Caste-religion muddle Modi must solve in Uttar Pradesh

That the clash for Uttar Pradesh’s 80 seats will be between the BJP’s PM candidate Narendra Modi and the rest this time is a no-brainer. But will the battle be fought on religious lines, or caste alignments? Or both?

If religion becomes the plank, one big, fat and juicy Hindu vote could see the saffron party safely through, but if Mulayam Singh Yadav’s SP and Mayawati’s BSP manage to mobilise their captive castes, it could be a bumpy ride for Modi.

Barely a month before the BJP nominated Modi, a senior party leader informally asked: “Do you think he (Modi) can recreate the temple wave?” He thought his party would need another Temple-like wave to unite the Hindus in UP.

Though Modi has become a household name, the wave has not yet reached the backwoods, where people either don’t have access to television sets or don’t have the electricity to run them.

The SP-BSP caste citadels – built around the 90s — still look difficult to storm. Beyond western UP, where the Muzaffarnagar riots recently sharpened the communal divide, caste is still king.

Recent history shows how strong the SP and the BSP have become since the 90s. In 1998, when the BJP won 57 seats – its highest so far in the state – riding on the Vajpayee wave, the SP won 20, the BSP four seats. The Congress, however, failed to win even one seat.

There has been no looking back for the two UP-based parties since then. In the previous election, the BSP won 20 seats, while the SP won 23 seats.

From the 57 seats in 1998, the BJP’s tally came down to 29 in 1999, while the SP and BSP bagged 26 and 14 seats, respectively. Five years later, the BJP slipped to 10. It was the SP that jacked up its tally to 35 and BSP to 19.

Perhaps this was the reason why Modi had to shift the public focus from Hindutva to his backward caste identity, which – the OBCs, Dalits and Jats — forms about 60% of the electorate.

It was a clever move. Political scientist Abhay Kumar said the voters of the SP and the BSP would vote tactically to defeat each other. “The Yadavs would vote for the BJP if they find the BSP is winning and so would the Jatavs. Their enmity is too strong to be ignored.”

The BJP hopes the Modi wave to spread through the remaining six phases, breaking the caste hegemony of the two parties. And since they have considerable clout among the Muslims, a division in the 19% Muslim votes would also be welcome.

So, if the Modi wave breaks the caste maze, the poll projections may eventually come true. And if Netaji and Behenji decide to behave – keeping their flocks together and not aiming at each other’s jugulars too fiercely – they may have the last laugh.


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