In the euphoria of the dramatic win of the Samajwadi Party (SP), the margin of which was unprecedented, in the election to the Uttar Pradesh state assembly, it would be extremely contrarian to suggest that it was not so one-sided. But then, that is what the facts tell us.
It is true that SP won a record 224 seats and so is the fact that the incumbent Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) ended up with 80 seats (compared with 206 in the 2007 assembly election). But, it is also true, and something that has missed the headlines, that BSP ended up second in 211 seats. In contrast, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came second in 55 seats and the Congress party in 31 seats—effectively third and fourth in the assembly election; both national parties were in serious contention in less than 100 seats each.
In contrast, BSP clearly emerges as the party to beat. Taking its second place standing, it is clear that BSP was in contention in about 300 seats. A review of the data reveals that BSP lost 10 seats by less than 1,000 votes, 11 seats by 1,000-2,000 votes and four by 2,000-3,000 votes; going by the political thumb rule, less than 3,000 votes is considered a narrow margin.
This nugget of information reveals a lot. First, BSP was not, despite the strong anti-incumbency mood, a pushover. Second, and more importantly, the core Dalit vote of BSP has largely, despite a sustained effort by the Congress party, remained loyal to Mayawati. Since the Dalit community is spread out across the state, it provides a very enviable electoral foundation for BSP. What has probably happened is that BSP lost out on the increment votes that had accrued to it in 2007 when it forged the rainbow coalition of castes by roping in the upper castes and sections of the Muslim community. Finally, the trend, which endured in the 2007 assembly election too, indicates that UP has veered around to a two-party race, leaving Congress and BJP as fringe players.
Clearly, identity politics has worked for BSP.
However, what has also come through in this election is that the other arm of identity politics—religion—has weakened. The Muslims, who account for a little less than a fifth of the population of the state, have tended to vote tactically to defeat the BJP. This time, for a combination of reasons, this has not necessarily played out. It was partly due to the aspiration factor taking root—anecdotally apparent in the spurt in the number of first-generation Muslim students. Also, the BJP conducted a very under-the-radar campaign (in fact, a colleague who mapped the campaign observed that the party was almost invisible at the ground level). With BJP not playing up its aggressive Hindutva card, the fear of militant Hinduism has receded. As a result, the Muslim vote was most likely cast on winnability—where they saw SP as a clear winner.
The Congress clearly misread the mood. While SP chose to address aspirations through the promise of laptops—seen as the next tool of empowerment, where earlier it was through affirmative action in government jobs—the Congress, in its wisdom, chose to dwell on identity defined through religion. The party promised reservations for Muslims and made a big deal about tokenism—all of this of course premised on the fact that the Muslims, going by tradition, would vote en bloc. This is exactly where it erred. Not only did the Congress end up not rallying the Muslim vote, but may have actually ended up alienating some Muslims through this presumptuous view of the community.
To sum up then, it is clear that BSP was not a walkover, unlike what the final outcome would suggest. At the same time, the paradigm shift—don't give us fish, teach us how to fish—in the Muslim vote suggests that in Uttar Pradesh the business of identity politics may have peaked. Will the glue of caste politics be able to resist aspirations?
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