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Who has the upper hand?

It is ironic that Mulayam Yadav is trying to win over the Thakur community while Mayawati is pulling out all the stops to get the support of Brahmins, writes Prakash Patra.

india Updated: Apr 09, 2007 23:14 IST

Politics in Uttar Pradesh seems to have come a full circle. The emergence of the ‘middle peasant’, belonging to the intermediate castes and economic class, in the mid-1960s saw the decline of the political power of the upper castes. After nearly four decades, the upper castes are becoming relevant once again. It is no exaggeration to say that the upper castes hold the key to the outcome of the ongoing polls in UP.

It is ironic that backward caste leader Mulayam Yadav is trying to win over the Thakur community while Dalit leader Mayawati is pulling out all the stops to get the support of Brahmins and Vaishyas. Both leaders have conveniently forgotten their original tasks: empowerment of the social segments they represent.

The Congress’ virtual refusal to acknowledge the emergence of the ‘middle peasant’ in the 1960s led to the formation of four loose, yet distinct, groups: the upper castes, the intermediate or backward castes, the Dalits and the Muslims. The Congress relied heavily on its formidable winning combination — Brahmins, Dalits and Muslims — to maintain its domination in the state. In the process, the party failed to see the writing on the wall and missed out in reaching out to the rising agrarian class. Charan Singh, who represented the assertive ‘middle peasant’, walked out of the Congress and formed the first non-Congress government in UP. The period also marked the beginning of a series of caste associations being forged among the peasant communities — including sections of the minority engaged in agriculture, who would play a dominant role in the Hindi heartland, particularly in UP and Bihar.

The churning among the backward castes has been taking place ever since. Charan Singh’s own Jat community subsequently gave in to the assertions of the numerically dominant Yadavs. Today, Charan Singh’s son, Ajit Singh, has been relegated to the confines of Jat-dominated western UP. The intermediate and ‘weaker’ castes — Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and Most Backward Castes (MBCs) — are becoming assertive and want to chart their own course.

This new-found assertion was evident in Bihar where Nitish Kumar, a Kurmi, successfully challenged the Yadav leadership among the OBCs. In UP, non-Yadav Backward Caste leaders sense the opportunity to assert themselves. Sone Lal Patel of the Aapna Dal, a Kurmi leader, has teamed up with the BJP that is projecting the OBC Kalyan Singh against Mulayam Yadav. Until recently, Beni Prasad Verma, yet another Kurmi, was a staunch supporter of Mulayam. He has now walked out of the SP to field his own candidates.

Leaders from smaller communities with pockets of influence are becoming increasingly relevant. The ‘Yadav model’ that upstaged the Jats in UP and the ‘Kurmi model’ that upstaged the Yadavs in Bihar have become examples for other caste groups to follow.

Dalit politics, which revolved around the Congress until the mid-1980s, took a new shape under the leadership of Kanshi Ram and Mayawati. They brought in a new idiom by playing an aggressive Dalit card. Aware that the Dalits alone could not bring it to power, the BSP has been making conscious attempts to expand its sphere of influence by winning over upper castes, particularly the Brahmins. In this election, the BSP has fielded 100-odd upper caste candidates.

With the BJP’s support base dwindling and the Congress in no position to cross the winning line on its own, Mayawati feels that Brahmins would prefer the BSP over other parties. Even among the Dalits, communities other than Mayawati’s Jatav community, are being wooed by various parties. The BJP, enjoying the support of a large section of Brahmins till now, is projecting Kalyan Singh, a backward Lodh leader, to make a dent into the MBC votes.

In the absence of visible political issues in any party campaign, voter mobilisation is being conducted on the narrow lines of caste, community and muscle power. Political calculations are based on the electoral figures available: in 2002, the SP’s vote share was 25.37 per cent, the BSP’s 23.06 per cent, the BJP’s 20.08 per cent, and the Congress’ 8.96 per cent. More than 50 smaller parties, with localised pockets of influence, along with Independents had cornered 22.53 per cent of the votes. The last category was critical to the electoral outcome. Out of 403 MLAs, only 17 had polled a majority of votes and the bulk of MLAs had polled less than a third of the polled votes. In such keenly contested polls, parties are bound to depend on all possible permutations and combinations to win.

In the emerging situation, the BSP and the SP are looking to expand their ‘captive’ vote base. To do this, they will need to ‘break’ into the vote bases of other parties — get the support of the traditionally BJP- or Congress-voting upper castes, for instance. The Congress’ traditional role as the ‘voice of the underdog’ has already dwindled with Dalits and Muslims migrating to the BSP and SP. It’s now the BJP that faces the task of defending its fort. The Thakurs are being wooed by the SP, while the Brahmins are being cajoled to jump on board the BSP ship.

Belonging to the upper castes in UP is no longer a misfortune.