Caste Revolution in India’s Uttar Pradesh

By Rajan Philips

The victory of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in the recent Uttar Pradesh (UP) State Assembly elections is a huge political step forward in the slow transformation of the Indian caste society. BSP leader Mayawati Kumari has been sworn in as the new Chief Minister of a single-party government, the first in Uttar Pradesh since 1991. Mayawati, a Dalit Hindu belonging to the Chamar caste, has been Chief Minister thrice before but always in coalition governments and in alliance with the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

‘Dalit’ (meaning crushed or oppressed) is the term of self-respect for about 170 million or 17% of Indians belonging to what were once called the untouchable castes, or, more patronizingly, Harijans. Mayawati has led the Dalits of Uttar Pradesh to their greatest political victory, something earlier Dalit leaders like the great Bhim Rao Ambedkar who chaired the Constitutional Drafting Committee after independence, Jag-jivan Ram a Congress stalwart of the Nehru – Indira Gandhi eras, or Mayawati’s own mentor Kanshi Ram could hardly have imagined. “It was subaltern power on spectacular display across Uttar Pradesh,” as The Hindu said in its editorial.

[Statue of Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar – Photo Blue Rasberry]

As India’s watershed elections go, the 2007 UP election compares with the most remarkable of them: the 1957 victory of the Indian Communist Party in the State of Kerala; DMK’s victory in the Madras (now Tamil Nadu) State election of 1967; the stunning defeat of Indira Gandhi in 1977 after two years of her infamous emergency rule; and the spectacular defeat of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of ‘India Shining’ notoriety in the 2004 national election. These elections are important milestones in the continuing evolution of the world’s most populous and socially complex democracy.

The 1957 and 1967 elections marked the beginning of the disintegration of India’s grand old party, the Indian National Congress – losing first to a class-based national party in Kerala; and then to a sub-nationalist regional party in Tamil Nadu. Indira Gandhi’s defeat in 1977 triggered the final phase of that disintegration, even though Mrs. Gandhi would make one more comeback in 1981, for her last term in office before her tragic assassination in 1984. The convincing defeat of the BJP in 2004, notwithstanding the exaggerated self-beliefs of its leaders and the Hindutva ideologues, restored India’s political faith with secularism.

The 2004 election also revived the Congress Party’s fortunes, returning it to power after a decade in opposition. The Congress could not do it alone, however, but only as the head of a coalition – the United Progressive Alliance (UPA). The immediate expectation was that the Congress would soon re-establish its bases and return to power in its own right. Nothing could have been more far off the mark. The Congress has suffered defeat after defeat in State Assembly and Municipal elections since 2004, the latest loss in UP being one of its worst losses. The BJP’s defeat in UP has been equally substantial, and as the defeated Chief Minister, Mulayam Singh Yadav, stated after the election, the political contest in UP is now between Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party and his own Samajwadi Party. The Congress and the BJP have been marginalized in Uttar Pradesh.

[Mayawati Kumari – PTI Photo]

As India’s largest state with 175 million people and electing 80 MPs to the Lok Sabha in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh holds an important key to political dominance in India. Losing their bases so dramatically in UP, will have far reaching implications for both the Congress and the BJP at the national level. In the short term, the UP results coming on a string of earlier electoral setbacks are a blow to the economic liberalization agenda of the Indian government.

Dalit power through new social coalitions

Mayawati’s victory is the result of a new social coalition that she has forged under the umbrella of the Bahujan Samaj Party. From what had primarily been a Dalit Party, Mayawati has broadened the Bahujan Party to be more inclusive and co-opted high-caste Brahmins and Muslim candidates to its slate. The broad-basing of the Party worked well in the election and accounted for the Party’s strong showing in every part of the State and among all communities.

Mayawati’s new social coalition has turned the old coalition blocs of the Congress on their heads. The Congress worked top-down with its urban bourgeois, landlord and professional upper-caste leaders forging coalition blocs among the middle, lower and lowest sections of the Hindu society, and co-opting the Muslim and other minority communities. The new Dalit-led coalition is a bottoms-up process in which the lowly placed Dalits have mobilized the upper castes into a winning united front.

More importantly, the UP voters cutting across caste and communal boundaries chose to elect the Bahujan Party despite the criticisms that the party lacks any tradition in governance and administration and is dominated by candidates with no experience in either. As it turned out, the people were attracted by the lack of these credentials and were turned off by the major parties who are known as much for their corruption as for their credentials.

The heavy defeat of the BJP underscores the encouraging decline of its religious appeal in electoral politics. Both the Congress and the BJP targeted the media more than the masses to enhance their electoral appeal, and the results show yet another divide in Indian society – between the glittering media and the alienated masses. The amateurish forays of Rahul Gandhi during the election campaign received lavish media footage but failed to boost the fortunes of the Congress Party in what was once its most secure backyard. If at all, the young Gandhi’s antics backfired.

