In his introduction to the cover story of India Today's October 10 issue titled UP For Grabs, the magazine's proprietor and editor-in-chief Aroon Purie confuses analytical categories, stereotypes social groups, and seems to view Uttar Pradesh through the lens of the upper-caste urban elite. His piece seems to tacitly accept the pet premises of Hindutva politics.

Purie’s piece makes several remarkable assumptions in just 664 words. For instance, he says:

“The failure of the country’s two national parties – the Congress and the BJP – to maintain a steady grip on the state in the past two decades has resulted in the evolution of coalition politics at the Centre.”

However, Purie does not define national. Are parties national – the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party – because they are present in multiple states? Or are parties national because they have an all-India perspective or adhere to what is increasingly, and debatably, referred to as the “idea of India”?

Despite this, we can discern Purie’s idea of national through his references to its opposite. The counter-category to national is regional, in the sense an entity’s influence is confined to a state, or its evolution and growth have been fuelled by demands and grievances that do not have pan-India resonance. But Purie does not call the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party, the two-state based parties, regional.

What are the they then?

Purie says:

“The post-Mandal era has been dominated by two caste-based formations – the Samajwadi Party, which espouses the cause of OBCs, and the Bahujan Samaj Party, formed to give Dalits a voice.”

In other words, Purie has juxtaposed national with caste. From this, readers can conclude that he thinks of a national party as a formation that is not caste-based and, therefore, does not pursue the politics of identity.

However, Purie seems to have missed BJP president Amit Shah’s desperate wooing of the Kurmis and Rajbhars. Shah has lavished praise on Raja Suheldev – a Rajbhar icon – for vanquishing Salar Masud or Ghazi Miyan, supposedly a nephew of Mahmud of Ghazni. The historian Shahid Amin has shown in his masterful book Conquest and Community: The Afterlife of Warrior Saint Ghazi Miyan that Ghazi Miyan couldn’t have been Ghazni’s nephew. But when has history come in the way of the BJP’s retelling of it?

This and other evidence of the BJP’s caste politics has not complicated Purie’s idea of the national. Not even Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s sustained lavishing of praise on the Dalit icon, BR Ambedkar, amidst the unceasing torment Ambedkar’s community members have been experiencing over the last 29 months.

Caste politics by any other name…

This is because in the parlance of the media and the BJP, it is called social engineering, a term that dignifies the caste politics that the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party are accused of pursuing. Social engineering suggests a technological endeavor. It gives no agency to individuals or groups, reducing them to inanimate building blocks, much like hardware components are put together by computer engineers.

Engineering enhances efficiency. Likewise, social engineering is expected to improve Indian society. It is another matter that proponents of social engineering mostly belong to the upper castes. This is why their harnessing of caste politics isn’t considered casteist.

Consider the attempt by the Congress to give Rahul Gandhi a Brahmin identity. This is not described as caste politics because, well, a Brahmin is indulging in it, and because he happens to belong to a party Purie thinks is national. Yet Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party remains a caste-based party despite her repeated assertions that she wishes to represent all social groups.

In addition to caste, the politics of identity can also be crafted around religion and language. Nothing stops a national party, merely because of its spatial spread, from playing the politics of religion. For instance, over the last 29 months, the BJP has focused on the ban on beef, ghar wapsi, love jihad, and the bogus claims of Muslims driving out Hindus from Uttar Pradesh’s towns.

Purie is singing from another score when he says:

“Many argue that the BJP’s sweeping victory in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls was a mandate for development. But there is a counter-argument that the catalyst was the Muzaffarnagar riots, which polarised the electorate along religious lines.”

In case the BJP wins Uttar Pradesh in 2017, many will certainly credit the victory to development plans and the nationalistic fervour arising from the recent surgical attack along the Line of Control. The dark side of the BJP’s campaign – cow vigilantism etc – will remain just a counter-argument.

In fact, the battle for Uttar Pradesh is not between national and caste-based parties, as Purie suggests. From his perspective, it would have been more appropriate to describe it as a tussle between a Hindutva party spread over multiple states and caste-based entities confined to Uttar Pradesh.

The conflation of Hindutva with the idea of the national is why the BJP has acquired legitimacy – and, therefore, acceptability. The politics of caste, not religion, is presumed to erode our national identity. But to hold this theory is to be blind to how Hindutva hotheads are threatening the nation’s cohesion.

They are blind because they mostly belong to higher castes, and hope to thwart subaltern assertions through the use of religion. It is they who primarily constitute the battalion of cow vigilantes, wish to abolish the State’s affirmative-action policies, and have become a menace to free speech.

This isn’t to suggest that Purie endorses extra-legal activities. He is a liberal whose worldview has been coloured by his caste-class position, as mine too could have been. How else do we explain this assertion he makes:

“It [UP] also has India’s largest population of Dalits, who have come to replace minorities as the swing factor in India’s new electoral dynamics.”

After declaring that the Samajwadi Party espouses the cause of Other Backward Classes and the Bahujan Samaj Party that of the Dalits, Purie adds:

“This works perfectly with the arithmetic of a state that has 44 per cent OBCs and 22 per cent Dalits.”

Poor OBCs and Dalits, he suggests. They are driven by a herd mentality.

Upper caste swing?

Had Purie read more closely the election data of the Centre for the Study of Developing Society, which is used liberally in India Today’s cover story, he would have known that every community tends to have a favourite political party.

In the 2007 Assembly elections, every upper caste subgroup had 40% or more of its members voting for the BJP. Their support for the BJP declined in the 2012 elections a little more significantly. Similarly, over 70% of every upper caste subgroup voted for the BJP in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

Couldn’t the upper castes actually be the swing factor in Uttar Pradesh?

In the 2007 Assembly elections, when Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party came to power, the party had as many as 60 upper caste MLAs. In 2012, when Mayawati was voted out, their number declined to 17 upper caste MLAs while the victorious Samajwadi Party had 61 upper caste legislators, up from 30 in 2007.

While it is true that the upper castes mostly consolidate behind the BJP, a slight shift in their votes to other parties affect electoral outcomes. It is possible that caste, as a swing factor, operates more tellingly at the constituency level – for instance, a shift in Brahmin votes from the Bharatiya Janata Party to the Bahujan Samaj Party in a constituency augments the latter’s substantial Jatav votes and enables its Brahmin candidate to win.

But Brahmins voting a Brahmin is not considered casteist. This is because they, like all other upper castes, are presumed to decide their vote rationally, weighing carefully what is in the nation’s interest. The rest – Other Backward Classes, Dalits and Muslims – simply ride their primordial urge to the polling booth.

Purie also tell us that Uttar Pradesh has “India’s largest population of Dalits”. This is a meaningless remark: it is the percentage of Dalits to the state’s population – as also their turnout on polling day – which matters in an election. In Uttar Pradesh, Dalits constitute 22%, and upper castes around 19%, of the population. Is that a very significant a difference? In fact, Dalits matter more in Punjab, where they are 32%-34% of the state’s population.

Perhaps Purie thinks the sagacity of national parties can liberate Uttar Pradesh’s 200 million Dalits from the Bahujan Samaj Party. He writes:

“…The political success of these parties [the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party] has not translated into any significant improvement in the socio-economic status of the caste groups they claim to represent. The Dalits continue to face atrocities and discrimination….”

That is a bold assertion. Last heard, in the BJP-ruled Gujarat, Dalits were being beaten for refusing to cart away carcasses. Perhaps Purie needs to put on 3-D glasses to give his reading of Indian politics greater depth.

Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid.