“UP mein ATM ki sarkar hai,” said a middle-aged Rajput respondent to this correspondent at Pratapgarh after the Samajwadi Party trounced the BSP and BJP in 2012. He meant it was the rule of the Ahirs (Yadavs), Thakurs and Muslims.
The statement signifies an important political dynamic in UP, which obliquely encapsulates the intra-upper caste rivalry in general and Brahmin-Rajput rivalry in particular. It runs as a thread through politics in UP - in fact all of the Hindi heartland (UP, Bihar and MP) as well.
Appalled by the Brahmins’ dominance in the Congress, the non-Brahmin upper castes, especially Rajputs, started shifting allegiance to non-Congress parties in significant numbers. In UP, Rajputs were the core social constituency of non-Congressism as propounded by Rammanohar Lohia and executed by Charan Singh in the form of the famous non-Brahmin AJGAR (Ahir, Jat, Gujjar, Rajput) electoral alliance in the 1970s and 1980s. Though Congress tried to win back the Rajputs by giving them the chief ministership since the 1980s, the Brahmin-Thakur rivalry continued.
In fact, in the 1989 Lok Sabha election, the acrimonious campaign by Rajiv Gandhi (perceived Brahmin) and V P Singh (Rajput) led to the Rajputs voting significantly in favour of the latter. The trend continued in the 1989 Assembly election which brought Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Janata Dal to power by defeating the Congress led by N.D Tiwari.
1960s-1980s: Congress dominance
The decades from the late 1960s to the late 1980s, were a period of Congress dominance, a characteristic of which was the dominance of upper castes as a homogeneous bloc who were, unsuccessfully but relentlessly, resisted by lower castes under the banner of socialist parties. In that dominant narrative of ‘upper caste vs backward caste’ electoral rivalry, the aspect of intra-upper caste rivalry, especially in UP, has been understated. This intra-upper caste rivalry was not just confined to elections but rather extended to spheres like institutional access and Mafia rivalry for dominance over public resources.
However, an important shift came in the wake of Mandalization of north Indian politics since 1990, which led to an unprecedented consolidation of the upper castes behind the BJP, making the saffron party a dominant electoral force in the state throughout the 1990s. By the 2000s, the electoral fortunes of the BJP declined on account of factors like desertion of OBC leaders like Kalyan Singh and the Ram temple becoming a non-issue. This, compelled the upper castes to act as balancing factors, tactically oscillating between various parties from election to election, besides supporting BJP. Data suggests that Rajputs tilted towards the SP and the Brahmins towards the BSP.
Against this backdrop, the 2014 Lok Sabha election proved to be the second shift when, swayed by the Modi wave, upper castes converged behind the BJP again as its core voters. This is a trend that continues into the ongoing Assembly election.
Back with the BJP again
In this election, some major facts to be considered are that upper castes are vouching for the BJP again, despite being at the receiving end of demonetization; both BSP and SP have fielded a significant number of upper caste candidates; the BJP is focusing primarily upon non-Yadav OBCs; there is a general sense of appreciation for Akhilesh Yadav’s leadership and for the image of Mayawati as a tough administrator. This indicates the deep interplay of the identitarian and winnability factors in this Assembly election.
Interestingly, the complex dynamics of the identitarian and winnability factors in the ongoing election could be seen in the comment of a Brahmin respondent in Chillupar Assembly constituency in Gorakhpur where BJP and BSP have both fielded Brahmin candidates: “Here the Brahmins are divided between the BJP and BSP due to candidate factor. However, everyone desires the BJP to form the next government.”
(Sajjan Kumar is a Ph.D from the Centre for Political Studies, JNU. He is associated with People’s Pulse, a Hyderabad-based research organization specializing in fieldwork-based political and electoral studies).