By Sajjan Kumar:
“UP mein ATM (Ahir, Thakur and Muslim) ki sarkar hai (In Uttar Pradesh, Ahir, ie, Yadav, Thakur, i.e, Rajputs and Muslims rule),” a middle-aged Thakur (Rajput) respondent at Kunda, Pratapgarh, told the author in 2012 after Akhilesh Yadav-led Samajwadi Party government was formed, trouncing Bahujan Samaj Party and reducing Bharatiya Janta Party to its lowest tally of 49 seats.
The statement, besides Muslim-Yadav equation, signifies an important dynamic in the formation of the state – the dominant trend of electoral intra-upper caste rivalry among general and Brahmin-Rajput, in particular since independence.
This political trait is typical in the Hindi heartland (UP, Bihar and MP). The non-Brahmin upper castes, mainly Rajputs, had started shifting to the non-Congress parties in significant numbers because they were appalled by the dominance of Brahmins in Congress.
In UP, the Rajputs were the core social constituency of non-Congressism, as propounded by Rammanohar Lohia and executed by Charan Singh in the form of famous non-Brahmin AJGAR (Ahir, i.e, Yadav, Jat, Gujjar and Rajput) electoral alliance in the 1970s and 1980s.
Though Congress tried to win the support of Rajputs back by giving them chief ministership across the Hindi-heartland since the 1980s, the Brahmin-Thakur rivalry continued.
In fact, the 1989 Lok Sabha election, the first personality-centric election in north India in the 1980s, the bitter campaign by Rajiv Gandhi (a perceived Brahmin) and VP Singh (Rajput) had its bearing upon the social constituencies. The Rajputs are said to have voted the latter. The trend continued in the 1989 Assembly election in the state, bringing Mulayam Singh Yadav-led Janata Dal in power by defeating the incumbent Congress party led by ND Tiwari.
This social aspect in electoral arena is significant. The late 1960s to late 1980s is known as the era of Congress dominance; famously known as ‘Congress System’. In these decades, the older dominance of upper castes continued as a homogeneous bloc. This was, unsuccessfully but relentlessly, resisted by lower castes under the banner of socialist parties.
In the dominant narrative of ‘upper caste vs. backward caste’ electoral rivalry, the aspect of intra-upper caste rivalry, especially in UP has often been understated.
This downplaying needs to be factored in any political analysis as the intra-upper caste rivalry gripping the state was not just confined to the elections but also extended to spheres like institutional access and mafia rivalry for dominance over public resources.
Moreover, the social scenario of upper caste domination till the 1980s made their internal rivalry electorally significant as they operated in the prevailing context of political clientelism, bringing additional support base from among the lower castes for different parties, making democracy competitive.
However, a significant shift came in the wake of ‘Mandalisation’ of north Indian politics since 1990 causing an unprecedented consolidation of upper castes backing BJP, making the saffron party a dominant electoral force in the state throughout the 1990s.
By 2000s, BJP faced electoral decline because of several reasons. Some of these reasons were the desertion of OBC leaders like Kalyan Singh, Ram Temple becoming a non-issue, and friendly overtures from regional parties. This compelled the upper castes to act as the balancing factor, tactically oscillating between the regional parties from election to election, besides supporting the BJP. The data suggests that more Rajputs were tilted towards SP while Brahmins towards BSP.
The 2014 Lok Sabha election emerged as the second shift when, swayed by the Modi wave, the upper castes converged behind the BJP as its core voters – a trend continuing in the ongoing assembly election.
A lot of factors are at play in UP. The people were at the receiving end due to demonetization that affecting agriculture adversely. Both BSP and SP fielded a significant number of upper caste candidates. The BJP focused primarily on non-Yadav OBCs. A general sense of appreciation prevailed regarding Akhilesh Yadav’s leadership and the image of Mayavati as a tough administrator. But, despite all this, the fact that people of upper castes are vouching for BJP in 2017 reveals the deep interplay of identitarian plank and winnability quotient of the ongoing Assembly election in the state.
“Saal 2007 mein BSP ko aur 2012 me SP ko vote diya kyunki BJP race me nahi thi, lekin BSP ke raaj me Dalit aur SP ke raaj me Yadav ka bolbala ho jata hai. Is baar BJP race me hai aur fir humare paas BJP ke alawa chara bhi kya hai (I voted for BSP in 2007 and SP in 2012 as BJP was not in the electoral race. However, Dalits and Yadavs dominate the social space in the regime of BSP and SP respectively. This time BJP is in the race and what option do we have besides supporting BJP),” said a pro-BJP Brahmin farmer in Jhansi who was unhappy with demonetisation.
Interestingly, the complex dynamics of the centrality of ‘identitarian plank’ and ‘winnability factor’ in the ongoing election could be seen in the comment of a Brahmin respondent at Chillupar assembly constituency in Gorakhpur wherein both BJP and BSP have fielded Brahmin candidates. Here the Brahmins are divided among both BJP and BSP due to candidate factor. However, everyone desires BJP forming the next government in the state, says the Jhansi farmer.
Thus, the factors like continuing enigma of Modi among people of upper castes, post-2014 perception of BJP being the political force to reckon with, the Yadav and Dalit centric image of SP and BSP and the perception that an upper caste stands a chance of being appointed as CM if BJP forms the government, have led to the consolidation of upper castes behind BJP, despite latter’s overwhelming focus on non-Yadav OBCs.
The sentiment was summed up in the response of a Rajput respondent at Baldev Assembly constituency in Mathura: “Earlier, we used to shift to other parties as there was no wave for BJP. Now we are with BJP as there is Modi wave making the party winnable once again.”
The author has a PhD from the Centre of Political Sciences, JNU, and is associated with Peoples Pulse, a Hyderabad-based research organisation specialising in fieldwork-based political and electoral studies.