It may not seem like it, but Narendra Modi and Amit Shah’s Bharatiya Janata Party has turned into the massive electoral juggernaut by focusing on minorities. Just not the ones that are usually spoken about by political analysts. Much of the discourse surrounding the BJP’s approach over the last few years has focused on how the party seeks to exclude, whether it is those from a different religion, those who eat the “wrong” kind of meat or simply those who don’t agree with the party leadership. What has gone somewhat less commented on, at least to those who don’t pay close attention to political strategy, is how the party has managed to appeal to those who had felt excluded from the corridors of power.
Conventional party approaches in Indian politics tend to depend on a core “vote bank” that is usually large enough to be electorally significant. Taking Uttar Pradesh as an example, the Samajwadi Party traditionally expects that the Yadav community, 10% of the state’s population, will vote for it. The Bahujan Samaj Party is reliant on the Jatavs, also around 10%. And both of these parties, as well as the Congress, usually try to get the support of the state’s Muslims – often referred to as the “minority community” – who account for 20% of the state’s voters.
The reason for this simple approach is that it’s efficient. Parties focus on communities that are closely associated with them and their leadership, and work to mobilise them as their core support base while also trying to reach out to other floating voters. This formula repeats itself in community-based parties across much of the country. The BJP too had its formula for UP, where it was traditionally seen as a Brahmin-Bania party, with the addition of Thakurs.
Ahead of the UP Assembly elections in 2017, however, the BJP realised it could not win with just those two communities. It was also smarting from the 2015 loss in Bihar, when an alliance of rival parties used caste arithmetic to defeat it. Instead, Amit Shah leaned on a formula that the party had relied on decades earlier: targeting the non-dominant Hindu castes among the Other Backward Classes and Dalits, while polarising the overall community against the Muslims.
BJP MP Bhupender Yadav explained this to journalist Prashant Jha, who recounts the conversation in his new book, How the BJP Wins. “See, Muslims – who are 20 per cent – will not vote for us. Yadavs – who are about 10 per cent – will remain loyal, largely to the SP, in this election. And Jatavs – again a little more than 10 per cent – will be loyal to BSP. That leaves us with 55 to 60 per cent of the electoral playing field. We are targeting them,” Yadav said.
Jha explains what that would entail. “This meant the traditional base of upper castes,” he writes. “It meant the backward communities – hundreds of large and small castes – who were within the OBC framework, but did not get access to power the way Yadavs did. It meant over 50 of the 60 Dalit sub-castes in UP, who were not necessarily as empowered as the Jatavs.”
The statistics seem to bear out the strategy, not just for Uttar Pradesh in 2017, but even in the BJP’s stunning victory in Lok Sabha polls in 2014. Though many other factors were responsible for the party’s tremendous success that year, the shift of OBCs and Dalits to its camp played a huge role in ensuring such positive results.
Statistics suggest that 34% of OBCs and 24% of Dalits voted for the BJP in 2014, a jump of 12 points over the 2009 results for the party from both communities. Figures from the Hindi-speaking states, where the BJP is now utterly dominant, look even more impressive.
“The BJP, known since its inception and more so in its earlier avatar of the Bharatiya Jan Sangh for its urban base, middleclass, upper-caste Hindu orientation, was able to muster considerable support from backward caste Hindus and dalits,” write Suhas Palsikar and KC Suri in the Economic and Political Weekly. “In 2014, not only did the largest proportion of the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) vote at the national level go in favour of the BJP, but it also constituted the largest share within the vote received by the BJP. The party also received a substantial proportion of the dalit and adivasi vote in different parts of the country. Thus, the party’s victory points towards a transformation of the BJP.”
That transformation prompted some to say the BJP’s success heralded the end of caste politics, an impression that was easily dispelled after a different set of circumstances and caste arithmetic propelled the “grand alliance” to victory in Bihar. Nevertheless, the BJP’s achievement was impressive. Would they be able to replicate it in UP?
Jha’s book explains how the BJP doubled down on this approach in the state, especially after having learnt the lessons of Bihar. A survey of the party’s organisational structure in Uttar Pradesh in 2014 revealed that just 7% of office bearers in the state were from the Other Backward Classes and fewer still, just 3%, were Dalits. Over 2015, the BJP nationally conducted a massive membership drive, bringing hundreds of thousands of new people into its fold, with a special focus on looking beyond the traditional communities that support it.
Once members of these other communities had become a part of the BJP, however, the organisation still had to find a way to include them in the leadership without alienating those who had been playing key roles for years. According to Jha’s book, Shah solved this problem simply by expanding the number of leadership positions within the party structure.
“Twelve new office-bearers were added in each district. A hundred new members were added to the state executive committee. Those who remained office bearers were not removed, which helped in mitigating resentment,” Jha writes. “By the end of 2015, the party had a pool of a thousand new OBC and Dalit leaders, who felt a sense of ownership of the party structure, who had space and recognition in the hierarchy.”
To add to this many in the party seemed to suggest that Keshav Prasad Maurya, an OBC leader who was appointed state president, would also likely be the party’s chief ministerial candidate. In the end, the efforts worked. The BJP won Uttar Pradesh with a massive mandate and a vote-share that was nearly the same as 2014.
“The party succeeded in convincing a large number of lower OBCs that the SP cares only about Yadavs, and Dalits that the BSP is a party exclusively of Jatavs and excludes other Dalit castes,” wrote Pranav Gupta and Rahul Verma, researchers from Lokniti-CSDS, in the Indian Express. In that sense, the social coalition the BJP had forged in 2014 remained largely unchanged in 2017.”
So the BJP won, and won big. But it did not make Maurya chief minister. The post instead went to Adityanath, known to his followers as Yogi, a Thakur leader who was also accused in a riot case. In this decision lies one of the contradictions of the BJP’s formula of being more inclusive within the Hindu fold. The party may have found a way to break beyond its traditional support bases and, indeed, subsume some of the caste differences within the Hindu community – mostly by attempting to polarise them into becoming a united force against Muslims.
But its leadership, at least in government, has not reflected this. Christophe Jaffrelot and Gilles Verniers pointed out that, despite the large support of OBC voters in 2014, the share of OBC MPs in the Lok Sabha had returned to pre-Mandal levels of representation i.e., before the dominant OBCs, like Yadavs, became the leading political force in northern states. Brahmin MPs actually doubled in number between 2004 and 2014.
“The BJP’s case is the most interesting,” they wrote. “The party has never had less that 40 per cent of its Hindi belt MPs coming from the upper castes. This proportion rose to 58.5 per cent in 2009. It dropped by 11 percentage points in 2014 to 47.5 per cent, but remained above the average.”
In Uttar Pradesh too, the same storyline seems to have played out. By most accounts, non-Yadav OBCs and non-Jatav Dalits voted for the BJP in large numbers, and yet the composition of the Assembly reflects a sharp spike in Upper Caste representation.
This suggests that the BJP may have been more inclusive over the course of its electoral campaign, finding a way to let some Hindus vote beyond their caste and allowing others to at least believe they will have access to power that was otherwise never available to them. Yet the actual distribution of tickets and leadership positions has yet to catch up to these changes.
“Within a few months of Yogi taking over, Lucknow was already abuzz with how the BJP win had been accompanied with ‘Thakur Raj’,” writes Jha. “These contradictions will play out in the realm of governance and administration. How the BJP handles it will determine its future. But for now, UP has shown Amit Shah’s remarkable ability to understand society, identify contradictions and exploit these. It also marks the BJP’s real attempt to transform itself in its heartland from a party of only the dominant social groups to a party of the less powerful, fighting the more dominant political castes.”