The caste maze: One who negotiates it wins Uttar Pradesh

  • Sunita Aron, Lucknow
  • Updated: Aug 07, 2016 16:27 IST
BSP workers stage a protest demonstration in Lucknow against former BJP leader Dayashankar Singh for his remarks against party president Mayawati. (PTI File Photo)

Late socialist leader Charan Singh often used to tell his party workers to “hold the base vote and chase the plus”. Jats were his party’s base and he tried hard to add Muslims and backward classes, primarily Ahirs (Yadavs), as the plus.

But the schism in the Jat-Muslim vote bank after the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots has left his son, Ajit Singh, desperate for a poll partner ahead of the 2017 state election.

That is the story of the Rashtriya Lok Dal -- a bit player in the bellwether state of Uttar Pradesh.

But, it is not just the RLD. Six months ahead of the most-watched of the state elections, all the four major political players in Uttar Pradesh are facing the same challenge -- holding on to their base vote while chasing the plus.

In 2012, polling was almost a month-long affair. Seven voting days spread over February and early March.

The die is caste

The writing is on the wall for the 2017 elections: We are about to see a mad scramble for caste groups that will eventually push aside issues such as development, corruption and law and order, which dominate the political discourse today.

The Congress has hit the campaign trail on the slogan “27 saal-UP behal” (27 years and UP a mess – a reference to the non-Congress governments that have ruled the state in the period).

The BJP is leaving no stone unturned to paint four-time chief minister and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) leader Mayawati as corrupt. It is targeting chief minister Akhilesh Yadav and his Samajwadi Party over poor law and order situation in the state.

But they all face the same problem -- their base vote is as slippery as the add-ons they are eyeing.

According to a study by Kanpur-based political scientist AK Verma, Mayawati lost in 2012 primarily because of the erosion of her Dalit base. Voters chose parties factoring in their ability to govern, says the study.

Again in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, a chunk of Mayawati’s support base shifted to the BJP. While hoping to get the added Muslim and Brahmin votes to get past the half-way mark in the 403-member assembly, Mayawati is equally desperate to win back the voters who have shifted loyalties over the last few years.

Read | Assembly polls 2017: It will be a fight for every vote in battlefield UP

The Maya factor

The BJP, essentially an upper-caste party that also enjoys the support among a section of the other backward classes, is eyeing a share of the Dalit pie to cobble together a winning formula. Dalits account for 21% of the state’s population.

But the lower caste vs upper caste battle lines have sharpened after expelled BJP leader Dayashankar Singh used derogatory words for Mayawati.

BSP leader Naseemuddin Siddiqui’s remark against Singh’s wife and daughter only made things worse, with both parties taking each other head-on.

BSP chief Mayawati interacts with journalists in New Delhi. (Vipin Kumar/HT PHOTO)

But Mayawati knows it’s not going to take her far. So, after a formal protest, she withdrew her agitation against Singh. A prolonged campaign would have cost her the upper-caste support. The damage, however, is done, as the Brahmins she was trying to woo are again sceptic about her political intent.

The biggest challenge for Mayawati is to consolidate her base vote of Dalits without losing the support of the Brahmins, who are exploring other options. With the backward classes dominating the caste matrix for decades, the Brahmins have shifted their political allegiance every election.

Political scientist Badri Narain, however, says Mayawati’s Dalit supporters come together to back their leader every time her party colleagues “betray” her. He is talking about senior leaders Swamy Prasad Maurya and RK Choudhary walking out of the BSP recently.

“She has activated most backward votes and if she wins two to three per cent Brahmin vote, she will form the government,” says Narain.

Prof Rajesh Singh of Gorakhpur, however, has a different view. Mayawati, he says, has lost upper-caste support. Barely a month ago, he was talking about the BSP’s return to power.

The BJP faces a similar situation. Its efforts to add Dalits to the upper caste and OBC support base have not worked to the plan.

Read | Eye on UP polls, govt plans mega culture festival in Varanasi

The M-Y equation

The ruling Samajwadi Party rode to power in 2012 on the back of several caste groups. A chunk of its base vote of Yadavs is vulnerable to the BJP’s “Hindutava agenda” and to retain the Muslim vote, it can’t afford to lose grip over its M-Y (Muslim-Yadav) combination.

Akhilesh Yadav, however, is banking heavily on the support of the youth, who he says are socialists – without caste leanings. The party is confident of young voters choosing 43-year-old Akhilesh Yadav over other chief ministerial candidates, who are much older.

Beni Prasad Verma (left) with Samajwadi party in presence of party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav (centre), party leader Azam Khan and chief minister Akhilesh Yadav (right) in Lucknow. (PTI File Photo)

Interestingly, the Congress is the only party with the base that transcends caste. But the party, too, can’t escape the vicious cycle: Which group will be the first to return to the party -- the Brahmins, Dalits or the Muslims.

Since the demolition of the Babri mosque in 1992, the voting pattern among Muslims has varied from constituency to constituency. The community has voted against the BJP and favoured candidates with better chances of emerging a winner.

In a fluid scenario like this, it could be anybody’s game in Uttar Pradesh.

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