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Challenges before the Congress

4 20

By Ajaz Ashraf

The decision of the BahujanSamaj Party (BSP) and the Samajwadi Party (SP) to exclude the Congress from their alliance in Uttar Pradesh has had political pundits spin a what-if narrative. In the main, this narrative says the BSP-SP could be deprived of its punch if the Congress were to repeat its astonishing performance of the 2009 Lok Sabha elections in Uttar Pradesh in 2019.


In 2009, the Congress won 21 seats, SP 23, BSP 20, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) 10 and the RashtriyaLok Dal (RLD) five. But India’s grand old party is unlikely to repeat this performance as Uttar Pradesh’s extant social reality is very different today from what it was in 2009, which the what-if narrative does not take into account.

In 2009, the political parties destabilised the social plates of Uttar Pradesh through certain decisions they took before the nation voted. Among them was the admission of BJP leader Kalyan Singh into the SP. At the same time, the state’s then foremost Kurmi leader, Beni Prasad Verma, left the SP to join the Congress. The third was in 2007 when BSP leader Mayawati took to social engineering, pulled in a significant number of upper caste, particularly Brahmin, votes and went on to win the Uttar Pradesh elections that year.

It was assumed that Mayawati’s social engineering would yield her rich dividends in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections as well. The Left, after withdrawing support from the Manmohan Singh government, had floated a Third Front. It was thought Mayawati would take half of Uttar Pradesh’s 80 seats to become the Front’s prime ministerial nominee.

In anticipation of the announcement, Mayawati hosted a dinner for Third Front leaders in March 2009. Yet, contrary to expectations, the Front leaders desisted from going public with her nomination, fearing the media would malign her as corrupt. It had social scientist KanchaIlaiah to write acerbically, “The question is not how the middle-class, upper-caste moralists see Mayawati. The question is how the Dalits of the whole nation see her. The Dalits of the whole nation see her as their political representative… who inherits the historical legacy of Ambedkar and Kanshi Ram.”

Even though Mayawati never explicitly expressed her desire to become prime minister, she also, quite justifiably, did not dispel the speculations regarding her ambition. It provoked the upper castes into throwing the social engineering project she had crafted in disarray, thereby triggering a social churn that the factors of Kalyan Singh and Beni Prasad Verma further intensified.

The Congress gained from it because the UPA government had notched a few successes — for instance, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme, the nuclear deal and a robust economy. Ultimately, the popular satisfaction with the UPA determined how Uttar Pradesh’s churn was to settle.

To begin with, Muslims were angry at SP leader Mulayam Singh Yadav’s decision to induct Kalyan Singh into the party. This was because he was the chief minister when the Babri Masjid was pulled down on 6 December, 1992. Mulayam presumed Muslims would not desert him as he had staked his political future to protect the Babri Masjid during his chief ministerial tenure between 1989 and 1991.

Mulayam’s calculation was that Singh would compensate for the anticipated loss of Kurmi votes, because of Verma ditching the SP to join the Congress, by pulling in the votes of LodhRajputs, an Other Backward Class (OBC) community. But Muslims interpreted the induction of Singh as an indicator of Mulayam changing colours.

Mulayam felt confident of taking the risk because of a peculiar voting pattern of Muslims — they vote for a non-BJP party that has the support of a dominant caste group in a region. This is because they need the dominant caste to provide them protection. In 2009, the SP possessed, on paper at least, a powerful phalanx of OBC communities, particularly the Yadavs.

Unfortunately for Mulayam, Muslims suddenly had another option because Brahmins, accustomed to their hegemony, were stung by Mayawati’s Delhi ambitions. They had voted for her in 2007 because they felt she was their best bet to neutralise the challenge to the upper caste hegemony in Uttar Pradesh from the OBCs.

Mayawati, in turn, promoted the interests of upper castes during her chief ministership. An instance of it was pointed out by political scientist AK Verma in a paper, Why did Mayawati Lose (in the 2012 Assembly elections)? “The Balmiki community – many of whom are engaged in jobs such as scavenging and sanitation – felt betrayed by the government’s policies, such as those related to government recruitment policies for such jobs, of which 25 percent were provided to Brahmins and other upper castes.” The irony, as Verma noted, was that the upper castes outsourced their work to Balmikis, paying them miserly sums.

For Brahmins, it was one thing to vote for Mayawati in the state, quite another to support her prime ministerial dreams. In 2009, Brahmins cited her caste background to express their shock at what they thought was her audacity to angle for the country’s top post. It amounted to turning the caste hierarchy on its head, so to speak. They were eager to checkmate her.

Brahmins, educated and politically aware than most social groups, also sensed that the BJP, their first party of choice, was nowhere in the 2009 race to win the Lok Sabha elections. Not inclined to voting for an OBC party, their challenger, a large number of Brahmins switched to supporting the Congress wherever it fielded strong candidates. Along with Brahmins, other upper caste groups tagged along too.

Strong Congress candidates there were a plenty, a good number of them dynasts, former royalties and stars. Look at the list — Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi, Sanjay Singh, MohdAzharuddin, Zafar Ali Naqvi, KunwarJitin Prasad, RajkumariRatna Singh, Salman Khursheed, RPN Singh, Beni Prasad Yadav, Jagdambika Pal, PL Punia and Nirmal Khatri, the grandson of Acharya Narendra Dev.

In the worst of times, the Congress always gets a slice of upper caste votes. But what gave the Congress the decisive edge was that its share in the upper caste votes increased substantially because of the Mayawati factor. It encouraged Muslims to also support the Congress, which was further bolstered because of the Kurmis flocking to it.

This is borne out by the National Election Study of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. In 2009, the Congress won 31 percent of all votes of Brahmins (+12 percentage points over what it got from the community in the 2007 Assembly elections), 16 percent of Rajputs (+7 percentage), 25 percent of other upper castes (+14 percentage), Kurmis 28 percent (+20 percentage), non-Jatav Dalits 26 percent (+11 percentage) and Muslims 25 percent (+11 percentage).

The picture in 2019 is very different from what it was in 2009. On the one hand, the growing restlessness among Brahmins in Uttar Pradesh at the growing clout of Rajputs under chief minister Yogi Adityanath has subsided because of the 10 percent reservations for the upper castes.

On the other hand, since the SP-BSP-RLD alliance will lead to an OBC-Dalit consolidation, the upper castes can hope to preserve their tenuous hegemony only through the BJP, more capable than the Congress today to bag a greater percentage of cross-community votes. Such a scenario means the Congress will net a small percentage of Muslim votes, because the community does not back a party without a dominant Hindu caste also backing it. They will therefore swing behind the SP-BSP-RLD.

This is why the Congress, as of now, is unlikely to repeat its 2009 performance in 2019, regardless of what political pundits say.