Monday, March 12, 2012

[ZESTCaste] Identity-plus is the new political mantra (Chandan Mitra)

Identity-plus is the new political mantra

Author: Chandan Mitra

As India transits into the post-Mandal era, the UP election results
show caste and community are necessary but not sufficient conditions
to ensure electoral triumph

The Samajwadi Party's decisive victory in Uttar Pradesh signals
India's transition to a post-Mandal era. Outgoing Chief Minister
Mayawati's Press conference in Lucknow after submitting her
resignation was a clear reinforcement of this. Regretting that Muslims
had fallen prey to the SP's charms and Congress's wiliness, she
pointed out that the upper castes and trading classes (Banias) too had
gone substantially with the winning side. She castigated the non-Yadav
OBCs for dividing their vote and largely throwing their lot with the
SP, despite expectations to the contrary.

Unfortunately for her, Ms Mayawati has interpreted the Uttar Pradesh
result purely in terms of caste arithmetic, underlining her inability
to anticipate the changing dynamics of north Indian voter behaviour.

She seems to have reverted to the outdated Bahujan formula propounded
by her mentor Kanshi Ram, who regarded Indian society as an
amalgamation of caste blocs that tended to think and act as
homogeneous groups. He was convinced some day they would unite to
seize state power that rightfully belonged to them — hence the slogan,
"Vote hamara, raj tumhara, nahin chalega, nahin chalega". Kanshi Ram
believed, almost in a Leninist kind of way, that a Dalit-led party had
to function as the vanguard of the 'revolution', and gradually bring
other underprivileged communities under its umbrella.

There was a fatal flaw in this formulation. The other underprivileged
sections, comprising mainly peasant classes such as the Yadavs and the
Kurmis, marginal sections like the Nishads, the Pasis and the Mallahs
as well as the poorer Muslims, have always been in serious social
conflict with the Dalits. The incongruity of trying to bring them
together in a socio-political rainbow coalition came a cropper within
a few months when the SP-BSP alliance of 1993 collapsed amid acrimony.
Being more pragmatic, Ms Mayawati moved away from Kanshi Ram's
theoretical construct and tied up with the BJP.

Three unsuccessful coalitions later, she was sufficiently emboldened
to branch out on her own, riding the wave of disenchantment with
Mulayam Singh Yadav's lawless regime that came to power allegedly with
the BJP's covert backing in 2004. Her 2007 triumph flummoxed political
pundits not only because she won a clear mandate — the first since
Kalyan Singh's 212 seats in 1991 — but also on account of the upper
caste and substantial Muslim vote that came her way. But this too was
an uneasy social alliance; her new supporters voted not out of
conviction but convenience. Brahmins realised that the BJP was a
declining force and the Congress, their other preferred choice,
non-existent. Muslims, on the other hand, were angered by their
political 'maulana' joining hands with 'Babri-breaker' Kalyan Singh.
Besides, Ms Mayawati's mastery over caste equations in each Assembly
segment enabled her to experiment with upper caste and Muslim
candidates, as by then she was confident that the Dalit vote was fully
transferable. This time, however, the same meticulous calculation
boomeranged at the EVMs.

Just as Ms Mayawati realised some years ago that Dalit-only politics
was self-limiting and would never catapult her to power on her own
steam, Mr Yadav too learnt the lesson during his political isolation
between 2007 and 2012. Along with his fervent championship of
Mandalism, he went out of his way to mend the rupture with Muslims,
caused by Amar Singh's adventurism post-2007. But M-Y too has its
limitations. Mandal's other torch-bearer, Lalu Prasad Yadav, was
comprehensively outflanked by his former colleague Nitish Kumar, who
rallied the MBC communities, persuaded Muslims he wasn't their mortal
enemy despite his tie-up with the BJP, while the upper castes were
happy to go along because of the BJP's presence in the alliance. These
experiments have demonstrated that power cannot be achieved, leave
alone retained, by Mandalism alone. Politics has entered a Mandal-plus
phase, which encompasses both identity and aspiration.

Mr Mulayam Singh Yadav may not have consciously crafted a Mandal-plus
appeal, but the promotion of Akhilesh Yadav as the Samajwadi Party's
new mascot helped widen its catchment area. Although he decided to
switch to chaste Hindi after Rahul Gandhi took a swipe at a Lohiaite
party leader speaking in English to the media, Mr Akhilesh Yadav's
strategists were anything but traditional dhoti-clad politicians. In
fact, they weren't politicians at all. The unexpected victory of
foreign-educated, English-speaking technocrat Abhishek Mishra from a
Lucknow seat demonstrates the success of the makeover Mr Akhilesh
Yadav has spawned. It is clear that, thanks to his refreshing style
and understated rhetoric, large sections of the youth cutting across
caste lines voted for the SP. It is this which gave the party its
cutting edge, heaving it well above the 200-seat mark whereas M-Y
alone could not have netted more than 160.

However, those claiming that identity politics is dead have failed to
grasp the reality. If Ms Mayawati triumphed decisively in 2007 and the
Samajwadi Party has bettered that, it is because both have a core
vote-based on identity. It is the same for the Akalis in Punjab, whose
Jat support remains unwavering or the BJP in Rajasthan which retains
the Rajput base constructed painstakingly by Bhairon Singh Shekhawat.

Both the Congress and the BJP failed again in Uttar Pradesh, the
former more humiliatingly, because their erstwhile core vote has got
scattered. Since the 1980s, the Congress has steadily lost its
unbeatable Brahmin-Muslim-Dalit base. Mr Rahul Gandhi's advisers
aggressively sought to grab a big slice of the Muslim vote this time
but even its reservation lollipop and tearful references to Batla
House failed to make a dent. From all accounts, Muslims found the
Congress's frenzied attempts to woo the community lacking credibility,
somewhat pathetic. They had voted for the Congress in large numbers in
2009 because they wanted to keep the BJP away from power in Delhi and
may do so again in 2014. But after forgiving Mr Mulayam Singh Yadav
his 2007-2009 transgressions, they voted almost en masse for him this
time. The BJP's cross-caste appeal peaked in the wake of the Ram
Mandir movement but has ebbed since because even its traditional
supporters don't believe it is a contender for power in Lucknow. And
none but the committed vote for an also-ran, which is why Ms Mayawati
crashed to 80 from 206.

In other words, in order to emerge victorious in any caste-sensitive
State, a party needs to first establish its predominance over a core
caste/community block and then seek to expand its appeal beyond that.
It would be a serious misreading of the Bihar or Uttar Pradesh
verdicts to commence writing obituaries of identity politics. Caste
and religion continue to matter a great deal, but it's no longer caste
alone that can win elections. Identity has to gel with aspiration. And
aspiration is linked to development, not just bijli-sadak-pani but
livelihood opportunities, educational avenues, health facilities and
other human development index goals.

Moral of the story: Mr Rahul Gandhi must go back to the drawing board,
recognising that physical appearance and dynastic charm can't get him
far in the hard-nosed electoral politics of north India. These factors
can be the icing on the cake, but without the cake the icing is
inconsequential. The BJP should do better than this in 2014 on an
anti-corruption, development-driven agenda, but its limitations as far
as Uttar Pradesh is concerned are similar.
Last modified on Saturday, 10 March 2012 20:14


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