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The game changers

Recent bypoll results indicate that the Brahmin vote will play a crucial role in future elections in UP and Bihar, says Ashok Malik.

india Updated: Sep 30, 2009 22:53 IST

For 20 years, the politics of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar has been defined by an ambiguous but nevertheless persuasive idea called ‘social engineering’. In 1989-90, the states threw up new OBC (Other Backward Caste) Chief ministers in Mulayam Singh Yadav and Lalu Yadav. Over the next decade, a process of Dalit empowerment too gained momentum. In Patna, Dalit votes began to count more than they ever had. In Lucknow, a Dalit chief minister took office more than once. Eventually, she swept the assembly election of 2007.

Today, something extraordinary is happening in both these states. The upper caste voter, pushed to the sidelines through the 1990s and well into the first decade of the 21st century, is emerging as a potential game changer. In the Bihar election of 2010 and the Uttar Pradesh election of 2012, it is very likely that upper caste voters — a euphemism for, really, Brahmins, the urban middle classes and small, state-specific communities such as Bhumihars in Bihar or Vaishyas in Uttar Pradesh — will decide the winner.

The recent by-elections in Bihar offered a teaser-trailer. The JD(U)-led NDA lost badly to the Lalu Yadav-Ram Vilas Paswan combine. The loss could be explained in terms of the upper caste vote moving away from the NDA and going to the Congress. This reduced the NDA’s votes without necessarily adding to those of Yadav-Paswan backed candidates. However, the Congress was an effective spoiler.

Assessments from the state say the upper caste Bihari voter was sending Chief Minister Nitish Kumar a message. It is argued that while making efforts to court every section of society, Kumar has taken the upper caste electorate for granted. On his part, Yadav used the by-election campaign to appeal to Brahmins and, if not win their votes, blunt their hostility.

Yet, the story of Bihar is not quite the re-emergence of the Lalu phenomenon. It is questionable if traditionally privileged caste groups will readily go to his corner. Indeed, even after the by-election results, the Congress has refused to entertain ideas of any grand alliance with Messrs Yadav and Paswan. It senses the Brahmin/middle class voter is coming back to the party only because the Congress is fighting alone, unencumbered by a Mandalite chieftain.

On the other hand, far from diminishing the cohesiveness of the NDA in Bihar, this set of by-elections has actually increased the dependence of Kumar and the JD(U) on the BJP. As the alliance partner that brings
in upper caste votes, the BJP will be able to bargain from a stronger position.

In the end, however, it will be locked in a contest for the Brahmin and urban middle class constituency with the Congress. A mini-battle between two national parties will shape the future of what has for 20 years been an intensely and incestuously local polity. The upper caste voter will decide which OBC will run the chief minister’s office in Patna.

The tectonic plates are just beginning to shift in Bihar. In Uttar Pradesh, the pieces of the jigsaw have already formed a fresh picture. Here, the Congress’s ‘go it alone’ approach — at the starting block in Bihar — is acquiring critical mass. As is now apparent, Uttar Pradesh is devolving into a two-horse race between the Congress and the BSP. The Samajwadi Party (SP) is slipping back to its Lok Dal past, a party of upper OBCs with little incremental appeal; the BJP is in decline.

What exactly is happening in Uttar Pradesh? The Congress is becoming a magnet for Muslims. Again, state by-elections from August 2009 can be cited as evidence. In 2007, the Congress had finished a poor fourth in Malihabad and Moradabad (West) assembly constituencies. In the recent by-elections, it finished a respectable second to the BSP in Moradabad (West) and third to the BSP and an Independent in Malihabad. The SP and BJP were left behind. Both seats have sizeable Muslim populations.

The Muslim voter is only coming because he now considers the Congress as being in the reckoning. Underpinning this viability is the migration of the Brahmin and urban middle class vote. To some extent it was seen in the Lok Sabha election, when the Congress did better than expected.

Already, the talk in Lucknow is the party will project somebody like Rita Bahuguna Joshi as chief ministerial candidate in 2012. If so, it will be the first time since

N.D. Tiwari and 1989 that a mainstream party will venture to promise a Brahmin the top job. For two decades, social engineering and its confounding calculations had rendered this impossible.

Mayawati and the BSP will not give up without a struggle. The lady senses the broad social coalition she crafted for the 2007 election is now history. As such, she is focusing on her core voters — Dalits, particularly more prosperous or educated sub-castes such as Jatavs.

Rahul Gandhi’s visit to Uttar Pradesh this past week — and his politically-loaded gesture of sleeping in a Dalit house — indicated the Congress too is alive to the formidable challenge that Mayawati presents. However, the party may well consider the Brahmin vote sewn up.

As such, if the fates are willing, Brahmins could influence the choice of Bihar’s chief minister in a year, and Uttar Pradesh could have a Brahmin chief minister in two-and-a-half years. The gospel of social engineering will require re-engineering.

Ashok Malik is a Delhi-based writer

The views expressed by the author are personal