Assembly Elections 2022: The angst of UP’s Brahmins could hurt the BJP

Sadhus casting their vote in Ayodhya, during the Lok Sabha election. Otherwise a natural ally of the BJP, Brahmins appear to be displeased with the ruling party. The community’s vote will have a significant impact on the electoral outcomes in eastern Uttar Pradesh, which went to polls in recent weeks. TEKEE TANWAR/AFP/Getty Images

The Brahmins of eastern Uttar Pradesh are not happy with any political party. Many claim that the Bharatiya Janata Party has ignored and suppressed them; the Congress has not yet won their trust back; and neither the Samajwadi Party nor the Bahujan Samaj Party are a comfortable fit. This conclusion emerged from my reporting across the region, where Brahmins form a significant part of the population and wield considerable influence. Conversations with district-level leaders, across the political spectrum, indicated that while all parties were courting the Brahmin vote, none could claim to have secured it. The common view among political observers and intellectuals was that the Brahmin community is dissatisfied with the BJP. Brahmins feel that the government of the ruling chief minister, Ajay Singh Bisht, popularly known as Yogi Adityanath, kept them out of powerful positions, and instead picked oppressed-caste leaders. 

In the run-up to the ongoing assembly elections, ABP News reported that in December, the BJP’s Uttar Pradesh in-charge Dharmendra Pradhan met with the party’s senior Brahmin leaders to discuss its perception in the community. The leaders in attendance included Satyadev Pachauri, MP Sharma, Rita Bahuguna Joshi, Harish Dwivedi—the members of parliament from Kanpur, Noida, Allahabad and Basti, respectively—and Shrikant Sharma, a minister in the Adityanath government. Kalraj Mishra, the governor of Rajasthan, who was once a prominent face of the party in Uttar Pradesh, was also present at the meeting. The leaders reportedly told Pradhan that the Brahmin community felt “ignored” by the ruling party. “There is a perception problem,” one leader said. “Brahmins feel that Brahmin leaders don’t help them in getting their work done.” Another leader said “there is anger” within the community.

Long-time Congress leader Bhudhar Narayan Mishra, a Brahmin, is a two-time member of the legislative assembly. He told me that the community will play a decisive role in the assembly elections as it is the only group whose vote is unpredictable. While votes in Uttar Pradesh are split along caste lines, unlike other communities, Brahmin votes have often remained undecided till the eleventh hour. 

Bhudhar claimed that the community had been “marginalised” in politics. “No one likes them now as political force, and no one wants to bring them into mainstream politics,” he said. “Since 1991, the community has been used as a vote bank by different parties. The last five years were a humiliating period for them, and this will reflect in the election.” Bhudhar claimed that more than half the community will vote for candidates “who can defeat the BJP.”

Media reports and government data put the population of Brahmins between ten and twelve percent in many of Uttar Pradesh’s 75 districts, and closer to fifteen percent in others—these include eastern districts such as Maharajganj, Gorakhpur, Deoria, Basti, Banda, Jaunpur, Amethi, Varanasi, Ballia, Kanpur, Allahabad, Balrampur and Sultanpur. 

Consequently, Brahmins can directly impact the electoral outcome in sixty to a hundred of the 403 seats in the state legislature, with some media reports pegging this figure even higher. Though the community is a minority in the state—most of the state is comprised of members of backward and oppressed castes—it becomes more significant because of the group’s outsized social and financial power, which has often allowed its preferences to considerably impact the course of the state’s politics. 

Six of Uttar Pradesh’s 21 chief ministers have been Brahmins. ND Tiwari, of the Congress, was the last Brahmin chief minister, and was in office from 1985 to 1989. The state has a long history of Bahujan politics, with the rise of the SP, led by Mulayam Singh Yadav and his family, and the Mayawati-led BSP—both have ruled the state for multiple tenures in the past few decades. From time to time, these popular non-savarna leaders were able to win the Brahmins’ support, but the group was seen as a natural ally, first of the upper-caste-dominated Congress, and then the BJP. Brahmins began to move towards the Hindu nationalist party in the early 1990s, after it began championing the construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya, and stood in opposition to the Mandal Commission report and its suggested reservations. 

In recent years, however, the Brahmin community appears to have felt alienated from the BJP. According to Brahmin politicians, the group’s primary grouse is that the BJP has not supported Brahmin leaders. For instance, the Congress’s Bhudhar told me that the decision to favour leaders from Bahujan and backward castes over Brahmin leaders such as Laxmikant Vajpayee and Kalraj Mishra did not go down well with the community. He felt that parties who gave Brahmins prominent space to solidify power in politics would get their vote. “Definitely the BJP is not the first choice this time for Brahmins.” 

Vijay Shankar Pandey, a veteran journalist from Varanasi, told me that the perception of the BJP among Brahmins had changed—they no longer saw it as “the BJP of the nineties.” Bhudhar echoed this as he told me, “Brahmins are well aware who has done what for them since 1991. The Congress ignored the community after 1991 and that caused its vote to shift to BJP … but in the last five years, you can see what the BJP did for the community.”

