UP polls: Understanding shifts in caste, religious identities

Published on Feb 14, 2022 03:42 AM IST
  • Hindu-Muslim polarisation is not as outwardly visible despite being an everyday reality. Many Jats, who once openly voted on the basis of a “Hindu identity”, are fighting the election side-by-side with Muslims due to the Samajwadi Party (SP)-Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) alliance.
Supporters gather at an election rally addressed by Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi ahead of state elections in Kasganj, Uttar Pradesh, India, Friday, February 11, 2022. (AP Photo/Rajesh Kumar Singh)
Supporters gather at an election rally addressed by Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi ahead of state elections in Kasganj, Uttar Pradesh, India, Friday, February 11, 2022. (AP Photo/Rajesh Kumar Singh)
By, Neelanjan Sircar, New Delhi

Pichli baar leher thi. Hum bhi leher mein doob gaye. (There was a wave last time. We also drowned in it.)

In September 2013, the Muzaffarnagar riots killed 60 people and displaced tens of thousands more — purportedly arising from a local conflict between Jats and Muslims. The resulting Hindu-Muslim polarisation transformed the politics of western Uttar Pradesh (UP) as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swept the region. But this time, western UP is not the same.

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Hindu-Muslim polarisation is not as outwardly visible despite being an everyday reality. Many Jats, who once openly voted on the basis of a “Hindu identity”, are fighting the election side-by-side with Muslims due to the Samajwadi Party (SP)-Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) alliance. Some from the Jat community, like a young man from Muzaffarnagar assembly constituency (AC) whose quote starts this piece, even express regret for what happened.

How do we understand such extraordinary shifts in caste and religious identity in such a short time?

The Ties That Bind

For the Jats in western UP, cues from the BJP and the SP-RLD alliance offer competing world views. Since 2014, the BJP mobilised Jats on hyper-nationalism. By constructing a Hindu identity that prevailed over the agrarian-class identity seen in past elections, the BJP managed to engineer extraordinary consolidation of the Hindu vote. Many Jats profess support for the SP-RLD alliance now due to the controversial and now-repealed farm laws, seen as an affront to the community. The subsequent protests offered an opportunity to mobilise the Jat community as separate from all Hindus.

Ties within caste groups inform personal values, and research suggests individuals trust their groups because they assume others in their group share interpretations of the world. Furthermore, individuals have an incentive to agree with their group and perhaps fear being penalised for disagreeing. Caste and religion, thus, often operate as an ethnicity, parlaying numerical strength through bloc voting — disproportionately benefitting large groups like the Jatavs and Jats.

The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) is rarely seen campaigning now. A young man from the Jatav community (BSP’s core base) in Kithore opines, “Mayawati ka varchasva khatam ho gaya.” ([BSP leader] Mayawati is no longer dominant.) In the first phase, Jatavs made up over 70% of scheduled castes (SCs) — much higher than the statewide average of 54%. Although unable to transform electoral outcomes by itself, it becomes a formidable force when combined with other social groups.

BSP’s social engineering is on display in the Meerapur AC of Muzzafarnagar district, where Muslims, Jatavs and Gujjars comprise the most prominent social groups. With the RLD-SP combine and the BJP are fielding candidates from the Gujjar community, the BSP hopes to draw extra votes by fielding a candidate from the Muslim community.

Arithmetic has also been core to the BJP’s strategy, Hindu assertions created the consolidation of smaller caste groups that could not swing electoral outcomes themselves. Even the Jatavs, Jats, and Muslims together make up no more than half of the region’s population, and this is split between two parties.

In 2017, the BJP turned the area into a series of “census elections” where it could win the polls based upon the numerical dominance of the Hindu vote as compared to any plausible coalition of dominant caste groups and Muslims.

The Arithmetic of Consolidation

This impact of Hindu consolidation is visible in the electoral data. The BJP won 53 out 58 Phase 1 ACs in 2017 with 46% vote share (including eight out of 9 ACs in Muzaffarnagar district despite a 40% Muslim population), as compared to 38 out 55 Phase 2 ACs with a 38% vote share. (Chart 1)

To characterise the differences in local level party fragmentation between Phase 1 and 2 ACs, we make use of polling booth level results in the 2017 election provided by Datalok. In total, this considers 27,271 polling booths in Phase 1 ACs and 19,983 in Phase 2 ACs.

A standard measure of party fragmentation is the effective number of parties (ENP). Intuitively, the higher this number, the more fragmented the mandate is at the local level. Notably, the percentage of uncompetitive polling booths [ENP < 1.9] drops from 40% in Phase 1 ACs to 34% in phase 2 ACs, with a concurrent increase in multiparty or fragmented polling booths [ENP > 3] from 29% in phase 1 ACs to 36% in phase 2 ACs.

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