The results of the Uttar Pradesh election, and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s conquest of the state legislature, have already been subjected to much analysis. Not for the first time, one argument being made is that caste identities are no longer the predominant factor in determining voting behaviour, and that Modi’s overwhelming personal appeal has united diverse voters. This belief is espoused not just by some of Modi’s supporters, but also by many of his opponents who, in their liberalism, want to believe that India is shedding caste and identity politics. But a look at the BJP’s strategy for this election suggests that such arguments are far from true, and that one reason the party has done so well is because it has understood some of the iconic Dalit politician and ideologue Kanshi Ram’s lessons on caste and identity—and done so better even than Mayawati, his most celebrated protégée, has.
In the late 1990s, when I was a correspondent for the Indian Express in Jalandhar, it was easy enough to run into Kanshi Ram speaking to his followers in the surrounding towns and villages. Today, few remember that he was born into a Ramdasia Sikh family, or that much of his politics was focussed on Punjab—especially the Doaba region of the state, which has among the highest concentrations of Dalits anywhere in the country. Kanshi Ram used to pick and choose which reporters to allow into the small rooms where he held his meetings. Since I worked for what he saw as a progressive organisation, I always had access. In these meetings, he spoke with an honesty I had never seen in any politician then, and have never seen in any politician since. He spoke of his vision of politics—one that insisted on social justice, and embraced Dalits, the Other Backward Classes, Adivasis and religious minorities—and of his supporters’ role in implementing it. He also often spoke of his supporters’ shortcomings and mistakes.
Through such interactions, in Punjab and beyond, Kanshi Ram picked and groomed leaders for his cause from a range of different communities. One of them was Ganga Patta, a Gond leader I met in 2007, deep in the Adivasi heart of Madhya Pradesh. His political engagement had begun with organisations that Kanshi Ram founded: first with BAMCEF, or the All India Backward (SC, ST, OBC) And Minority Communities Employees Federation, then with DS4, or the Dalit Shoshit Samaj Sangharsh Samiti, and eventually with the Bahujan Samaj Party, which won a majority in the Uttar Pradesh legislative assembly that year under Mayawati. In Uttar Pradesh, the party had men such as Sone Lal, a Patel from the Kurmi community; Swami Prasad Maurya, an OBC leader; RK Chaudhary, a Pasi, from the second-largest Dalit caste in the state after Mayawati’s Jatavs; and Om Prakash, a Rajbhar, from one of the poorest and most numerous OBC castes in the east of the state.