In the feverish electoral atmosphere of Uttar Pradesh, the term “game-changer” is quite freely employed to describe the most prosaic of political maneuvers. Yet, the dramatic exodus now underway from the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) is that rare phenomenon that can legitimately stake a claim to the term “game-changer.” How much the game has changed remains to be seen, though two things are clear. One, BJP can no longer be secure in its non-Yadav OBC vote bank; two, the exodus (more than any opposition speeches) has crystallized a powerful narrative against the BJP for this election.
Three ministers have quit the BJP camp in three days, along with almost a dozen legislators. In their resignation letters, all of them have repeated similar charges against the BJP dispensation, as if reading from a script. All of these renegades belong to the non-Yadav OBC castes of Uttar Pradesh and have painted their own government as an anti-Dalit and anti-Backward dispensation.
These non-Yadav OBC castes comprise roughly a third of the population of Uttar Pradesh. These can also be described as the Most Backward Castes (MBCs) if we take out certain dominant peasant castes such as Jats and Kurmis. On the back of their support, the BJP had swept three elections in Uttar Pradesh. Why is the BJP losing ground among them, seemingly for the first time in the Modi era?
One big reason is the Yogi Adityanath model of governance, which makes it difficult for the BJP to hold on to its bouquet of backward castes it had put together over the last decade. These castes were attracted to the BJP not just because of Hindutva, but also because of their promise of political representation. Yet the Yogi model of governance- characterized by an all-powerful Chief Minister, bureaucratic centralization, and autocratic repression- has been uniquely unsuited to the project of dispersing political representation. This model of governance has been borrowed from Modi’s Gujarat, but Uttar Pradesh, with a richer legacy of regional ethnic leaders and Mandal politics, is a more complicated political terrain.
It is true that the BJP has provided reasonable accommodation to backward caste leaders in the state in terms of making them legislators and Ministers. In fact, the BJP has given more tickets to non-Yadav OBCs than other parties, partly because it does not need to give any tickets to Muslims. Recently, both the Yogi and the Modi administrations have expanded their Cabinet to include more backward castes, even as upper castes largely continue to dominate the most high-profile portfolios. Yet this is only one form of political representation – descriptive representation, where groups are represented in the corridors of power by people resembling them.
Political representation can be said to have three dimensions – descriptive representation, symbolic representation, and substantive representation. If the BJP’s stool of backward caste representation is tottering, it is because it is only standing on one leg.
The Yogi regime has proven incapable of providing backward castes with symbolic representation, or the feeling that the people in power stand by them and respect them. Or even more simply, that it is “their government,” committed to supporting them. In Uttar Pradesh, communities feel that their self-esteem is tied to the respect given to, and the influence of, their ethnic leaders. This makes the complaint of the departed MBC leaders that the BJP, over the last five years, “neglected” leaders belonging to “Dalit and backward communities” particularly grating to those communities.
Symbolic representation is based on perception. And there is a perception that has taken hold in the state that under the BJP government, legislators and ministers do not matter. This is a natural corollary of the Yogi model of governance. When over a hundred BJP MLAs sat on dharna in the state assembly against their own government in 2019, it reflected their sense of powerlessness. The trigger for this strange protest was the denial of the opportunity to speak on the Assembly floor to Nand Kishore Gujjar, BJP MLA from Loni, over the issue of “fake” cases foisted on him by UP police. That the MLAs have been rendered subservient to the local administration, and can’t make the administration work in favour of their constituents, was plainly made visible during the coronavirus pandemic. Many MLAs who had then spoken out against the government inaction belonged to the Most Backward Castes.
The subservience of the elected representative to the administration can be particularly irksome to the backward communities as the local administration is heavily dominated by upper castes. For instance, out of the 75 districts of Uttar Pradesh, Thakurs are at the helm of 20 districts as DM, and of 18 districts as SP. This breeds the perception of Thakurvaad, or the rule of Thakurs.
