In Uttar Pradesh, the SP-BSP combine will have to contend with a new BJP
The BJP of today is no longer the BJP of the early 90s. From being a formation of primarily upper-castes, it is today, arguably, an inclusive Hindu party.Updated: Mar 06, 2018 19:57 IST
As the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) extended support to Samajwadi Party (SP) candidates in two Lok Sabha by-polls in Uttar Pradesh, workers and well-wishers of the two parties evoked memories of the early 90s.
The BJP had seemed invincible after the Babri Masjid demolition. But it was short of a majority in the UP state assembly in the 1993 elections. The SP-BSP came together to form the government. And the BJP could only return to power once the two split. The alliance succeeded in projecting the BJP as a Hindu upper-caste party. And the SP-BSP came across as representative of the subaltern within the Hindu fold — the OBCs and Dalits — with the Muslims providing the additional numbers. It is this formula that the two parties would like to replicate in the Gorakhpur and Phulpur bypolls, and possibly, in 2019.
But they will face a challenge. This is because the BJP of today is no longer the BJP of the early 90s. From being a formation of primarily upper-castes, it is today, arguably, an inclusive Hindu party.
This is best reflected in the non-Nehru-Gandhi pantheon that the BJP has sought to construct in recent years. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has often invoked three figures: Deendayal Upadhyaya, Ram Manohar Lohia and BR Ambedkar. In February, President Ram Nath Kovind delivered the Lohia Memorial Lecture in Gwalior and referenced the same three leaders. The political messaging is obvious, for the three represent the three distinct strands the BJP would like to weave within the party.
Upadhyaya is an obvious choice. He was a Jan Sangh pioneer. He represents the Sangh’s core Hindu upper-caste constituency. The renaming of public sites, the inclusion in school textbooks, the repeated references in speeches of all BJP ministers and chief ministers, the branding of welfare schemes in his name constitute a concerted effort to give to the BJP’s original supporters a sense of pride. The fact that Upadhyaya’s Antodaya vision can be interpreted as a welfarist project helps the party expand his acceptability. Electorally, Upadhyaya helps consolidate the core Hindutva vote.
But this existed even in the 90s. A key addition in the pantheon is Lohia. Lohia may have been open to an anti-Congress alliance with the Jan Sangh in 1967. But as his seminal ‘Hindu banam Hindu’ (Hindu versus Hindu) essay shows, Lohia believed there was a core contradiction between the liberal and orthodox/conservative strands of Hinduism. He placed himself firmly in the former category. His protégés have been the foremost challengers to the BJP in UP and Bihar, and ensured that OBCs in particular stayed away from the project of Hindu unity. By appropriating Lohia, Modi has sought to appropriate the ‘social justice’ platform and backward social groups. Electorally, this has translated into the non-Yadav OBC consolidation behind the party in UP.
Finally, the BJP’s audacious bid to include Ambedkar is the third element of the political strategy. It is audacious because Ambedkar rejected not just the caste system, but Hinduism itself, while the BJP’s core political project is unifying and strengthening Hindu society. Investing in the five sites associated with Ambedkar’s life, naming the government’s digital payment app BHIM, holding a special parliamentary meet to commemorate Ambedkar’s 125th birth anniversary or nominating Kovind as President are just some steps to own the icon who Dalits across the country deify. Electorally, this has translated into support of several Dalit communities — the ‘invisible’ non-dominant Dalit subcastes in particular — for the party in UP.
There are major contradictions between Upadhyaya, Lohia and Ambedkar. There are ongoing conflicts between the different social groups they represent. The BJP itself struggles to reconcile its core and traditional upper caste orientation with assertive backward and Dalit politics.
Yet, there is a new BJP, which is, through these three men, positioning itself as both accommodative of all Hindu social communities and sensitive to the poor. In UP, the BSP and SP, which had a monopoly over Ambedkar and Lohia respectively in the 90s, will have to battle this new BJP.