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UP Assembly Elections

The political space in Uttar Pradesh during the run-up to the assembly elections has been marked by two parallel trends. The regional parties, in order to expand their core constituencies, have been compelled to revise their electoral strategies in economic rather than merely caste terms. This trend has disturbed and reconfigured the traditional caste categories which in elections normally form economic constituencies. National parties, on the other hand, are reconfiguring their perspectives on relevant "identarianism" - caste and religious politics - through their own ideological biases.

COMMENTARY

UP Assembly Elections

Politics of ‘Belonging’ or ‘Belongings’?

Vivek Prahladan

reservations to non-dalit and backward communities or castes.

The BSP has extended the idea of reservations to include upper castes. The electoral narratives have begun to cry stallise around the issue of reservations in the campaign. The BSP, in parti-

The political space in Uttar Pradesh during the run-up to the assembly elections has been marked by two parallel trends. The regional parties, in order to expand their core constituencies, have been compelled to revise their electoral strategies in economic rather than merely caste terms. This trend has disturbed and reconfigured the traditional caste categories which in elections normally form economic constituencies. National parties, on the other hand, are reconfiguring their perspectives on relevant “identarianism” – caste and religious politics – through their own ideological biases.

Vivek Prahladan (vivekprahladan@gmail.com) is at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

T
he debate on electoral politics has been restricted to the binary of identity or ethnic politics on the one hand and the politics of development on the other – the former as the politics of belonging (identity) and latter as that of belongings (roti, kapdaa, makaan). These two genres of political practice are increasingly getting conflated within the contest between the regional (Samajwadi Party-SP, Bahujan Samaj Party-BSP) and “national” parties (Congress Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party-BJP).

In the emerging electoral narratives in Uttar Pradesh (UP), the idea of reservations as well as the parties’ approach to caste constituencies have become the subject of experimental interpretation within the framework of party manifestos and election campaigning. However, there is a critical difference in the approach taken by various parties in terms of either “content” and/or “intent”. As a newcomer to the quota debate, Congress has overcome its ideological (content) inhibitions of ethnic constructs (caste, community) and accepted the principle of reservation for minorities. In this policy intent, the presence of minority communities is recognised as a “cultural fact” and not merely an empirical fact of the presence of a universalised community of welfare scheme subscribers of the Indian nation state. Ever since the publication of the Justice Rajinder Sachar Committee’s recommendations, the Congress has been tentatively leaning in favour of reservations for minorities as evidenced by such provisions in the Lokpal Bill and in its utterances during the UP election campaign. The BSP and SP on the other hand are parties for which the idea of reservations has become the core of their content. This allows these parties to extend the idea of

february 11, 2012

cular, is aspiring to extend its approach to castes in general and, in particular, in its engagement with upper castes. Regional “identitarian” parties, particularly the BSP, with a history of caste mobilisation, are attempting to include upper caste constituencies within this framework. Inversely, the “ethnically-challenged” nationalist parties are diversifying their approach to include explicit appeals to particular castes and communities within the logic of their economic programmes. Initiatives such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, the pending food security bill and the weavers’ package for UP are those which deliver the Congress’ message of the inclusive welfare state.

The Bihar Strategies

A comparison with the Bihar elections and the approach of various parties in that state is in order. In 2010, the ruling Janata Dal (United)’s manifesto, titled “Development with Justice”, laid down the case for structuring its electoral campaign by undertaking a social coalition which included, along with the upper castes, a majority of “Hindu” dalits as well as the dalit “pasmanda” Muslims. The JD(U) weaved the identity of dalit castes into a single novel non-constitutional category of “mahadalits”. The Bihar government has been lobbying with the central government to bring in amendments so as to constitutionally legitimise this category. The National Advisory Council (NAC) has accepted the use of the term “mahadalit” and proposes to include it, as recommended by the N C Saxena Committee, within the “below poverty line” category. The JD(U) manifesto also proposed the setting up of a commission for the economically weaker among the upper castes. Lastly, the JD(U) also stated that its aim was to raise the constitutional ceiling of 50%

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Economic & Political Weekly

COMMENTARY

reservations through a proposed amendment in the Constitution in Parliament. One wonders, if in Bihar the JD(U) has categorised dalits as an economic category (class) of mahadalits, then would Mayawati in putting forth reservations for the “poor among the upper castes” consider to define this economic category (class) as “mahabrahmins”?

BSP Strategy

In UP, a prominent BSP slogan during the current election campaign has been jiski jitani bhagedari, uski utani hissedari

(share according to participation). The BSP’s offer to extend reservations to upper castes cannot be delinked from their cultural projects such as the Dalit Prerna Sthal with the strong Buddhist symbolism attached to such projects. These projects are meant to secure an emotional identity for dalits that goes beyond caste and seek to reinterpret this identity in terms of a pan-Buddhist cultural community – that is more like an ideological rather than a religious community with explicit Buddhist practices. Extending quotas to upper castes would mean for the BSP that reservations for lower castes would cease to be the preeminent political and ideological framework. The BSP is asking a new question of its core constituency: moving away from the old question of “What do you want?” to “What do you want to be?”. By offering quotas to the prospective constituency of the poor among the upper caste voters, Mayawati is simultaneously posing an inverse question to them, where reservations are the answer to the question “What do you want?”. In other words, the BSP is juxtaposing two visions to two different constituencies. It is approaching its traditional constituency of lower castes through a language of “belonging”, i e, a cultural/emotional category. On the other hand, its engagement with the prospective constituency of the poor among the upper castes is the language of “belongings”, i e, an economic category.

The regional parties such as the BSP and SP have since their existence rigorously steered clear of ideologies of “nationalism”. In that identitarian sense, these are parties with organic links to

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
february 11, 2012

their social contingencies anchored in the regional political landscape. A new political space is opening up in UP, with two parallel tendencies. The organic and regional parties, in order to expand their core constituencies, are compelled to revise their electoral intent in economic terms. This trend in the assembly elections has disturbed and reconfigured the traditional caste categories which, in elections, could form economic constituencies. The BSP decision to give a higher number of seats to the brahmin-Rajput combine than to dalits underscores the plausibility of the idea that such regional ethnic parties cannot intuitively rely upon their core constituencies. As shown in Bihar, the Lok Janshakti Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal were unable to sustainably unite the lower caste categories on any cultural basis. The JD(U) was able to break the monolithic cultural enclosure of caste and recast it with the language of “belongings”.

In order to expand its core constituency to include the poor among the upper castes, the BSP, as indicated in its allocation of election tickets, has chosen its own version of reconstituting itself as a party of all castes and yet retain an explicit undertaking to traditional categories of caste and reservations. At the same time, the national parties, in the face of a declining vote share, are under pressure to intervene in the regional space hitherto dominated by regional parties. Aspiring to break into the constituencies of the BSP and SP, the BJP has made a lateral split between its “nationalist” content and its intent to establish a regional and “ethnic” authenticity that it tries to reconcile in its vision document as a “new Swadeshi paradigm of development”. The vision document is titled Hamare Sapnon Ka Uttar Pradesh – “The Uttar Pradesh of Our Dreams” – and this deliberate ideological vagueness allows the BJP to woo voters from the Other Backward Classes while at the same time helps it avoid being explicit on caste.

The constitution of politics in UP has a disproportionate impact on the collective understanding of politics in India and the outcome of these elections will no doubt create a fresh round of intellectual debate on the increasingly linked politics of belonging (identity) and belongings (universal welfare state).

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