a few states notably in UP and Bihar. Then, there are many parties that are not part of, or would like not to be parts of the two coalitions. This allows for a more flexible structure of competition and emergence of issues that are beyond the clichéd debates of the 1990s. This situation may not exactly lead to the “third front”, but it will always keep such hopes alive which may be expressed through new state level configurations. Mulayam Singh was hoping to ride the tide of the third front wave, and the BSP may also be lured by that idea.

BSP: Way Ahead

Mayawati has already hinted that the dalit claim to power at Delhi will soon become a reality. The BSP can very well do this by consolidating its position in UP itself and becoming a stronger state level party there. But given its track record, the BSP is likely to start exploring possibilities to inch its way into other parts of the country. The real test of the BSP will come only when it starts expanding to other states in the backdrop of this victory. It is probable that Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh would be next on the BSP’s agenda. At the same time, a state like Maharashtra can also provide a fertile ground for BSP since a stagnant but expectant dalit movement exists there and a frustrated lower OBC section also awaits a political vehicle. So far, one expected the BSP to make a dent in the dalit votes in a particular state. But its victory has altered the nature of expectations and the nature of challenge it now faces.

The unique equation it has forged may bind it to UP for a while, while its newfound strength would entice it to expand to other states. If the BSP remains flexible in its approach to the idea of ‘sarva samaj’, it will find possibilities of expansion in many states of north and western India. But if it insists on the same equation that it has struck in UP, the party could face disappointment. While being primarily a dalit party, BSP has succeeded in pocketing sizeable support among the lower OBCs, the weaker sections generally and also has marginal support among the upper castes and Muslims. It is true that the proportion of non-dalit votes and particularly the upper caste votes has been low in the BSP, nevertheless this support is strategically significant. Outside of UP the BSP will have to operate as a dalit party and whether it can win the lower OBC votes or the Muslim votes remains a wide open question.

One thing is certain: the BSP would soon emerge as a national level player. This is going to be a challenge for the Congress. If the Congress strikes a relationship with BSP as it did with the Rashtriya Janata Dal, the Congress might have insured a new lease on its power for some time to come. In doing so, the Congress may not have consolidated itself, but expansion of the UPA would go a long way in ensuring the survival of the Congress. Since 2004, the Congress has done little by way of redefining itself. Now is the last chance it has before the next elections. While it met with a severe drubbing in UP, the defeat of BJP and SP has given the Congress some breathing space. Whether it wants or not, the political situation is going to force it to redefine itself or wither away.

Emergence of ‘Sarva Samaj’

The success of the BSP is significant in more than one sense: symbolically, of course, the fact that a woman from a dalit family (one that does not have a political background) becomes UP’s chief minister is by itself significant. It combines the three factors of gender, caste and political equality (i e, negation of political dynasty). But more than this symbolic significance, it underscores the new social coalition BSP forged in this election. In a sense, the proclaimed coalition of upper castes, dalits and Muslims, is not novel in itself. What is new is the structure of that coalition. UP had witnessed a similar social combination earlier in the efforts of the upper castes to ward off the OBC challenge. Today that coalition has re-emerged but with the crucial difference that it is now led by dalits and not the upper castes any more. The social equilibrium has thus changed remarkably. The upper castes now receive patronage and not the dalits; and the significant presence of lower OBCs makes this combination potentially non-sectarian and inclusive. It is possible to argue that sarva samaj is not really a novel formulation after all. Yet, the invocation of this formulation by the BSP might as well indicate a major turn in our politics: the emphasis is now going to shift from sharpening of the caste-based divisions as the salient and defining division. Suddenly, the reconfiguration of the social cleavages has become possible. If one looks at the limitations which the divisiveness imposed by Hindutva is facing, we may surmise that the Mandal and Mandir issues are no more going to define the ground rules of politics.

