In 1981, Kanshi Ram, the founder of the Bahujan Samaj Party, had formed a forum called, “Dalit Shoshit Samaj Sangharsh Samiti”—a committee for the struggle of Dalit and exploited communities. A slogan of the forum was, “Brahmin, Thakur, Bania chor. Baki sab hain DS4”—Roughly, this meant barring the upper-castes, all other groups are DS4. Three decades later, ahead of the 2022 Uttar Pradesh elections, the BSP is holding “Prabuddh Samaaj Goshthis,” or the Enlightened Class Conferences, to woo three upper-caste communities—Brahmin, Tyagi and Bhumihar. The conferences aim to repeat the party’s successful strategy in the 2007 state elections—to consolidate both Brahmin and Dalit votes. However, the same strategy may not be successful in 2022. Krishna Mohan, a Dalit PhD scholar at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, said that such conferences “could just be a part of politics, but are not right for the Bahujan mission.”
The message that some attendees and the BSP cadre took away from these conferences appeared to be at variance with the values that Kanshi Ram’s BSP espoused. For instance, Amit Rajwan—a member of the Dalit community and a founder of a social organisation, Bhim Commando—defended these conferences and said that a political party needs the votes of “all castes.” Referring to how the influence of Brahmins can electorally benefit BSP, he said, “Brahmins are attending these conferences. Brahmins are the most buddhijivi”—intelligent. “They have had resources for the longest time, which is why they enjoy power.” According to the Round Table India, in a 1987 interview with the Illustrated Weekly of India, Kanshi Ram said that the upper castes can join his party but not be leaders. “Leadership will remain in the hands of the backward community,” he said. “My fear is that these upper caste people will come into our party and block the process of change.”
The 2007 assembly elections were an important milestone for the BSP. It was held about one year after Kanshi Ram’s death. Under the leadership of the BSP’s current supremo, Mayawati, the party came to power with a full majority—206 of the 403 constituencies and 30 percent of the total votes. A February 2017 profile of Mayawati in The Caravan mentioned that she had “won by stitching together a voting bloc of Brahmins and Dalits, using the word sarvajan—the welfare of all—to help popularise the strategy.”
The BSP has justified the 2021 conferences by citing their 2007 election strategy. In a Prabuddh Samaaj Goshthis in Ghaziabad on 10 August 2021, Satish Chandra Mishra, the BSP general secretary who is also from the Brahmin community, spoke about how Brahmins contributed to the 2007 victory. He mentioned that for years BSP raised a slogan, “jiski jitni sankhya bhaari, uski utni hissedari”—representation should be provided as per the numerical strength of a community. Mishra mentioned that in 2005, when Brahmins participated on a large scale in a BSP rally, Mayawati appreciated them by changing the slogan to, “jiski jitni tayaari, unki utni bhagedaari”—which roughly meant that those who prepare for electoral victory get proportionate representation.
But Mohan, the PhD scholar, said that it would be wrong to say that only Brahmins should be credited for the 2007 victory. “BSP gave tickets to 86 Brahmins, out of which 40 won. This is not even 50 percent,” he told me. “At that time, there were also great leaders of the backward castes in the BSP. Now they are also absent. Kanshi Ram sahib had also died in 2006—people voted for the BSP as a salute to him too. The whole Bahujan community had contributed to forming the government.”
Several factors in Uttar Pradesh’s political landscape have changed since the 2007 elections. For instance, Mohan noted that three communities from the Other Backward Classes—Kurmi, Kushwaha and Rajbhar—supported BSP in 2007, but not anymore. A July 2021 piece published by The Caravan stated,
“In 2012, despite securing 25 percent of votes, the BSP’s seat share had dropped to 80, while the Samajwadi Party, which won a majority of the Muslim-dominated seats in that election, came to power with 224 seats and 29 percent votes. In 2017, the BJP came to power with a powerful 312 seats, and 39 percent of the votes, reportedly with the support of the upper caste, non-Jatav Dalit and non-Yadav Other Backward Class communities. That year, the BSP’s vote share dropped further to 22 percent and 19 seats. While the Jatav Dalits, who comprise around 54 percent of the state’s Dalit population and nine percent of the total population, have consistently voted for the BSP, Mayawati has not been able to retain the support of the other communities.
It is also pertinent to note that in 2007, the BJP was not a powerful player in the state. This changed over a decade—in 2017, Brahmins played an important role in the party’s victory in the assembly polls.
The Enlightened Class Conferences are a clear effort to win the Brahmin vote back. The first such conference was held on 23 July in Ayodhya, in which Mishra, chanted the Hindutva slogan, “Jai Shri Ram” and promised to expedite the construction of the Ram temple at the site of the historic Babri Masjid. “Mishra, the BSP’s senior-most Brahmin leader, criticised Adityanath, a Thakur chief minister, in an effort to exploit an age-old clamour for power between the communities,” The Caravan’s July 2021 piece noted.
While the BSP has also been organising conferences for backward castes, the party appears to be publicising its Enlightened Classes Conferences more. Mayawati has herself tweeted about the conferences and even spoken about them in her press conferences. Mishra and Nakul Dubey, another senior upper-caste party leader, are the main speakers at these conferences. By mid August, these conferences had been held in 30 districts.
I attended the conferences in Ghaziabad and Greater Noida, on 10 August and 14 August, respectively. Both saw between 300 and 400 attendees. The conferences featured poojas and the use of conch shells, and glorified Parashuram, a militant Brahmin in Hindu mythology who is said to have pledged the complete destruction of all Kshatriyas.