It was a winter evening in the mid-1980s when a tall official of the Defence Research and Development Organisation, wearing a branded olive green pullover, sipping bottled water at the state guest house in Lucknow, openly expressed his contempt for the upper castes and vowed to remove them from power in Uttar Pradesh someday.
The little-known person in his early 50s, who flew in from his home state of Punjab, was none other than Kanshi Ram, whose fledgling Bahujan Samaj Party — formed in 1984 with the support of Dalit government officials ranging from senior bureaucrats to peons — was struggling for recognition.
Little did his political opponents realise that the party they then dismissed as a non-entity would change caste dynamics in UP to such an extent that two decades later a techie like Sam Pitroda would be introduced at an election rally in 2012 on the basis of his caste.
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi described Pitroda as a member of the backward community whose ancestors were carpenters.
Kanshi Ram and his protégé Mayawati brazenly promoted caste politics which till then the other parties pursued clandestinely. They organised caste rallies, distributed provocative literature and propagated caste heroes.
After they came to power in UP in 2007, they paraded their ministers at rallies — not for their calibre but for their caste.
“We never heard of caste rallies by political parties till the BSP came on the state’s political horizon,” said Allahabad-based Dalit scholar Badri Narain.
“Before that, various caste associations used to organise rallies, which were more social in character than political. As the BSP started gaining political ground, others fell into the caste trap and started organising similar rallies, though fewer in number,” he said.
What helped the duo was the aggressive assertion of caste identities by political parties and leaders from the upper and backward segments of society under the Mandal and Mandir banners.
From the mid-1980s, the politics of caste started flourishing and soon all political parties took recourse to it.
This continued even after the Election Commission, with the concurrence of the political parties, banned the seeking of votes in the name of religion or caste in 1991.
But the EC’s role was limited to issuing notices where aberrations were found.
Following the BSP’s strategy, the Samajwadi Party — whose backbone was made up of the Other Backward Classes and Muslims — began to organise meetings to woo Rajputs and Brahmins as well.
Political analyst Pushpesh Pant says, after a tour of eastern UP in the 2012 assembly polls the Congress too joined the bandwagon.
Though it had relied on its traditional rainbow coalition of Dalits, Muslims and Brahmins that enabled it to rule the state till the end of the 1980s, the 2012 polls saw the Congress openly wooing the most backward castes and organising rallies.
The BJP jumped into the fray with CM Rajnath Singh’s government introducing a quota within the OBC quota for the most backward castes and most backward scheduled castes in 2000.
With parties openly wooing voters on the basis of caste, will the Allahabad HC order banning caste-based rallies succeed in checking this trend?
Badri Narain thinks politicians are smart enough to find new nomenclatures to hold caste gatherings. Maybe he’s right.