The state of Uttar Pradesh is one of enormous significance. It consists mostly of very fertile land, a sacred (and heavily defiled) river, little industry and 180 million deeply divided people. Uttar Pradesh has been undergoing what observers like to call, a churning of the castes. Low castes are clawing their way to political power through almost any means possible. In this scenario, Anil Verma of the EPW, talks about the process of ‘social osmosis‘ in UP. His research provides some answers but also raises serious questions about the nature of the Indian political system.
Before talking about his paper, I will briefly describe the demographics of the state. Broadly there are 6 ethnic groups in UP, Dalits (21%), Muslims (18%), Brahmins (9%) with Thakurs, Banias, OBCs making up the rest. They are deeply divided when it comes to politics. As of now, the BSP has captured the votes of Dalits, Brahmins and some Muslims, while the SP appeals to the OBCs, Muslims and Thakurs. The BJP and Congress are virtually non-existent in the state.
I am troubled by this current state of affairs. While we often talk about (perhaps naively) being Indian before Gujarati, Tamil etc., here in the very heart of the country people are Brahmin, Dalit, Muslim etc. before even being ‘Uttar Pradeshi’. Is this lack of a strong geographical identity a contributor to UP’s state of affairs ? Perhaps yes, but I am not sure.
Verma points out that in some sense, castes in UP have been homogenized by a process of osmosis, where castes that were politically dispersed across a number of parties for ideological reasons gravitated to parties that catered to them solely on the basis of caste.
The dalits steadily moved towards the BSP whose dalit ideology attracted them …. Similarly the “mandal” and the backward caste ideology attracted the OBCs …. towards the SP
These groups moved away from the BJP and Congress because those parties,
failed to given them their due share in the leadership structure of the party
This was due to the lack of internal democracy in those parties, widespread nepotism and the patronizing attitudes of many upper caste leaders who took lower caste voters for granted.
Verma, however goes forward and suggests an even more interesting phenomenon, that of ‘reverse social osmosis’. This had to be initiated as
the optimisation of the vote share of the SP and the BSP through social osmosis did not enable them to reach anywhere near the majoriy required to form the government on their own.
They therefore had to resort to the now infamous ”social engineering”. How did the 2 parties go about this work ? First the SP,
The SP did that by putting pressure on the thakurs through Raja Bhaiyya, a politician with a criminal record, who had been convicted under the POTA when it was enforced. The SP helped secure his release … consequently the thakur support for the SP increased 15 percentage points during 1999-2004.
The party similarly courted the Brahmins through Amarmani Tripathi [now in jail for muder], and giving them petty party offices in small towns and villages. This saw an increase in Brahmin support of about 6 % in the period from 1999-2004.
arranged several ”brahmin jodo sammelans” in all parts of the state, and also formed “bhaichara committees” in every district for developing cordial relations between brahmins and the dalits ….. Not only that, the BSP redefined its philosophical orientation from a ”bahujan samaj” party to ”sarvajan samaj”.
The results ? The BSP increased its voter share among OBCS (4%), Muslims (5%), rich class (6%) and female voters (10%) in the period from 1999-2004. Its total vote share climbed from 11.2 % to 23.2 % from 1999 to 2004. Ultimaltely, the BSP emerged victorious in 2007 achieving an even higher share of the vote (30.4 %), the additional votes coming from Brahmins along with Muslim and OBC voters who seem to have moved away from the SP.
So what does this tell us about politics in India ? To me Mayawati’s victory is simultaneously a victory of smart politics and democracy while at the same time being a defeat of an old, perhaps naive version of Indian nationalism. That version which required us to marginalize centuries-old identities and think of the supposed ‘greater common good’. The lower castes have said that there can be no greater good without ‘accomodating’ them first.
Obviously this is a not an entirely satisfactory state of affairs. The Indian state is supposed to be a neutral arbiter between caste and religious groups, not a patron of some in return for ‘vote loyalty’. Public offices, far from being an agent of change and development have become commodities to be bartered in return of votes. Unfortunately, things can change only if the demands and aspirations of the low caste groups in UP change. Right now they seem to be content with political power. Only when they start demanding things like better schools, roads and power will the politics change from being one driven by caste to one driven by development and performance. We have seen this happen now in Madhya Pradesh and in Delhi, and the South has been more like this for a while.
What has happened in UP, in fact, is what I would call a democratizing revolution (Yogendra Yadav calls it a democratic upsurge), encompassing a social revolution. The lower castes have achieved political power with little bloodshed and in a fair, non-violent manner, but have retained their Dalit identity, just as the Brahmins have retained theirs. It is now upto them to translate political power into economic development and progress. Only then will the ‘largest democracy’ be a good example to the rest of the third world.