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Casteing the vote bank no more a leadership mantra

When Akhilesh Yadav became Uttar Pradesh's youngest chief minister after demolishing Mayawati, it wasn't considered a victory of caste but a defeat of a failed leader.

Published: 17th October 2021 07:22 AM  |   Last Updated: 17th October 2021 10:37 AM   |  A+A-

voting, vote, elections

Representational image (Express Illustrations)

Caste is a cornucopia of contradictions. It decides the fate of an election but not the result. Now, selectivity is stigma and stature is sublime. Indian elections are a Rubik's Cube of caste coalitions, social engineering and cult credibility. For years, top psychologists, political pundits, master manoeuvres and charismatic captains have been grabbing laurels for predicting and providing the winning formula. The poll bazar is teeming with quantum quacks selling miraculous formulations and alternative scenarios of desired denouement in the election carnival for crucial states of Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Punjab.

Since UP dominates the national narrative by its relevance to the future course and contours of national politics, the battle ready Priyanka Gandhi's excessive visibility has altered the political topography. The Congress with less than a double-digit vote share is not a significant factor in the state. Yet Mrs. Gandhi 3.0 is projected as a possible influencer of the future format of the Assembly. Her admirers see her as the leader to restore the party's umbrella character by bringing back its traditional voters like Dalits, minorities and upper castes. They perceive the Gandhis as caste-less icons, while Congress rivals like Akhilesh Yadav, Mayawati and Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath are not.

The Congress has been in the wilderness in UP for over three decades. While in power, it never appointed a Dalit or a backward as CM. Yet, it ruled for over five decades. Priyanka, the champion for all causes and seasons, is paradropping in troubled spots to offer solace to bereaved families. She has been tutored to ignore caste chatter and propagate coalition and welfare as talking points. The Congress may revive its old slogan 'Congress ka hath, sabke sath'. Though it is a fringe player, the party workers hope the P-factor can minimise caste polarisation in UP.

Caste became a dominant factor in the state after 1989 when Mulayam Singh Yadav broke away from the Janata Dal and took the Congress support to survive in office. Subsequently, backward neta Kalyan Singh became the BJP's undisputed leader in UP. Did they win elections and become chief ministers thanks to caste or because they were popular leaders who could unite all castes? Though caste did play a role, it was their stature that mattered for mandate. Later, both lost the elections because they couldn't deliver on promises. The BJP under Singh lost the ballot even after the demolition of the disputed Babri Masjid structure.

In the 2007 elections, the Mayawati-led BSP scored a decisive victory not solely due to its caste base, but because she was perceived as a strong leader who could take on the mafia and ensure better governance. Her electoral strategy of forging an alliance with upper castes got the glamorised moniker of social re-engineering. She lost in 2012 not because this model collapsed, but because she squandered public money on memorials and her own statues.

When Akhilesh Yadav became Uttar Pradesh's youngest chief minister after demolishing Mayawati, it wasn't considered a victory of caste but a defeat of a failed leader. The Yadav scion was voted in for his youth, clean image and charm - a champion gearing to race. Papa Mulayam had his back. Akhilesh created huge infrastructure projects and introduced technology. He converted Lucknow into a modern city. Yet he lost. Family feuds and, more importantly, his party's failure to retain the confidence of other communities were his downfall. While senior leaders nodded off, his younger followers indulged in nepotism and misuse of power.

Akhilesh lost in 2017 to the mighty national leader Narendra Modi and the BJP. The saffron party got the chair because Modi's persona defied caste affiliations. Cutting across caste-lines, BJP won a record 300 plus seats without a CM face. Yogi was the surprise choice.

Once again the titans are back to raise the dust of battle. Yogi, Akhilesh and Mayawati belong to different castes. Yet, the mandate will depend on performance and not caste identity. Priyanka has emerged as a leader to complete the quartet of ambition. Though Yogi is branded a Thakur, his no-nonsense approach and aggressive Hindutva is the envy of his challengers. Despite adverse publicity on law and order, he has delivered on many economic and social indicators. UP is now amongst the top ranking states in ease of doing business, handling COVID-19 and boosting infrastructure development. Voters will choose from a sitting chief minister, two former CMs with a Gandhi pushing for a respectable space in between. Caste isn't the issue. The cause is.

By now, it is evident that a caste coalition alone can't ensure victory. Voters will follow the one they feel is better than the incumbent. This paradigm refers to a strong and trustworthy leader. In Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Delhi, voters chose their leader setting aside caste and community affiliations. Caste wasn't a factor in West Bengal. In Odisha, the caste-abjuring Naveen Patnaik got a fifth consecutive term because of the TINA factor; his work and silence are his USPs.

At the national poll level, caste plays no decisive role. Leaders use it as identity politics. After Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi ruled for nearly 16 years because she was a casteless deity for her party. She was replaced by a coalition for barely 30 months. Rajiv replaced her after her assassination, and was projected as the new face of new India. But he lost five years later. Subsequently, the clean and strong VP Singh became the PM with help from all non-Congress parties, not for his caste but his calibre. In between, accidental PMs like Charan Singh Chandrashekhar, HD Devegowda and IK Gujral appeared and vanished like mediocre meteors because none of them was a unifier.

Vajpayee became the prime minister thrice because he was truly a national leader. Yet, he lost in 2004 because of his party's arrogance and desertions of political allies. He wasn't replaced by another popular leader but by the economist Manmohan Singh, the first Sikh PM who ruled the country for ten years. Singh floundered and Modi acquired centre stage. The Congress and its allies were checkmated. It wasn't Modi's backward caste label that created electoral records but his mojo as a leader with a singular vision and mission. He has nearly demolished caste connectivity in India barring a couple of southern states.

From the Centre to the states, it is a leader's style and substance that determines political fortunes, not his party's political panorama. Castes sustain entitlements. Swami Vivekananda once said: "Caste system had grown by the practice of the son always following the business of the father." Unless the sons and daughters who inherit their father's business acquire an inclusive identity, they will go out of business sooner in NaMo's new version of Atmanirbhar Bharat.

(The writer can be mailed at prabhuchawla@newindianexpress.com)



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