But besides this, the onward march of the vocabulary of sarva samaj is likely to have a positive role. Even if we leave aside the prophecies of impending social revolution and ultimate victory of dalit politics, this development gives new substance to

Economic and Political Weekly May 26, 2007 democracy in India. UP has clearly shown that politics has the potential to radically democratise social relations. It is this potential of a deepening of democracy that makes the UP election results all the more significant. The formulation of the sarva samaj idea provides a platform for combining the inclusive dimension of democratic politics with the concerns of caste-based inequalities. The idea of sarva samaj presupposes the political equality of and even political pre-eminence of the “lower” castes. When Mayawati and Mulayam allied in the 1990s, it was hailed as an experiment of dalit-OBC unity. When they fell apart, the impossibility of that experiment was underscored. Today the BSP’s success has reopened those possibilities as well as tensions in the alliance between dalits and OBCs. More than a decade after Mandal, BSP’s victory indicates the erosion of the OBC platform; it also directs attention to the need to debate which sections constitute the OBCs. The BSP has proved that if the category of OBC were to include the less well off and the more backward communities, then the possibility of their political alliance with dalits – under dalit leadership – still exists.

At the same time, a blind replication of the UP formula elsewhere in the country is unlikely to happen. The specific demography, political equations and social history of UP have made this moment possible. But to read in it a guide book of political formations across the states of India would be a gross exaggeration. Two issues call our attention. One, can the dalits be in the leading position in all parts of the country always? Two, will this be accepted by other caste groups always? In view of the caste inequalities, it makes sense that the dalits should be in the leading position if a democratic revolution is to be ushered in. But electoral and party politics have very limited revolutionary potential; revolutionary changes within the liberal democratic framework take place often by default or in spite of liberal democracy. Therefore, it is not likely that dalits would be able to grab the leading position in all states at all times. BSP victory in UP will no doubt energise the dalits, the masses and activists alike, across the country, but that will not ensure their political ascendance all over. Both the upper castes and the lower OBCs have allied politically with the BSP because, on their own they are not likely to gain power. But once these sections have some chance of gaining power without the dalits, the political coalition will collapse. It is true that the UP situation allows the dalits to be the crucial force in balancing the social conflicts between upper castes and middle castes. However, this need not be true of many other states. So, either the dalits will have to settle for some other social allies or they may simply have to accept a secondary role in political competition. Thus, various states will have different editions of sarva samaj.

But there is one thing common in all these potential editions of sarva samaj. While social hierarchies are called into question, the central issue remains that of material resources. It is true that the middle peasantry is not a natural partner of the dalits in rural areas. But is it also not true that the upper castes see the middle peasantry as their direct competitors in the area of material resources and therefore may tactically align with the BSP? In other words, the caste conflicts that are unfolding over the past few decades are more about material resources and control over them than about traditional social hierarchies in the sense of ritual status.

A New Vision of Politics?

One prominent social reformer of Maharashtra, Vitthal Ramji Shinde (18731944) foresaw this possibility. Comprehending the interlinking of material struggles and social identities, and their relevance to the numbers game in democratic politics, Shinde as early as in 1920 proffered a formulation that was both ideological and political. He was perhaps the first one to explicitly formulate the category, ‘bahujan’. Who are included in the category of bahujan? Dalits, women, peasants, soldiers, teachers, petty shopkeepers and entrepreneurs, etc, constituted the bahujan. They not only made up the numbers, but had very austere social locations and were often the victims of social and economic oppression (from the manifesto of the Bahujan Party, 1920). While Shinde’s idea did not attract many during his lifetime, it does provide for an interesting social and ideological basis for bahujan politics. It is another matter that the post-Mandal politics of caste chose to exclusively emphasise caste and assume that caste subsumes other social differentiations. As the OBC platform of politics shrinks, the bahujan principle of politics seeks redefinition and probably, Mayawati’s political strategy of sarva samaj would provide an impetus to this process of redefining the politics of the oppressed.



Economic and Political Weekly May 26, 2007

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