Playing the caste card

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has embarked on an all-out caste mobilisation drive in Uttar Pradesh, even though the prospect that it might face a united Opposition in the State in 2019 remains far-fetched. Facing resistance from Dalits and being precariously placed vis-à-vis upper castes, the party is aware that backward classes must be its fulcrum. Through conventions titled ‘Samajik Pratinidhi Baithak’, the BJP is communicating with the groups individually, promoting the Central government’s welfare schemes beneficial to them. For a party that claims to reject caste politics, the BJP’s unapologetic caste outreach highlights not only its doublespeak but perhaps also its desperation. What makes the campaign unique is its defining of backward and Dalit icons through the lens of Hindutva, creating potential for communal polarisation. Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s appeasement of the caste sentiments of the Nishads provides a snapshot. “You have Rambhakti (devotion to Ram) in your DNA. Who knows better about materialising the concept of a Ram Rajya than you,” Mr. Adityanath told them, promising to build statues of their icon Nishadraj. Hindus believe that Nishadraj ferried Ram across the Ganga during his exile. Speaking to Lodhs, Mr. Adityanath honoured their tallest leader, Kalyan Singh, for the Babri Masjid demolition that happened on his watch, and for providing the Ram Janmabhoomi movement a “new direction and awakening the national consciousness”. To the Rajbhars, Mr. Adityanath asked them to decide if India should run as per the values of Suheldev or Muslim ruler Mahmud Ghaznavi. Suheldev is a medieval Bhar-Pasi chieftain and caste icon whom the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh have systematically tried to project as a Hindutva warrior. In the 2017 Uttar Pradesh Assembly election, the BJP won the perception battle among the non-Yadav backwards. While the Bahujan Samaj Party played a risky Dalit-Muslim card after facing desertion of its Other Backward Classes (OBC) leadership, the Samajwadi Party’s alleged Yadav appeasement and family feud left the BJP to fully engage backward classes, supplemented through its alliances with the OBC-based Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party and Apna Dal. But this strategy has its limitations, as the BJP is naturally upper-caste minded. In the Gorakhpur and Phulpur bypolls, the Opposition outsmarted the BJP though a similar tactic. Stung by those defeats and now dealing with an unpredictable ally, Om Prakash Rajbhar, the BJP knows that it can only compete with a combined Opposition if it commands the largest vote bloc in the State, that of the backward classes, who form over 40% of the electorate. To win elections in this context, the Opposition needs a formidable caste arithmetic that includes the Jatav Dalits and Yadavs (supplemented by the 19% Muslim vote). So far, it has not kicked off any such programme.

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