by Praful Bidwai

May 19 2007

The BSP's spectacular victory in Uttar Pradesh bids fair to help transform Indian politics by putting redistributive justice and equity on the agenda.

MAYAWATI has emerged as India's tallest Dalit leader after Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. She has secured a prominent place in the history of Indian democracy, which few can even hope to lay claim to.

By leading her Bahujan Samajan Party (BSP) to an unambiguous, clinching victory in Uttar Pradesh, she has broken the State's political impasse of decades - with a fleeting exception in 1991 - namely, a division of votes along caste and community lines owing to the urge of subaltern groups for direct self-representation. This resulted in hung Assemblies and ensured endemic instability. (No Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister has completed his/her full term in the past four decades.)

Mayawati's achievement is all the more stupendous given that she is a Dalit and a single woman working against the current in a deeply conservative, caste-ridden and socially and economically backward State like U.P. This is an outstanding accomplishment for Dalits and for women.

Paradigm shift

More important, Mayawati has effected a paradigm shift in Indian politics. She has, for the first time ever, succeeded in building a social coalition that inverts the pyramid of caste/class hierarchy by building a rainbow alliance of social groups, now dominated by that greatest underclass of all, Dalits.

Crudely put, this is a transformed, indeed subverted, subaltern version of the classic Congress-style broad `winning coalition' until the 1970s, which comprised the upper castes and the `core minorities' (Muslims, Dalits and, to an extent, Adivasis). But there are three crucial differences between the two blocs. First, Mayawati's is a coalition or bloc from below, in which the lower, subaltern orders of society dominate. The terms of this alliance are set by Dalits through the BSP transparently and without fuss or pretension.

Second, the Congress' classical formula papered over the distinctive identities of castes and communities. It was sustained by the distribution of patronage and co-option of leaders. By contrast, Mayawati's coalition is based on an explicit recognition of group identities but under the overarching presence of Dalits.

And third, unlike in the Congress coalition, which tended to exclude the Most Backward Classes (MBCs) in the Hindi belt - such as Kewats, Nishads, Dhobis, Bhishtis, and so on - Mayawati's coalition gives them a prominent place.

Although no hard, reliable numbers are available on caste-based voting, it does seem from the better exit polls that the BSP reached out to the MBCs, in addition to Brahmins and Banias, and won significant support from them.

Only such a social coalition could ensure that the BSP would poll 30.5 per cent of the vote and command an absolute majority. Even assuming that nearly 80 per cent of all U.P. Dalits voted for the BSP - as polls by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies suggest - their 21 per cent share in the population could not have produced such a result. Almost half of the BSP's votes clearly came from a broad range of non-Dalit groups.

This itself was, and could only have been, the result of several processes: a steady erosion of the support base of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), whose 3 per cent-plus decline since 2002 in vote share (down to 16.9 per cent) benefitted the BSP more than any other party; the BSP's sustained, rapid and relentless rise as a political force, which enabled it to more than triple its vote share since 1993; growing upper-caste disillusionment with the BJP; and the BSP's extraordinarily energetic grassroots bhaichara and Brahmin jodo campaigns for the past few years.

It bears recalling that the BSP first made conscious overtures to upper-caste groups six years ago. In the 2002 Assembly elections, it fielded as many as 92 upper-caste candidates (including 26 Brahmins). This yielded modest results.

The real breakthrough came recently, when Brahmins deserted the BJP in large numbers - according to one survey, there was a 22 per cent drop in the party's Brahmin support - to join the BSP, which fielded 86 of them (of 139 upper-caste candidates). One of the main reasons for the breakthrough was the BSP's focussed effort to woo Brahmins - a feat of social engineering and concentrated political activism on the part of a self-confident and growing force.

BJP a sinking ship

It is tempting, but not convincing, to argue that Brahmins have gravitated towards the Dalit-dominated BSP because these two groups, both at the extreme ends of the caste spectrum, feel squeezed by the "Forward March of the Backwards" (Other Backward Castes).

But U.P. Brahmins have by no means suffered a serious loss of power in the economy, society and the professions, especially the bureaucracy. Other factors have been at work: the Brahmins' desire for greater political representation, albeit on terms set by Dalits, and an urge to abandon what they regard as a sinking ship.

After all, many perceptive Brahmins could easily recognise that the BJP is a party in steep decline in U.P., whose vote share has almost halved since 1993. It would be a mistake to read a "natural affinity" between the Brahmins and Dalits, as some upwardly mobile individuals from the Dalit elite argue.

There are several other meanings to, and implications of, the BSP's staggering victory. It is a forceful repudiation of a major Hindutva premise that posits a false social unity, and hence political homogeneity, among Hindus qua Hindus.

The BSP's politics seeks to unify people across castes and communities on a secular non-religious basis without denying their essential differences and divergences. The BSP has compromised and shared power with the BJP in the past. But its ideology and politics are secular and deeply hostile to the idea of transforming India into a Hindu-majoritarian entity. Its rejection of Manuwad is not rhetorical.

The U.P. Assembly elections' biggest loser is indisputably the BJP - not just in votes, but also in political-ideological terms. It ran a dirty, divisive, communally toxic campaign but was handed a humiliating defeat.

The BJP and its allies held the Number 1 and Number 2 positions in 238 constituencies in 2002. Now they are down to 124. The BJP's own No. 1 and No. 2 spots have fallen from 197 to 120.

Dynasty did not work

The U.P. results are also a slap in the face for the Congress' `dynasty' approach. The Congress thought it could field Rahul Gandhi in a high-profile campaign and attract votes by appealing to a pan-Indian "Hindustani" identity and `development'. It failed to relate to the social reality of caste and the role of politics as an agency in redressing its iniquities.

The results also set a refreshing precedent by showing that a party of relatively modest means can win an extraordinarily keenly contested election without resorting to filmy glamour, media hype or the patronage of big industry.

This bears a sharp contrast to the Samajwadi Party, which roped in numerous film stars and much Big Business support, as well as the BJP, for which flaunting tawdry but ostentatious symbols of wealth, grabbing media attention, and manufacturing non-existent `waves', have become a crucial election strategy.

The BSP will provide an even more convincing contrast to the S.P./BJP even if it dismantles the gooda raj and cronyism that has flourished in U.P. for the past decade or more, particularly under Mulayam Singh and Amar Singh.

The BSP shows what a tightly knit cadre organisation headed by a far-from-glamorous individual, often reviled by the mainstream media, can achieve when fired by political imagination and a will to liberate a community from 2,000 years of bondage and humiliation.

The BSP's victory advances the issues of equity and redistributive justice towards the top of the agenda - not just in U.P. but in India as a whole.

In U.P. itself, Mayawati can consolidate her social coalition and invest it with a larger purpose only if she pursues a serious agenda of reform and transformative change, including land reform, an administrative clean-up and empowerment of plebeian layers.

During her last term as Chief Minister, she drew up a rudimentary land reform plan, which remained unimplemented.

A well thought out, comprehensive version of land reform will be the best way to move from the politics of self-respect to a truly transformative politics based on redistribution.

BSP's gain in stature

Nationally, the BSP has greatly gained in stature. It will play a major role in the presidential elections. It can influence several agendas and inspire many underprivileged groups.

The party must do so wisely and with the inclusive and universalist perspective that was central to Ambedkar's vision. That would be the best way of carrying forward his legacy and addressing India's many unfinished social agendas.