Since 2014, the BJP’s electoral strategy has often consisted of targeting the segments of the population that are not aligned with other parties. In Haryana, it did not favour Jats in ticket distribution. In Maharashtra, it appointed a Brahmin Chief Minister, breaking with the long tradition of Chief Ministers belonging to the local dominant group, the Marathas. In the recently concluded Uttar Pradesh elections, the strategy of the BJP was to ostensibly woo all the groups that were not aligned with its main opponents, the SP and the BSP. This meant the relative exclusion of Jatav Dalits and Yadav OBCs as candidates, and the complete exclusion of Muslims.
In doing so, the BJP assumed that its opponents would retain their core supporters — and that trying to dent those bases might lead to split voting, which wouldn’t yield many seats. Instead, the BJP banked on the resentment generated by the preferential treatment that its opponents had bestowed on their core electoral base over the years, and built a broad mass appeal by promising that under a BJP regime, groups that had been excluded by the SP and the BSP would finally receive the attention that was due to them.
This strategy was reflected in the ticket distribution of the BJP, 86% of which went to upper castes, non-Jatav Dalits, and non-Yadav OBC candidates. But does the composition of the new Assembly reflect that commitment to inclusion? Not quite.
The return to power of the BJP in Uttar Pradesh has led to a resurgence of representation of the upper castes. The new Assembly consists of 44.3% upper caste MLAs, 12 percentage points more than in 2012, and the highest share in Assemblies since 1980. Within the BJP, the upper caste share is 48.2% against 23% for the non-Yadav OBCs. The overall representation of OBCs in the Assembly has decreased slightly from 27% in 2012 to 25.6% this time.
There are important subregional variations. Upper castes make up more than 55% of the MLAs in Awadh, 43.5% in Doab, 39% in the East, 47.3% in Bundelkhand, 53.4% in North-Eastern UP, and slightly more than a third of the MLAs in Rohilkhand and Western UP.
Within the broad category, the representation of Thakurs and Banias has increased the most (43% to 44% and 11% to 13% respectively). Brahmins, who make up 16.8% of the Assembly (and 37% of upper caste MLAs), are stable (36.64% in 2012 and 36.62% in 2017).
Among the OBCs, the representation of Yadavs has fallen to 5% of seats (which is 18% of seats won by OBCs), their lowest representation ever. With 34 MLAs (40 if one includes the Mauryas), Kurmis have registered the highest increase in representation. They make up 29% of the OBC contingent in the Assembly, against the 11% of 5 years ago.
The lower OBCs, who make up the majority of the OBC population — and nearly 27% of the total population of Uttar Pradesh — remain under-represented, with 28 seats. Furthermore, this category includes many groups — Rajbhars, Nishads, Malis, Baghels, Shakyas, Kumhars, Sainthwars, Sainis, etc. — which means that the representation of each of these groups remains extremely modest, a few seats each. Even the BJP’s partners, the Apna Dal (Soneylal) and the Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party (SBSP), have not produced many OBC MLAs. The Apna Dal (Soneylal) won 3 reserved seats, and got 2 upper caste candidates in the House, against 4 OBCs. The SBSP won 3 reserved seats and got only 1 Rajbhar elected. The Nirbal Indian Shoshit Hamara Aam Dal’s (NISHAD’s) lone MLA is a Brahmin.
The other main losing group, besides the Yadavs, is Muslims. The share of Muslim MLAs in the new Assembly is the lowest since 1991. In 2012, Muslims had acquired, for the first time, a near proportionate representation in the Vidhan Sabha (17%). This has now fallen to 6% of seats, due to the refusal of the BJP to field any Muslim candidate. The split of votes among the many Muslim candidates of the BSP (98) and the SP (61) might explain largely why they lost at so many seats. Only 11 of the 68 incumbent Muslim MLAs have been reelected.
The overrepresentation of upper castes comes from the fact that the BJP’s ticket distribution was heavily skewed in their favour to begin with. The BJP distributed 48.6% of its tickets to upper caste candidates, against 24.4% to OBCs. Within the OBCs, Kurmis got 8% of the tickets, Gujjars 2.4% and lower OBCs 14.2%. If we compare the representation ratio among the MLAs, more BJP lower OBC candidates lost in comparison to other BJP candidates (11.6% of BJP MLAs).
This basically means that despite the Prime Minister’s invocations to inclusion, the social composition of the new UP Assembly, and of the BJP legislature party in particular, resembles the classic composition of Assemblies when the BJP wins an election: a lion’s share of seats for the upper castes, a quarter of seats for a large number of non-Yadav OBC groups, and the exclusion of Yadavs and Muslims. Non-Jatav Dalits make up two thirds of the BJP’s SC MLAs.
Historically, the BJP has won elections in UP when it has consolidated the upper caste vote with the support of non-dominant OBCs. But the OBC representation within the BJP is usually half of the upper castes’ representation, although the upper castes have a lower demographic (about 20% of the total population of the state).
Between 1993 and 2012, the share of upper castes among the BJP’s MLAs in Uttar Pradesh was an average 55%. When the BJP performed well, such as in 1996, their share decreased to 46%, as the share of OBCs rose. Whenever the BJP declined, the ratio of upper caste MLAs increased. 2017 is no exception of that trend.
In the current context, these figures reveal the great disjunction between the inclusive character of the BJP’s social coalition and the sociological reality of the BJP in UP, which retains its traditional upper caste bias.
This has been a source of internal tensions in the past. In 1991, the BJP won its first major victory in Uttar Pradesh. Its vote share increase was similar to its 2017 performance; it went from 11% in 1989 to 31% less than two years later. The BJP then won 221 seats, 114 of which went to upper caste MLAs, and 43 to OBCs. Despite the upper caste domination of the party, voices within the BJP, backed by the RSS, insisted that an OBC should be made Chief Minister. This led to the appointment of Kalyan Singh, a Lodh.
This appointment generated much resentment within the BJP state unit as many upper caste legislators and cadres felt cheated. The upper caste-OBC rift within the BJP contributed to the rise of factionalism, which ultimately hurt the party’s electoral prospects and caused its decline in UP. Simply put, the internal backlash against the OBCs led to the fragmentation of the OBC vote in subsequent elections.
In present times, it is clear that it is the charismatic appeal of the Prime Minister that has attracted the floating vote — a lot of it from the lower OBCs — to the BJP, not the BJP itself, which hasn’t evolved much since the early 1990s in terms of sociological composition.
The question is whether the BJP state unit shares the Prime Minister’s stated commitment to inclusion and development, or whether its upper caste MLAs will instead seek to establish domination locally and work to divert state attention and resources towards their kin.
Preferential caste treatment by those in power is the source of the resentment and even anger among the lower OBCs. It is undeniable that the BJP’s victory in Uttar Pradesh has a clear plebeian character. Millions of non-aligned voters, many of whom belong to the least privileged OBC groups, have placed their faith in the Prime Minister’s ability to provide them with opportunities of upward social mobility. This is a powerful but fragile social coalition, and the greatest obstacle to the consolidation of that coalition might come from the ranks of the Prime Minister’s own party. It remains to be seen how the appointment of Yogi Adityanath — as much a Thakur leader as an icon of Hindutva — as Chief Minister impacts this arrangement.
Gilles Verniers is Assistant Professor of Political Science and Co-Director of the Trivedi Centre for Political Data, Ashoka University. Views are personal. Data collected through fieldwork by the Trivedi Centre for Political Data