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.
When Kanshi Ram’s health began failing, in the late 1990s, Mayawati gradually assumed control of the BSP. Unlike Kanshi Ram, she came from a caste, the Jatavs, whose numerical strength gave her a huge political advantage. But this came alongside a temperament that is now the norm among Indian political leaders—intolerant of any dissent or criticism within her organisation, allowing no space for other leaders with independent views and bases of their own, and insisting on complete control of the party machinery.
Mayawati’s personality was a key factor in the decay of the party outside Uttar Pradesh—as, for instance, in Madhya Pradesh. In 2003, when I was reporting from the state, the BSP seemed set to grow and do well there. It had made its debut in the 1990 state election, when it won two seats in the legislative assembly, increased its seat tally to 11 in a poll in 1993, then repeated that performance in an assembly election in 1998. Under Phool Singh Baraiya, an associate of Kanshi Ram, it was poised to upset Madhya Pradesh’s bi-polar political tradition, in which power kept changing hands between the Congress and the BJP. But in October 2003, just two months before a state poll, Mayawati expelled Baraiya from the party. The BSP won just two seats, and has since shown no signs of revival in the state. By then, many leaders of the communities that formed the party’s base had already left—including Ganga Patta, who in 1991 helped found the Gondwana Gantantara Party, built around a growing consciousness of a separate Gond Adivasi identity.
In Uttar Pradesh, the BSP followed a very different trajectory, but one now displaying some of the same symptoms. In the 1993 state election, which followed the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the BJP emerged as the single largest party, but the Samajwadi Party and the BSP together had the numbers to form a joint government, headed by the SP’s Mulayam Singh. Two years later, Mayawati brought this government down—after which she was cornered and assaulted by SP workers, the trauma of the event ensuring that she has ruled out working with the SP ever since.
At this point, Kanshi Ram brokered a deal with the BJP that made Mayawati the chief minister of the state for a short period. Twice more—for a few months in 1997, and for a year and some months starting in 2002—she became chief minister with the BJP’s support. This ensured that Muslims largely remained outside the BSP’s project, and violated the umbrella vision that once shaped BAMCEF. In retrospect, this was perhaps Kanshi Ram’s, and the BSP’s, biggest mistake—to compromise on the long-term endeavour of making minorities equal partners in the BSP’s rise in return for short-term political gain.
Even as Muslims eyed the party with suspicion, the BSP lost the support of many of the groups and leaders that earlier defined it. Given her complete control over the Jatav vote, Mayawati perceived no threat from any Jatav leaders. This was not so with non-Jatav leaders with caste bases of their own, and a long line of them ended up leaving. This left the party heavily dependent on the Jatav vote. In being reduced to such reliance on just a single caste group, the BSP is now not very different from the SP, its main opponent until the recent past, whose fortunes rest largely in the hands of the Yadavs.
Over the subsequent decade, Mayawati was chief minister for a full term of five years, beginning in 2007, thanks to a strategic but temporary cross-caste alliance that included Brahmins. But Brahmins were quick to desert her after she lost power in 2012, again leaving the BSP with only its shrunken core base.
It is this that has meant that the BSP is now set to be out of power for at least ten years in Uttar Pradesh, its longest stretch in opposition in the state since 1993. It is also this that opened the door for the BJP. Over the past few years, the party has worked assiduously to capture many of the constituencies that the BSP has lost. It has done so with an understanding that the key to victory in Uttar Pradesh is the accretion of diverse bases on top of a strong core of supporters, who in the BJP’s case are upper-caste Hindus. Many leaders who broke away from the BSP, including Swami Prasad Maurya, have found a home in the BJP. Others have gone into league with the party. In the recent election, the BJP allied with two parties: the Apna Dal, which speaks for the Patels of eastern Uttar Pradesh and was founded by Sone Lal Patel, and the Suheldev Bhartiya Samaj Party, which represents the Rajbhars and was founded by Om Prakash Rajbhar. RK Chaudhary was offered a BJP ticket, but chose to contest the election as an independent with the party’s support.
The problem for the BJP was not what it could offer such leaders—with the party in power at the centre that is easily managed—but what it could offer caste groups to tempt them away from the BSP. What it offered was not a vision of social justice; with its upper-caste core base, this is something the BJP cannot promise. Instead, they were offered a speeded-up version of Sanskritisation, a process which allows groups outside the caste hierarchy or on its periphery to move into and move up within the Hindu fold. This is where the Sangh Parivar came in, with its adept manipulation of cultural motifs, history and religious figures. Nishads were reminded of and feted for having been, in Hindu mythology, boatmen for the deity Ram. Rajbhars were, largely in defiance of the facts, celebrated for having been part of an army under the eleventh-century ruler Suheldev that, they were told, killed Mahmud of Ghazni’s nephew.
This incorporation into the BJP base of caste groups strong in small pockets of the state was only one part of a larger strategy that won the party the election, but a crucial part nevertheless. In the long run, for any opposition to the BJP to be viable, the party’s inroads into these caste groups will have to be undone. The BSP still remains the party best placed to do so. It received 22 percent of the popular vote in the election, indicating that its core base remains intact, but to make a serious bid for power Mayawati will need the backing of the groups that Kanshi Ram once worked to unite under BAMCEF.
Mayawati made a determined effort to win back Muslim support for this election, but was largely unsuccessful. She needs to continue this work, but to make progress she must allow Muslim leaders to have independent stature within the BSP. This is equally true of her approach towards the non-Jatav Dalits and the most deprived of the non-Yadav sections of the Other Backward Classes that were once partners of the party. The BJP’s promise to them is temporary: the party is rooted in an ideology that defends the established caste hierarchy, and the prospect of Sanskritisation is, at best, an illusion. But while the prescription for bringing these groups’ back to the BSP is simple, achieving this goal is not. What stands in the way of a social-justice platform drawing on Kanshi Ram’s original vision for BAMCEF is not its viability, but Mayawati’s personality.