The upcoming Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh are not only a test for Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav but also for the upper castes in the state, which together comprise nearly 22% of the population but wield influence far beyond their numbers. The polls will judge whether the upper castes overcome the prejudices that they, before every election without fail, accuse other social groups of harbouring.
Over the last 27 years, when the politics of Mandir-Mandal drove a wedge in Indian polity, the relationship between social groups and political parties was realigned. The upper castes across North and central India shifted from the Congress to the Bharatiya Janata Party as did the Dalits to the Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh.
At the same time, the Other Backward Castes, defined as Other Backward Classes for the purpose of granting them reservations, consolidated behind a clutch of parties whose leaders belonged to the same social category as them. These parties also have a considerable phalanx of Muslims, who were alienated from the Congress, not least because they were principal victims of the grisly riots over the 1980s, often referred to as The Bloody Decade.
The realignment of social groups had the upper castes spawn a discourse that is extremely popular now, including among journalists. This discourse claims that social groups lower in the social hierarchy are primarily driven by their caste identity while voting.
In other words, Dalits votes for the Bahujan Samaj Party because its leader, Mayawati, is from the Scheduled Caste. And Yadavs vote for the parties of Mulayam Singh Yadav and Lalu Prasad Yadav because of caste affinity, as do Kurmis and Koeris for Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. As for Muslims, their obsession, the upper-caste discourse claims, is to vanquish the BJP as they cannot countenance any party that refuses to pamper them or, alternatively, espouses the cause of Hindus.
This discourse glosses over the marked preference the upper castes have for the BJP, evident from anecdotal accounts as well as the election studies of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, which look at voting behaviour and patterns. Over the last 27 years, the percentage of upper castes voting for the BJP has almost always been around 50%, even crossing the whopping 70% mark during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections in Uttar Pradesh.
Yet, the upper castes do not think their caste or religious considerations drive their preference for the BJP. Instead, the discourse they have created is that they vote for the party because its rule would be beneficial to the nation or the states. The saffron party’s rule is deemed beneficial because its policies will not have the imprint of caste and religion (unlike that of the others) From this perspective, the upper castes feel they largely make a rational choice, while others simply ride their primordial passion to voting booths.
At times, however, this discourse seems to be at complete variance with the ground reality. An OBC is consciously pitchforked into the political proscenium – so Raghubar Das is made chief minister of BJP-ruled Jharkhand. Or a Punjabi, Manohar Lal Khattar, drops his surname as soon as he becomes chief minister of Haryana. The ensuing fuss over such decisions, ironically, turns the spotlight on the community to which the BJP chief minister belongs.
Or take Prime Minister Narendra Modi, an OBC. He fashioned for himself an alluring image of Mr Development. But here and there, he also articulated his opposition to the “pink revolution”, shorthand for consumption of beef, and reminded his audience, rather subtly, of his OBC roots.
According to the upper caste-driven discourse, strategies such as those of Modi or Khattar are inevitable in a democracy like India and an experiment in social engineering – a term that entails stitching together different communities into a seamless political tapestry. No quarrels with that.
Yet, the same generosity is rarely displayed while interpreting the electoral manoeuvres of Mayawati, Lalu Yadav, Mulayam Yadav or Kumar. When they give tickets to, say, a Brahmin or Rajput, theirs is not deemed to be a case of social engineering, or attempts at re-calibrating the social cohesion upset over the last 27 years. They are said to have only caste calculations in mind. Thus, a BSP ticket to a Brahmin is seen as cynically an attempt to add a chunk of that community’s votes to the Dalits base for the opportunistic reasons.
Why is the BJP giving a ticket to a Yadav, a Kurmi, or any other OBC or lower castes not seen as being driven by caste calculations?
The big test
This is precisely why the upper castes face their sternest test in Uttar Pradesh when the state goes to polls on February 11: Will they now rally behind Samajwadi Party’s Akhilesh Yadav, who ticks all the boxes of the typical upper caste BJP supporter? Unlike his father Mulayam Yadav, the Uttar Pradesh chief minister has not projected his rule as the Yadav raj and has belatedly rebelled against his family elders who, it was claimed, were partial to musclemen, particularly those from their own caste. Akhilesh Yadav, in fact, is said to be opposed to fielding such elements in the elections.
Akhilesh Yadav too has carved for himself an image of Mr Development, stomping around the state to build highways, flyovers and metros. His rhetoric is peppered with modernistic tropes of laptops and smartphones as well as traditional symbols the poor can identify with. His political conduct has not provoked accusations that he mollycoddles Muslims. If anything, a large section of Muslims, particularly the intelligentsia, thinks he has been playing the soft Hindutva card.
No doubt, the votes of every social group get fragmented, as a percentage of each tends to vote for candidates belonging to their caste. But the largest chunk goes to the party a social group favours most.
On this count, the upper castes are no different – a percentage of them did vote the Bahujan Samaj Party in 2007 and the Samajwadi Party in 2012 Assembly elections.
But Akhilesh will need to get upper caste votes in far greater numbers than before. This is because the Yadav votes would fracture, to a degree, if the party splits – something it has been headed towards for months now, with rival factions in support of the father and son staking claim over the Samajwadi Party’s election symbol of the cycle.
Even if the party manages to stay intact, the faction opposed to Akhilesh Yadav will try to engineer the defeat of his candidates, a list he released separately from that of his father’s. In addition, given Mayawati’s aggressive courting of Muslims, Akhilesh Yadav may not poll their votes to the extent he did in 2012.
And so, because Akhilesh Yadav meets so many of their criteria and enjoys appeal across sections, upper castes of Uttar Pradesh have to prove their voting choice is rational, not driven by caste considerations. By contrast, their most favoured party – the BJP – does not even have a chief ministerial face. Modi, certainly, isn’t going to rule Uttar Pradesh.
Indeed, Akhilesh Yadav is in every way the leader that the upper castes are partial to, but for the fact that he is an OBC who does not belong to the BJP. By voting for him, the upper castes have nothing to lose but their hypocrisy.
Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid.