A glance at Uttar Pradesh’s electoral map in 2017 tells you that the regional variations seen in the state’s voting patterns have all but disappeared. It appears uniformly saffron, suggesting that the vote for the Bharatiya Janata Party is evenly distributed across the state.
Traditionally, Uttar Pradesh’s politics consisted of various constituencies: Hindutvavadi, Muslim, Other Backward Classes, Dalit. Almost all of these are now collapsing into support for the BJP. The party came to power by cobbling together a coalition of communities and interests, barring a large section of the dominant OBCs and Muslims. It claimed support from groups as disparate as Dalits and Muslim women. It ensured a surge in turnout among the upper castes and middle class Hindus.
But now the party has appointed Gorakhpur strongman Adityanath as chief minister. His image as the poster boy of Hindutva in Uttar Pradesh does not rhyme with the kind of broad-based voter alliances the BJP put together in these elections.
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The erosion of identity
There were two aspects to the political change that swept through Uttar Pradesh in 2017. First, there has been an erosion in caste-based identity politics. It seems to be giving way to the rise of citizen voters who respond to issues beyond identity. In Uttar Pradesh, all identity politics was captured and institutionalised by regional parties ruling the state – the Samajwadi Party, in spite of its name, was a party of Yadavs, and the the Bahujan Samaj Party represented Dalits.
This brand of identity politics yielded monopolising forms of power. It came to be controlled by the elite of that identity. For both the Samajwadi Party or the Bahujan Samaj Party, it led to the dominance of families in the name of identity.
This has meant that poor, peripheral citizens who were earlier voting on identity became disengaged from such politics. Non-OBCs and non-Jatav Dalits also moved away from identity to the larger politics of issues. They still vote as groups, but as workers, farmers and labourers, making decisions based on their specific socio-economic interests. For example, white collar Yadavs and farmer Yadavs will vote differently. The divisions such as middle class and non-middle class, rich and poor, farmer and worker or rural and urban that we have ignored so far are now becoming more important.
Pure identities or issues restricted to identity do not go very far anymore. These mobilisations have now been confined to their minimum support base. The traditional communities in politics are breaking down and the grip of identity is loosening. It could have larger implications beyond Uttar Pradesh and may become a trend by 2019.
The Hindu vote
Second, the loosening of caste politics has been accompanied by the consolidation of the Hindu vote. The big change in Uttar Pradesh is this: for the last 25 years, the regional parties left little scope for the national parties, but now the BJP has come to power. The grouping together of Hindu constituencies, which helped bring about this verdict, happened in various ways.
To begin with, Hindu consolidation entered directly through the BJP’s propaganda. The party spread the perception that Muslims and other minorities were getting more in every respect than Hindus. The appeal of Hindutva is partly a negative appeal – earlier, if you were not Muslim, not Yadav, not a scheduled tribe, it was as if there was nothing for you in politics. It fostered a reactive politics that worked to the advantage of the BJP.
To a cross-section of Hindus, the BJP emerged as a party that cared for them because they were Hindu, not because they were part of any deprived minority or a backward class. That assured the saffron party a natural majority.
If you ask Hindu voters about their electoral choice, they will not say they were voting as Hindus. They will say instead that they were voting against minority pandering. It is a grievance that has not been accommodated within conventional secular politics. The challenge to secularism in India has traditionally been problematised in terms of a threat the permanent and massive majority of Hindus pose to the minorities. Minorities are seen as being in need of special rights and politics to protect them. This is apparently needed for preventing a majority from becoming majoritarian.
Besides, along with the pull of issue-based politics, Hinduisation also disturbed the caste patterns of voting. And Hindu consolidation across the country has been stronger among OBCs than among the upper castes. Earlier, non-scheduled or upper caste Hindus were usually pitted against scheduled caste Hindus but these differences are now being erased, as religious identity takes precedence over caste identity.
Meanwhile, the opposition to this formidable Hindu coalition was fragmented. A large section of Muslims voted strategically to keep the BJP out of their constituencies. But this vote got split among the Samajwadi Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party, the Congress and others.
A winning combination?
In effect, the BJP seemed to have mastered a winning combination. It twinned issue-based politics with Hindu consolidation. This allowed it to wean away backward Hindus who were largely in the grip of caste based politics, merging them with the vote base of non-scheduled caste and non-scheduled tribe Hindus. It is also claimed that Muslim men from a certain socio-economic class voted BJP, as did a large number of Muslim women, drawn to the party because of its stand against triple talaq. We however need more conclusive data to comment on Muslim support for the party.
So, for the moment, the BJP has been able to expand beyond the traditional electoral support of upper caste Hindus and the middle classes in Uttar Pradesh. For decades, it began and ended as the ideological party of Hindutva, which is why it had limited support here.
If it wants to extend its electoral vision to 2019 and beyond, the BJP will need to to consolidate the support it has garnered in the elections, like the Congress did in Gujarat in the 1970s and 1980s, with the Kshatriya-Harijan-Adivasi-Muslim alliance. The question now is, can the BJP, given the nature of the party and its DNA, firm up these new constituencies of support?
Already, there are notes of dissonance with the politics projected in these elections. For all its talk of social inclusion, the party did not give a single ticket to a Muslim candidate. The appointment of Adityanath also raises grave doubts about whether it can sustain the coalitions it has achieved. Adityanath may secure the upper caste and middle class Hindu vote, but he is not known for being supportive of Muslims.
So will the BJP speak one language during elections and a different language in government?
As told to Ipsita Chakravarty.
DL Sheth is honorary senior fellow and former director of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.