How Caste Has Shaped Politics And Power In UP

Posted by Shaurya Gupta in Politics
May 17, 2017

In India, we have a heterogeneous society. When some people in the society start feeling alienated from the State, the resulting responses of these people are based on their different social identities – religious, racial, ethnic, caste-based and regional. Obviously, such responses are only possible when the ruling elite and the displeased sections of the society have different social identities.

Uttar Pradesh (UP) is the most populous state of India. It is also one of the most diversified states, when it comes to the representation of castes. The political history of UP is very interesting and fascinating for political scholars worldwide. Uttar Pradesh has played a major role in shaping Indian politics, both before and after independence.

After independence, like in most other states, the Indian National Congress (INC) stayed in power in UP till the late 1980s. After the decline of the single, dominant party-system and the emergence of political formations based on identity, a more competitive political environment started to emerge in UP. People started feeling alienated from the INC, due to which people started forming groups/parties which were based on social identities like caste.

The roots of caste-based politics in north India in the post-independence era can be traced back to the British colonial period or even before that. Even today, in many states, caste considerations are central in determining our voting choices – more than other identity-based factors.

Especially in states like UP, the caste factor has not receded in the face of agrarian reforms and quota politics. Rather, it has evolved due to the influence of political parties. This is because in these states, the caste factor is an easy, ready-to-use force for mobilisation.

In UP, the level of atrocities on people belonging to the Scheduled Castes was quite high since the feudal era. Due to this, people from these castes came to bear a grudge against upper caste people, over generations. However, they lacked socio-political representation or a leader who could take up their issues.

Politically, these people were aligned towards the INC until the 1980s. However, after the emergence of Kanshiram, and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in 1984, there was a sudden shift in the socio-political mindset of the Scheduled Castes. The purpose of uplifting the Scheduled Castes was, thus, brought to the forefront by giving them a political voice.

Kanshiram emerged as the charismatic personality that the scheduled castes needed. The initial strategy of the party involved uniting the Scheduled Castes by provoking them against the upper castes in society. Kanshiram and his associates held public meetings and gave speeches to mobilise the Scheduled Castes. Their speeches focussed on how the upper castes had always dominated the social, cultural, political and economic domains in our society. They also stressed upon the atrocities committed by the elites/upper castes in the society. Furthermore, they highlighted how the people were victims of structural violence.

These public meetings and speeches started a movement among the lower castes. These people looked up to Kanshiram and believed in his ideology, wholeheartedly. His speeches greatly influenced people from these castes, which led to caste-awareness among the people. They began to understand that if they could have a political voice and a party of their own, then they could well become stronger and form a government which would work for their benefits.

Furthermore, they began to realise their socio-political rights. Kanshiram’s legacy was followed by Mayawati, in turn. When Mayawati became the chief minister, the scheduled castes in UP saw her as the supremo and their saviour. The morals of the people from these castes went sky-high, because they realised how their unity could transform into an electoral victory. However, caste mobilisation was not the sole factor behind BSP’s victory. People who had supported Congress previously also changed their political affiliations and played a decisive role in BSP’s victory.

Since the 1970s, the political landscape of UP has changed drastically. In the post-Emergency period, UP saw political mobilisation under leaders like Charan Singh and Mulayam Singh. The Mandal Commission report and the rising caste-awareness among the people from lower castes also emerged as significant causes for change. Gradually, all these factors came together and provided an environment for identity-based parties to strengthen themselves and dominate the politics of UP.

It was only in the early 1990s when BSP’s strategies paid off. During this time, they started to win a few seats in the assembly elections. The beginning of the 1990s was also a revolutionary period in India, both economically and politically. India was undergoing major structural economic reforms.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was emerging as a major opposition party at the national level. It was during this time that the BSP and Samajwadi Party (SP) started together, with a common agenda of overthrowing the elite Congress government and stopping BJP from coming to power. After the 1993 state assembly elections, the SP and BSP formed a coalition government. However, their alliance broke up in 1996, resulting in the fall of the state government. This also started the rivalry between the two strong non-elite political competitors in UP.

Until recent times, the political scenario was in favour of both these parties – both having become dominant in the state’s politics. During their tenures, the leaders of both these parties allegedly acquired an immense amount of wealth through illegal means and corruption. In a sense, they themselves became elite. However, BJP’s win in the latest elections has completed changed the political scenario in UP. We have to wait a little longer to analyse the decisions of the new government and measure their impacts.

Politics in UP has now become a ‘four-cornered’ fight, which is, perhaps, not a perfect way to achieve competitive democracy. Populist parties have taken over power through invoking social identities of the people, even though they have failed to fulfil the promises made to the masses. Only certain sections of the society have benefitted from these parties coming to power.

If we look at the arguments behind an ideal competitive democracy, we will realise that UP is still far from achieving it. The era of competitive democracy is in its initial stage and will take time to mature. The politics of UP is still heavily dominated by caste factors. Therefore, it will take time for all, and not some, to reap benefits from the competitive democratic framework.


Image Source : Sakib Ali/Hindustan Times via Getty Images