Since communities measure their influence by the influence of their ethnic leaders, who are meant to speak and act on behalf of them, the marginalization of the legislators and ministers of these backward communities can make them feel that they are not ‘seen’ and ‘heard’ by the government. When their own BJP leaders are not seen to be standing with them, whether it be in Jat or Gujjar agitations, or when the police beat backward students agitating on the teacher recruitment issue, it can fuel feelings of alienation among these backward communities.
This lack of symbolic representation is often reflected in stories floating around the state. The story that Yogi Adityanath makes Keshav Prasad Maurya sit on a stool has gained currency because of the widespread perception that the Chief Minister has completely marginalized, if not humiliated, his Deputy Chief Minister. (The story is not true). The irrelevance of the MLAs can be gauged by the story that this writer heard on TV about the Raj Bhawan turning away the MLA who had come with the resignation of Swami Prasad Maurya because they didn’t recognize him.
Even a section of Brahmins, particularly in Eastern UP, feel that the government has ignored them. This might sound baffling, because Brahmins have eleven Ministers in the Yogi Cabinet, even more than Thakurs. However, again, symbolic representation is based only on perception. The cancellation of Parashuram Jayanti by the Yogi government, or government ruthlessness towards Brahmin bahubalis, has bolstered the perception that the government is partial to Thakurs in their tussle for supremacy with the Brahmins. If these jilted Brahmins still vote for the BJP, as is probable, it is only because the Yogi government gives them substantive representation, on which we shall turn now.
Substantive representation denotes that the policies of the government reflect the preferences and interests of social groups. The departed MBC leaders now allege that the BJP has “ignored” the concerns of “Dalits, backward communities, unemployed youth, small-and-medium businesspersons”. This allegation has gained traction because of the BJP’s failure to implement its promise of sub-categorization of reservation, the issue over which OP Rajbhar earlier left the government. Instead of sub-categorization, which means increasing the pool of Most Backward communities under the reservation umbrella, the central government has given quotas to upper castes under the EWS (Economically Weaker Section) rubric. The population control and cattle protection policies of the state BJP government also reflect more the preferences of the upper castes rather than of the backward communities.
The BJP hopes that this resentment can be quelled by its policies of Hindutva (on love jihad, Kashi corridor, Ram Temple) tough law and order, and social welfare. While these programmatic policies find favour with the backward castes, their aspirations for a fairer share of material resources have not been specifically addressed. Their caste leadership, which could have bargained for these policies, has been sidelined, and consequently, they feel they have little substantive representation.
When social groups are provided merely with descriptive representation, they clearly recognize it for the tokenism that it is, and can turn towards re-evaluating their political options.
It might be remembered here that the BSP rose in Uttar Pradesh not because the Congress did not have Dalit legislators and Ministers, but because those elected representatives were seen as light-weight rubber stamps or “chamchas” (in Kanshi Ram’s memorable term). The Congress gave the Dalits descriptive representation, but neither symbolic nor substantive representation, as the government was seen to belong to, and work for the interests of, only upper castes. This eventually broke the Congress’ Dalit vote bank, which had stayed loyal to the party for nearly four decades, as Dalits shifted to the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) for meaningful political representation. The more aware and aspirational backward castes might not stay loyal to the BJP for that long.
It is true that the exodus of backward leaders does not indicate the mass desertion of their constituents from the BJP umbrella. Even now, the BJP would likely hold on to the bulk of its non-Yadav OBC vote. But these departures are indicative of a substantial churning in the social base of these leaders, which have generated upward pressure on these leaders to leave the BJP. With the consolidation of Yadavs and Muslims behind it, the Samajwadi Party does not need a majority of non-Yadav OBCs to upend the BJP rule. Even if it manages to get say 15% of the roughly 35% non-Yadav OBC vote, it would be enough to turn the election in its favour. The rebels of the BJP, the casualties of the Yogi model of governance, have provided the SP with just the perfect narrative to effect such a shift.
Asim Ali is a political researcher and columnist based in Delhi. The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author.