Rejigged SP strategy a new dawn in Bahujan politics?

Forging a broad Bahujan identity against the historically powerful castes became the rallying point for emergent lower-caste politics.

Published: 07th February 2022 02:10 AM  |   Last Updated: 07th February 2022 02:10 AM   |  A+A-

Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav

Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav (Photo | PTI)

Caste is one of the most important drivers of politics in north India. Poll-bound Uttar Pradesh is no exception to this general rule. For long, politics, along with other spheres in north Indian states, were dominated by hierarchically superior castes. A dramatic shift took place in the whole architecture of Indian politics in the 1990s. Uttar Pradesh notably became the biggest site of such a churning. Forging a broad Bahujan identity against the historically powerful castes became the rallying point for emergent lower-caste politics.

How Bahujan parties became representative of few vocal castes: The socially and demographically vibrant groups among the lower castes became the flag-bearers of such a politics. Practically this meant that parties that claimed to represent the entire Bahujan spectrum became units of a few powerful and vocal castes. Social groups that were politically nascent or functioned on the margins of Bahujan parties started to drift away, either forming autonomous political organisations or aligning themselves with other blocs. Instead of bridging this distrust within their own hegemonic formation, parties such as the Samajwadi Party (SP) and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) were rather cold in their response to the demands of greater accommodation. They instead took to wooing the upper castes.

To illustrate, let’s take the example of the SP. From a high pro-backward stance in the 1990s, it had virtually turned itself into a catch-all party by 2012, the last time it came to power in the state. In fact, in the 2012 elections, it fielded more upper-caste candidates than even its core voting group: the OBCs. Out of 398 candidates, 128 (32.1%) were upper castes and 108 (27.1%) were OBCs, of which nearly 50% (53 out of 108) were Yadavs. The trend continued, more or less, in the 2017 Assembly elections as well.

For the marginalised social groups to be unhappy and drift away towards the BJP seems quite natural with such a skewed electoral strategy. Hence, there is no wonder why political scientist Gilles Verniers frames SP as a conservative and elitist political formation.

Rethinking electoral strategies: In such a context, the first list of candidates announced by the SP points to a rejig in its political strategy. Although the social background of all the candidates is yet to be precisely ascertained, it is clear that the party has charted a new trajectory. To illustrate, out of 159 candidates, 63 are OBCs, among which around 75% (48) of the tickets have been given to the non-Yadav OBCs. Also, there seems to be a significant reduction in the number of seats allotted to the upper-caste candidates.

It remains to be seen whether such a political strategy would translate into concrete electoral dividends. Nonetheless, this must be seen as a welcome step, considering the minuscule number of tickets that were given to the non-powerful OBCs in the earlier elections. Welcome because the Samajwadis generally fought the polls on the backward versus forward plank, unacknowledging the uneven nature of caste hierarchy within the former. BJPs rise and the fragmentation of Bahujan politics: The BJP’s rise signifies not only a consolidation of conservative social groups but also a further transitioning of power to hitherto non-politicised groups and issues of social life. It has brought to the fore the concerns of the lower OBCs and signalled a further percolation of political power. It is precisely in this sense that the fragmentation of Bahujan politics has been productive. Hence, if Bahujan politics has to be revitalised, it has to be reimagined along these newer fault lines.

However, the BJP’s social engineering has not been without its challenges. If anything, the recent exodus of prominent OBC leaders from the party signals the impending implosion of its alliance of extremes. Thus, Akhilesh Yadav’s outreach to accommodate newly politicised groups, to make a dent in the BJP seems to be a step in the right direction.

Bahujan hegemony and the Samajwadi strategy: Faced with the tectonic rise of the BJP in UP, this seems to be the only viable strategy for the SP. However, for Samajwadis to remain politically relevant, they need to have a long-term view of politics. While the SP has recently transformed its organisational demography by giving representation to the lower OBCs, the need is to institutionalise the same with measures such as reservation in the party structure.

Continued gender blindness, evident in the dismal presence of women candidates, is another area on which Bahujan politics needs to systematically work on. Electorally too, it is unwise to ignore gender as a potential political constituency, especially in the light of the Congress party’s move of fielding a large number of women candidates.

It is important to keep in mind that politics is about imagining and constructing newer bases of identity, which always has a logic of temporality and contingency attached to it. In this sense, there are no pre-given or automatic political cleavages or identities, as traditional Marxists would have us believe. Political identities are transitory and take huge efforts to be constructed. However, once certain cleavages or issues have been successfully brought to the table, there is no turning back.

If Bahujan politics in Uttar Pradesh and larger north India, has to remain viable, it can no longer afford to wish away the changes that the BJP’s rise has brought about. To make its way through the changing dynamics of the social labyrinth is the only available option.

Supriy Ranjan (

PhD candidate at the Centre for Political Studies, JNU

Pankaj Kumar (

PhD candidate at the Centre for Political Studies, JNU


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