Before May 23, the logic that the gathbandhan in Uttar Pradesh could stall the march of the BJP appeared to be based on a simple political arithmetic. The SP, BSP and RLD which constituted the alliance were seen to have, over decades, cemented their hold over key social groups — Yadavs and Muslims, Jatavs and Jats. They assumed that an alliance that was shored up by these communities would be enough to combat the BJP’s narrative of nationalism and Hindutva. This result has proved that assumption wrong. First, the communities that purportedly formed the core vote for the gathbandhan are no monoliths. Internal divisions and competition within them have impacted voting behaviour. Second, these parties that had emerged from people’s movements that demanded social justice, seemed incapable of offering a narrative that could compete with the ideological and political machinery of the Modi-Shah combine.
Both the SP and BSP emerged from movements that recognised that caste is the primary axis of inequality and oppression in India, and that the Congress party (when it enjoyed political dominance) had sought to invisibilise these faultlines. In the wake of Mandal, Lalu Prasad in Bihar and Mulayam Singh Yadav in UP emerged as leaders who promised, and to a degree delivered, representation and dignity to those who had hitherto had leaders speak for them, rather than leaders from amongst them. For the BSP, following B R Ambedkar and Kanshi Ram, political power and education held the key to emancipation and prosperity. The idea of the “bahujan” was a powerful one — minorities, OBCs and Dalits form the majority in India and yet remain under-represented in most spheres.
However, with time, this narrative of social justice has thinned on the ground. The SP and the RJD in Bihar have come to be identified with one community’s dominance — the Yadavs — and their organisational moorings seem to be tied to dynasties. While the BSP has gained since the 2014 elections, up 10 seats from zero, its political mobilisation seems to begin and end with Mayawati. The BJP has, clearly, gained from the resentment this decline has fostered: The NDA’s near clean sweep in Bihar (39 out of 40 seats) and stellar performance in UP (64 seats out of 80) show that the BJP has cemented itself as the party of non-Yadav OBCs and non-Jatav Dalits. But the politics of social justice and dignity is still deeply relevant in a society riddled with inequality. What such a politics requires is a new imagination and idiom, and a leadership that is able to move beyond particular castes and clans.