The Interplay Of Caste And Politics In India's Most Populous State
Why do castes matter in the elections in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous and politically influential state, which is considered the center of the Hindi-speaking heartland? It is perhaps the most common and obvious question that comes into the minds of people who aren't familiar with the ground political realities of a state of 220 million people, a microcosm of India's cultural and religious diversity and ethnic richness.
The answer lies in how people perceive their identity in Uttar Pradesh, part of a region often pejoratively known in journalistic jargon as the "cow belt".
Karbaha in Fatehpur district, a village some 170 km south of Lucknow, the state capital, has an idol of Dadua installed at its Panchmukhi-Hanuman temple. Every year, thousands of people from nearly almost five districts visit the site, garlanding the statue as a mark of respect to Dadua.
Except that Shiv Kumar Patel, popularly known as ‘Dadua’, the dead man the people revere, isn’t a real Hindu god but was a dreaded bandit of the area. He has had in his name more than 150 cases of murders and 250 of kidnapping and looting registered in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh.
In 2007, he was gunned down by the Special Task Force (STF) of the UP Police -- only after giving a good chase to the police of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh for over three decades.
From the 1970s until his death in 2007, he chose his victims based on their caste, mostly in the districts in Bundelkhand, a socio-economically backward region, sandwiched between Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. During his long reign of terror, he helped poor people from his own community, Kurmi, an economically and socially backward caste once marginalized in the state power politics then dominated by upper-caste groups.
So the people of the Kurmi caste, who comprise around 7-8 percent of UP’s total population, revere him. For the state, his actions were heinous crimes; for his community, it was a revolt against social injustice meted out to them at the hands of upper caste people. The rest hated him.
Local dominance, influence and, most prominently, historical injustices were -- and are still -- rooted on caste identities in Uttar Pradesh. For the very same reason, the state had seen the rise of severe such criminal strongmen or dacoits -- Phoolan Devi, Nirbhay Singh Gurjar to name a few -- out of several caste groups, including from dominant caste groups, who sought to protect their turf. Most of them are dead now. But children and relatives are still courted by some political parties, in the hope of getting their communities' support for electoral advantage.
Furthermore, if a resident of Uttar Pradesh were to go to a police station to file a complaint, chances are that the first question one may face could be related to the person's caste identity. And one can't blame the police officer for being casteist -- that could be a case -- but by asking that question the officer is just trying to gauge the level of political interference/influence that might come up during the investigation. This is the level to which caste identities are entrenched in both the system and the individual.
For many, the core strength of the BJP, India’s main ruling party, now led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in the state lies in its Hindutva ideology, relatively more appealing to voters in the northern cow belt. It is a common perception. However, if one looks closely at the party’s showing in elections in the state since 2014, its performance crossed, that too by a large margin, its performance in elections in the 90s, the period when the Ram Temple movement, Hindutva politics and rhetoric were at the peak.
Hindutva or caste?
In the last few years, the BJP, riding on the Hindutva bandwagon, not only did recover its lost base among crucial upper castes -- a fraction of which had drifted to other caste-based parties like Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) -- but also made a tremendous inroad into other several small marginal backward caste groups.
The support among the non-Yadav what are called Other Backward Castes (OBCs) – which roughly forms 35 percent of the state’s population -- gave the right-wing party an unprecedented advantage.
However, it is the very same segment, some analysts now believe, where resentment is brewing against the party which could harm its prospect in the ongoing state assembly elections. One will perhaps know the extent of this resentment, if any, when the results of the assembly elections are out on March 10.
Once touted as the party of upper-caste groups, the BJP crossed the 50 percent vote share with the help of its smaller allies in the 2019 general elections -- a historic milestone that seemed unimaginable to political pundits at one time.
Will BJP gain?
The party in the state is headed by Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, a saffron-clad hardline Hindu monk, known for his antagonistic views against the minority Muslim community. The 2019 elections happened during his rule and the religious polarization did play a major role. But the scale of the victory could not be justified only through polarization alone.
The state has always been notorious for its law and order situation. Communal riots were frequent in the past decades. Any government that brings these two problems under control is bound to get an advantage here -- just as the BJP reaped the political dividends in the last general elections.
Not many people outside the state might know that Mayawati, the leader of the BSP, which last ruled the state in 2007-12, is still remembered for cracking down hard on criminals during her tenure. It was under her watch that Dadua and others alike were hunted down within months of her coming into power.
In the last decade, with the rise of alternate media, India’s political consciousness has grown tremendously, both for good and bad. Since coming to power in 2014, the BJP government has adopted a tactic of associating several welfare schemes related to sanitation and housing with female members of the beneficiary's families. This practice has given the party an advantage that is yet to be studied in detail by mainstream media.
There appear initial signs that the BJP has perhaps managed to create a substantial support base among women, irrespective of caste identities, especially in rural parts. Women in rural India were once considered passive voters, casting their votes based upon the wishes of their male relatives. Neither were they too much aware of contemporary political discourse at the national level.
The recent trends in elections have shown undeniable evidence that women no longer remain passive voters. They are politically conscious, making their choices independent of those of their male, more caste-oriented, family members, and more focussed on services’ deliverance, less influenced by political ideologies.
Whether this change will play in the favor of the BJP or against them this time remains to be seen. Because, if women, like others, are impressed with the improved law and order situation and welfare schemes, they are probably equally worried about poor health facilities in the wake of the pandemic and the rising inflation affecting their kitchen bills.
Whether other political parties are able to cash in on this undercurrent of resentment remains to be seen.
(The writer is Research Associate with South Asia Monitor based in Banda, Uttar Pradesh. Views are personal)