The BJP’s national executive meeting, held earlier this month in Allahabad, formally marked the launch of its campaign for the state elections in Uttar Pradesh, which will be held in March 2017. Three months ago, the Samajwadi Party declared its first list of candidates for the same election, exactly a year ahead of polls. And while those two parties already compete for media exposure, the BSP operates as it is used to doing, under the media radar, covering the ground to mobilise its troops and consolidate its core support base among the Scheduled Castes.
These overtures are the occasion for commentators to analyse parties’ electoral strategies, essentially interpreted in terms of caste or community. Will the BSP retain its Jatav support? Will the BJP consolidate the upper caste vote and score among the lower OBCs? Will the Muslims desert the SP? Every move, decision or declaration of parties and, indeed, of any minor politician, is interpreted as signals thrown to caste segments of the electorate. Thus, beyond the religious connotation, the choice of Allahabad for the BJP’s meeting was, we are told, meant to please the OBCs, the city being the hometown of its current chief, Keshav Prasad Maurya.
The habit of reading UP politics through caste derives from the politics of the early 1990s, when regional parties and the BJP rose through caste-based and religious mobilisations. These parties built for themselves core support bases by mixing identity politics and caste-base favouritism or patronage. These strategies often led them to antagonise entire segments of the electorate for the sake of gaining the support of some. The alignments were clear: Dalits with the BSP, upper castes with the BJP, Yadavs and Muslims with the SP and no one in particular with Congress, which was already on the decline. This narrow version of identity politics led to the fragmentation of the political space and made it virtually impossible for any party to rule the state alone.
In today’s context, these simplistic caste-party alignments are either gone or are utterly insufficient to explain parties’ performances. There is little evidence, to begin with, that “caste hints” or gestures of the kind described above have any impact on voters’ choices, months before an election. But more fundamentally, there are at least five reasons why we should look beyond caste when we read electoral politics.
First, caste politics is a game of few and not of many. Most castes are too small or too geographically dispersed to constitute a core support base to any party or candidate, even locally. Nearly 40 per cent of UP’s castes have never sent a single representative to the assembly. These are essentially non-Jatav SC castes or castes that belong to the Most Backward Class category. They constitute a floating electorate that is generally insensitive to caste appeals.
Second, Lokniti/CSDS survey data shows us that only a few groups vote cohesively for specific parties. These are the groups — Jatavs and Yadavs, essentially — that have both numerical strength and a party of their own. Other groups, including the upper castes, have been splitting their votes between parties and local candidates, election after election.
Third, nurturing a core support base on the basis of caste may be necessary to win elections but surely cannot be enough. According to the 1931 census, the largest single caste — Jatavs — represents 13 per cent of the population. The two other large groups — Brahmins and Yadavs — represent respectively 9.2 and 8.7 per cent of the population. Factor in the fact that not all of them vote and that not all of them vote for the same party, and it becomes clear that campaigning by wooing specific castes to the exclusion of others does not help in winning elections. In fact, in recent times, majorities have been built precisely on the capacity of parties to mobilise voters beyond their core support base, that is to say, across castes.
In the current assembly, the four main broad social groups — upper castes, OBCs, SCs and Muslims — represent each nearly one-fourth of the SP’s MLAs. The BSP’s success over time was built on its ability to consolidate the Jatav vote and induct other castes within its ranks, including the OBCs, who have always had the largest share of representation within the party.
Fourth, we have seen recently a growing differentiation of caste voting along class lines, the richer segments of most castes, barring the Dalits, voting more for the BJP. CSDS survey data again reveals, for example, that among the Yadavs — who remain a core support base for the SP — the richer segments tend to vote more for the BJP. And fifth, we have seen in the 2014 general election and in more recent times how social and religious polarisation can still be used to fragment the political space, to help build majorities of seats out of minorities of votes.
This is not to say that caste arithmetic no longer matters or operates but that it is insufficient to win an election. Caste still determines the distribution of tickets, which in turn shapes the representation caste groups have in the assembly. Ticket distribution is not done following pan-state caste combinations strategies but according to local, constituency-level, circumstances.
The inclusive character that the main parties have acquired in UP derives largely from the localisation of caste politics, which leads them to distribute tickets across the caste spectrum and therefore offer representation to nearly all. The successful parties are those who can, in addition, attract floating voters, by other means than identity politics.
We have seen in recent elections, in Bihar, West Bengal or Tamil Nadu, that the parties in power who offer tangible benefits to voters across caste divisions — to women in particular — get rewarded. This trend supersedes an older trend of incumbency disadvantage. More and more state governments are returned to power precisely because of their ability to effectively distribute public goods while transcending caste divisions. So the question that will animate most voters in the next assembly elections in UP is likely to be: Which party is in a better position to do so?