By Maanvender Singh.

The victory of Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) in the Uttar Pradesh election is nothing short of spectacular. The BJP-led alliance won 325 seats in an assembly of 403 while the combination of the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Congress mustered 54 seats and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) 19 seats. The scale of victory replicates the BJP’s performance in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

…the biggest drawback this verdict has delivered is the denting of the social justice narrative…

Significantly, these are the biggest numbers achieved by any single party in the post- Mandal era; comparable with 206 for the BSP in 2007 and 224 for the SP in 2012. A verdict of this size not only transforms the political landscape of Uttar Pradesh but is bound to have larger implications for national politics. The mandate in Uttar Pradesh means that the BJP has reclaimed the authority to define the national political narrative.

The BSP and the SP, on the other hand, have been routed out of power after more than a decade. BSP head, Mayawati, has emerged as a rather bitter loser making unsubstantiated accusations that the Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) were tampered with by the BJP. The position of the Congress is dire; having won only seven seats in a state which it has not ruled since the mid-80s. However, the biggest drawback this verdict has delivered is the denting of the social justice narrative espoused by the BSP and SP.

There are two important questions that need to be answered in the context of the UP election. The first is whether this mandate for BJP transcends caste. Both the media and  BJP party leaders have argued that this represents an “end of caste politics”. The second question is whether the defeat of both the BSP and the SP in this election marks an end to the idea of ‘social justice’ as we know it.

Let us start with a preliminary observation regarding how the vote share of BSP and SP has changed over the last decade. Between the 2007 to 2012 state assembly elections, there was no major shift in terms of the vote share among the two parties which was around 55 percent. However, in this election the combined share of SP and BSP has come down to 44 percent; ceding 11 percent to the BJP. This large swing clearly indicates a shift in group loyalties. So why did previous voters for the SP and BSP suddenly vote for the BJP (considered an upper-caste party). It is not that the BJP has suddenly become the party of backward classes. Although the BJP has to a certain extent co-opted non-Yadav OBCs (Other Backward Classes) and the Dalits into the party rank, upper castes still have the highest relative share of MLAs in the party.

Historically, caste-based parties have mobilized voters largely over the issue of deprivation, discrimination and social justice. However, with the failure of both the SP and the BSP to move beyond the agenda of caste-based reservation and their inability to develop a discourse around other larger issues, a political vacuum has been created. This is a void which is being claimed by the BJP. As this principle of social justice erodes, it limits the political options of millions in the state; particularly Dalits.

While caste has not lost its relevance as a strategic vote bank, it is the idea of ‘caste’ as an agency of change that is being sidelined by political parties. These rather unfortunate alterations in the politics of Uttar Pradesh are a result of failings to mobilize Dalits around key issues including the death of Rohit Vermula, and the atrocities committed by the ‘cow vigilantes’ against Dalits in Unna, Gujarat. Much more worrying was the silence over the Supreme Court announcement in January that has imposed a ban on seeking votes along caste lines. How can a party like the BSP which claims to represent Dalits choose to remain quiet over this vital issue?

Narratives are important in politics. The BSP has allowed the development of an idea of a casteless society; one which refuses to redress the disability and discrimination suffered by lower caste groups. The inactivity of both the BSP and the SP to challenge these narratives has made them irrelevant in the politics of Uttar Pradesh.

Meanwhile, after the loss in the UP election, it seems now that the Congress will try to stitch together an anti- BJP coalition for the next Lok Sabha election in 2019; similar to the 2015 Bihar state elections. This has been advocated despite the difficulty in designing a coalition between Dalits and the fragmented OBCs in Uttar Pradesh (and other parts of the country). Non-BJP parties are missing the point that the vote for Narendra Modi largely rejects these tried and tired experiments which have nothing new to offer to the voters.

This is not to suggest that the pre-eminence of the BJP on the national stage in Indian politics cannot be challenged. However, a change in this direction cannot be designed on the sole plank of an anti-Modi campaign. To reclaim the imagination of voters in Uttar Pradesh, both the BSP and the SP need to revisit the agenda of social justice; one which was narrated during the Mandal campaign, and one that successfully countered the nationalist imagination on caste.

Maanvender Singh is a Public Policy Scholar at the Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy, Chennai and a doctoral student at the Department of History at the Sikkim University, Gangtok.  Image Credit: CC by Akhilesh Yadhav/ Wikimedia Commons. 

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