Kanpur, one of the largest cities in the state, is a Brahmin-dominated area. A prominent BJP leader told me, on the condition of anonymity, that “the community is unhappy and feeling ignored by all the parties yet they have no option but to support the BJP.” Ramdev Shukla, a former president of the BJP in Kanpur, admitted that the party had fallen out of favour with the Brahmins. 

Referring to the former prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, also a Brahmin, Shukla said, “The position of Brahmins in BJP during Vajpayee’s time is not the same now. It has gone down and is visible on the ground.” Shukla felt that Brahmin leaders no longer took an interest in appeasing the community. The members of the community were also upset at not being favoured for candidacy during elections. “All the parties, including BJP, give priorities to backward castes in seat distribution,” he said. Though the community was unhappy with the ruling party, Shukla felt it had nowhere else to turn. “I can say that majority of votes will go to BJP because there is no option for them. There might be some negative impact on some seats due to anti-incumbency.”

Gopal Awasthi—a senior BJP leader and a former head of the party in Kanpur—too claimed that no parties had favoured the Brahmins politically. According to him, the community has been “ignored and even humiliated” in the past two decades. “Be it Congress, BJP, SP or BSP—all the parties ignored the Brahmin community. They have taken the community for granted. I can say that even during the BJP reign, they have been extremely ignored.”

Vijay Shankar Pandey, a former vice president of the Uttar Pradesh Congress Committee, who hails from Varanasi, said, “Brahmins were ignored and that resulted in the decline of Congress in UP. Similarly, the BJP ignored Brahmins and was out of power for 17 years since 2000.” Pandey, a Brahmin, stated that when favoured, the community had become kingmaker. “When the SP gave importance to the leaders like Mata Prasad Pandey and Janeshwar Mishra, Brahmins helped Mulayam Singh’s SP to come to power. Similarly, when Mayawati showed trust in Brahmins, she came to power,” he said. (In 2007, the BSP supremo had come to power by stitching together a voting bloc of Brahmins and Dalits, terming it a politics of the “sarvajan”—the welfare of all.) 

Pandey, too, felt that by not appeasing the community, the BJP had “humiliated” Brahmins. “I can say that the community will not go for them this time … In those seats where Brahmins are in good number and a deciding factor, they would vote for SP as first choice this time.” He said that the BJP would not secure any votes from Brahmins outside its cadres. “In that case, they can only get thirty to forty percent of the Brahmin vote, as compared to 2017,” Pandey said. “If the opposition candidate is Brahmin on any seat then the opposition would get more votes than the BJP this time.”

According to Vishwambhar Nath Mishra, a professor at the Indian Institute of Technology at the Banaras Hindu University, and a head priest of the famed Sankat Mochan temple in Varanasi, said, “There is a message in the community in UP that the BJP has taken us for granted. This has changed the dynamics in the last six months, as now Brahmins are realising that they have been cheated and humiliated by BJP government in UP.” The professor continued, “This time, the pseudo culture of nationalism and religion has not worked, has not been able to overtake its negative approach towards the Brahmin community.” Though the construction of the Ram temple was expected to work in the BJP’s favour among upper-caste Hindus, Vishwambhar felt it would not work on Brahmins. “It is a complete failure on all fronts. Unemployment and suppression is the major factor which will work against BJP, as far as Brahmins are concerned.”

Vishwambhar claimed that since the early 1990s, when the Mandal Commission Report and its suggested reservations became a decisive political issue, no mainstream parties had awarded senior political positions to Brahmins. This meant that there were no other obvious contenders for the Brahmin vote. “If the SP is successful in removing its Yadav brand, then it would take the lead in getting the Brahmin vote, and that would be a change-maker. On the other hand, if Congress is successful in taking back its traditional Brahmin vote bank, or the vote of BSP or BJP, then there will be vote consolidation and the chance of a hung assembly,” Vishwambhar said. “Finally, it’s possible that the Brahmin votes are split between the SP and the Congress.”

Sanatan Pandey, a Brahmin leader for the SP, believed that Brahmins would choose the SP over the BJP. Sanatan felt that Brahmins were displeased by the BJP’s alliance with Jitan Ram Manjhi, a prominent Dalit leader and a vocal critic of Brahminical supremacy. A former MLA and the SP’s candidate for the Lok Sabha elections in 2019, from the Ballia constituency, Sanatan said that Brahmins “have realised their humiliation. They have this feeling in their heart and they will vote for those who can defeat BJP. They will not repeat their mistake of 2017.” He added, “How one could forget the statement of Haridwar Dubey, humiliating and showing how the BJP’s approach has taken Brahmins for granted?” In late 2020, Dubey, a Rajya Sabha member of parliament from the BJP, gave an interview to the press dismissing any concerns over Brahmin discontent. “It’s natakbaazi”—pretence—Dubey told the media. “Where will the Brahmins go anyway?”

Whatever the outcome, according to Vijay Shankar, the veteran journalist, the election will decide the future of Brahmins in the state and central politics. “It will be no surprise if the entire community goes against the BJP, because it has nothing to lose now,” he said.