July 05, 2020
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A Blur Of Identities

The end of the old polity is come. The GOP wasn’t ready. The others were.

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A Blur Of Identities
Illustrations by Hadimani
A Blur Of Identities

If elections in UP always matter more than any other given the unmatchable number of seats of this nearly 200 million-strong state, the stakes were especially high this time for other reasons. It was probably the last electoral fight for Mulayam Singh Yadav and a chance to ensure his succession. For Mayawati, it was a real opportunity to entrench her Dalit party after completing a full term on her own. The BJP—with only seven NDA members left around it—had to prove that it could stage a convincing comeback in the crucible of the Hindu civilisation two years before the Lok Sabha elections. And for the Congress, the UP elections were supposed to validate Rahul Gandhi’s long-term transformative political vision, and to pave the way towards prime ministership.

These parties may yet dare to eke out some redemptive elements from the results. But in vain— save, of course, for the SP. The BSP hoped to remain top dog, but has lost an unprecedentedly large number of seats. The BJP will remain on the fringe—and can only feel relieved about not having to debate over the divisive issue of another alliance with the BSP. And if the Congress has increased its number of seats, it remains fourth anyway.

Ambedkar’s dilemma

Mayawati’s defeat will probably be explained—again—by her megalomania, corruption, bad governance and so on. But the pundits who kept telling us that she was bound to lose because she was only paying attention to her core constituency, the Dalits, will have to think of some other grouse. The party has lost 27 percentage points among the Jatavs, according to a csds post-poll survey (which excludes the last phase of voting). The Jatavs and other SCs (down 15 percentage points) deserted the party, while the Brahmins have remained with it. The Rajputs (who had ignored it in 2007) are now on board. Twelve per cent have rallied around the BSP.

Mayawati’s dethronement will be put down to bad governance, megalomania, corruption. But it is the Jatavs who deserted her.

The BSP has to cope with the same dilemma as the parties founded by Babasaheb Ambedkar in the 1940s and 1950s: with the scheduled castes representing less than one-fifth of the votebank in most states, a Dalit party needs to reach out to other groups. In 2007, the bsp’s electoral calculus delivered an absolute majority because the Brahmins were looking for a more tolerable alternative to Mulayam’s ‘goonda raj’. But this tenuous coalition of extremes alienated the bsp’s Dalit base. Local party units and non-Dalit MLAs were often at odds with each other—a state of conflict that interfered with the sound organisation that usually backed her nomination decisions. This dissonance became all the more glaring because Mayawati had snubbed both old party cadres and ‘her’ MLAs, as evidenced by the ticket distribution. Apart from the BJP in Gujarat under Modi, no party had ever denied tickets to such a large number of MLAs.

After this traumatic defeat, the BSP will have to return to its ‘Ambedkarite’ roots and build its party apparatus in line with the formula its founder Kanshi Ram had evolved. On the one hand, the BSP leaders need to acknowledge that the Bahujan Samaj is made of ascriptive groups suffering from domination and cannot be diluted indefinitely for tactical reasons; on the other, its cadres (and especially the BAMCEF ones) need to be looked at as the party’s most precious resource.

The return of the old socialist?

Mulayam’s victory is, to put it modestly, impressive. Except for the BSP in 2007, no other party had reached the 200-seat figure since the 1980s. To get to that magic number, the SP has attracted new voters from across the board. Muslims—who had been infuriated by Mulayam’s alliance with Kalyan Singh in 2007—are now back in the fold. But the Kurmis (+21 per cent), Jatavs (+17 per cent), Brahmins (+11 per cent) and the Rajputs (+9 per cent) have also rallied around a party that cannot be associated only with the Yadavs, and even the OBCs, any more.

The SP is no longer ‘socialist’ in the old manner, nor is it solely a Yadav (or OBC) party now. It is a new rainbow.

The SP’s ‘new’ identity may be precisely what is most intriguing about it. ‘Samajwadi’ means ‘Socialist’. But what does socialism mean in India—a country where the word is used in the Constitution, but whose polity makes no reference to it? Since Ram Manohar Lohia in the 1960s, no national leader—except for V.P. Singh in 1989—has referred to this ‘ism’. At the time, the term had been synonymous with quota politics for the backward castes and Hindi-medium education. Those days are long gone. As political scientist Gilles Verniers, a specialist on the SP, points out, the party is not lagging behind in political sophistication. Mulayam’s son Akhilesh Yadav represents a new generation of leaders—of which the Congress would have loved to retain a certain monopoly. His kranti rath, compared to Rahul Gandhi’s somewhat distanciated mode of campaigning, has helped project him as a credible alternative icon for an increasingly young electorate.

The party could also look to bring in new talents, such as Abhishek Mishra, an IIM-A faculty member. Besides winning a seat in Lucknow—a BJP bastion for 20 years—he contributed decisively to reshaping the party strategy. The days of ageing film stars beating the campaign trail are (almost) over.

As Verniers emphasises, in UP more than anywhere else, politics is best understood at the local level. Indeed, even the ticket distribution is now decided according to the micro-equations identified at the constituency level. On an aggregate level, the SP’s victory can probably be more convincingly explained as being part of the deepening regionalisation of Indian politics. This process, which had started in the ‘Dravidian South’, has now reached the Hindi heartland, where national parties are now sometimes junior partners—like the BJP vis-a-vis the JD(U)—and sometimes spent forces that empowered regional parties do not even need to form ruling coalitions—as is the case in UP. The precedent for this was set in 2007. It is plausible that, for the next decade, India’s most populous state may well be governed solely by regional forces.

Illustrations by Hadimani

Centres of gravity

The erosion of the old socio-political order continues. The Congress system (or pyramid scheme) had first been shaken by faction leaders (including Charan Singh) and caste politics (including the OBC and Dalit phenomena). The Congress now has to contend with genuine, multi-caste regional parties. It obviously finds the going a harder adjustment due to their political culture, which is more plebeian and, by nature, more decentralised. The Congress could probably not win the UP elections from New Delhi—what’s more, the acute sense of regional identity that has permeated all of the Indian states has made it more complicated for a party so closely associated with the centre. The resentment of social distance—Rahul’s dinners at Dalit homes notwithstanding—was reinforced by the obsession with political distance. And the reactionary reluctance to nurture strong regional leadership, if only local, for fear of sowing the seeds of future dissent, did not help either. A new federal consciousness is now reflected in the crystallisation of alternative power centres, manifesting first in the DMK and the AIADMK, but today epitomised by BSP and the SP. The regional variation being the substitution of Tamil Nadu’s ethno-linguistic overtones by UP’s plebeian image of the lower castes.

It may be equally difficult for the BJP to adjust to the new rules of the game. In Maharashtra with the Shiv Sena, in Punjab with the Akali Dal and in Bihar with the JD(U), the party has local interpreters. But in UP, it should be the spokesperson for local, Hindu culture. That was a strategem that worked in 1991 in a very peculiar context, but the Hindutva plank cannot used again in the same way and hope to submerge caste identities. The caste fragmentation of Uttar Pradesh and its heavy politicisation contradicts the long-term goals of the Sangh Parivar.

India, in a way, has gone back to its roots after decades of centralisation in the wake of the Raj and the counter-productive use of President’s Rule by Indira Gandhi. After all, Akbar spent half his time on horseback to pacify his regional satraps. The next Lok Sabha elections will probably see coalitions of regional parties in competition with the UPA and the NDA, which means the country may well be ruled by a coalition of coalitions... and hopefully be ruled well.

(Christophe Jaffrelot is a French political scientist who writes extensively on caste and communal politics in India)

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