Uneven development and caste competition

The dual defeats of the Congress and the BJP have again highlighted the current contradiction in Indian society – between the spectacularly wealthy Indians, some of whom are emerging as major players in the global economy, and the vast majority of India’s poor whose deprivation of life’s most basic needs has no place in the globalization agenda. Put another way, the question is whether the Dalit victory in UP could sufficiently change at least India’s internal agenda to give priority to the needs of the majority of the country’s marginalized people.

The answer to this question rests on several levels of reality and interpretation. The most tired wisdom is whether or not the new BSP Government will live up to its promise of providing good governance free of corruption and cronyism. The early signs are not encouraging, however, as Mayawati has reportedly started her new administration using old style politics – transferring large numbers of police and civic officials, and bringing in political staff into quasi-administrative positions. Mayawati has been accused in the past of allowing corruption, amassing wealth, harassing political opponents, bandying the family and bashing birthday celebrations. If the new government were to continue in the old ways, the Dalit victory may not go beyond being a one-term Mayawati government.

The challenge here is not only for Mayawati, or other Dalit and backward caste leaders, to become well equipped in matters of governance and to avoid moral pitfalls as well as nepotism and corruption in public office. A broader challenge confronts the organization of Indian society and politics itself which continues to limit the lower strata of society from gaining education and experience in governance and from entering the higher echelons in the economic sphere. Equally, changing the lopsided nature of development and giving priority to the basic needs of the majority of the people are as important, if not more, as the need for the emerging Dalit and other backward community leaders to learn the art and skills of good governance.

It is no accident that even as there is an ‘India Shining’ before the eyes of the world, there is another ‘India Stinking’ in the bowels of the subcontinent – to use the title of Gita Ramaswamy’s book on the so called polluted castes born and socialized to perform scavenging work for the real polluters. Several months ago, the Frontline magazine ran a graphic and depressingly truthful feature on the practice of manual scavenging which, as the journal noted, is “rooted in caste as surely as caste is rooted in the nation’s psyche.”

In the booming IT sector that provides access to and training in computers to children from the more fortunate homes, the children of the depressed castes are allowed in only for sweeping and cleaning up the ivory towers and perhaps touch and look at the personal machines. Overall, the lopsided nature of development has created much wealth for a minority (that nonetheless counts several millions) in certain sectors of the economy, but has brought little benefit to the vast village sector where hundreds of millions are constrained to compete individually and as caste groups for limited opportunities.

The 2004 defeat of the BJP government was also a verdict against BJP’s celebration of urban-focused and IT-based lopsided development. Although the current Congress-led UPA government committed itself in its Common Minimum Programme to correct this imbalance and give priority to the needs of the rural sector, the government’s performance has so far been more focused on the globalization agenda than on the nation’s internal priorities. Government policies continue to be tailored to please the actors in the global economy regardless of the consequences for India’s villages and its farmers and farm workers.

A rather notorious example is the policy to rapidly create over a hundred of Special Economic Zones forcing people out of their land and livelihood (China which is used as the model has fewer than 20 SEZ). Even the Communist Government of West Bengal wants to join in the loot. But the debate is not over and some prominent people, Finance Minister P. Chidamabram and Sonia Gandhi among them, have come out against the Special Economic Zones proposal, albeit for different reasons. The election results in Uttar Pradesh are likely to strengthen the opposition to establishing Special Economic Zones regardless of their impacts on the surrounding populations.

Changing contours of caste politics

There is a curious correspondence between the rise of caste politics since the 1980s and the liberalization of the Indian economy in the same period. The same V.P. Singh, the high-principled but error-prone former Prime Minister, had a hand in both. As Rajiv Gandhi’s Finance Minister (1984-1988), V.P. Singh began the unwinding of India’s state-led economy to become a free market economy, and not long after as Prime Minister in 1990 he lit a fuse under India’s body politic by abruptly announcing the implementation of the 1980 Mandal Commission’s recommendation to reserve 27% of all government jobs and university admissions to the constitutionally recognized ‘Other Backward Classes’.

V.P. Singh’s announcement resurrected the Mandal Commission Report that had been left on the shelves for ten years and created a maelstrom of controversy and violent protests particularly against the reservation of university admissions. Like the Kaka Kalelkar Commission of 1953, the Mandal Commission was created in 1979 to identify and enumerate the Other Backward Classes (OBC) and recommend measures for their advancement. Two groups within the Backward Classes are recognized in the Indian Constitution and are allocated reservations for seats in the legislatures and in public service according to their populations. They are the Scheduled Castes (Dalits) and Scheduled Tribes (Adivasis) constituting about 17% and 6% respectively of India’s population. The Mandal Commission enumerated the rest of the Backward Classes – Other Backward Classes based involving both Hindus (with some 3743 castes) and non-Hindus – as constituting 52% of the population and recommended 27% reservations for them.

In other words, 74% of India’s people are considered backward and entitled to no more than 50% reservations in keeping with the Supreme Court ruling that the total reservations based on affirmative action, or positive discrimination, should not exceed 50%. The practice of reserving places for backward classes goes back to the colonial period particularly in the South Indian States and in the then Bombay Presidency, but not so in the North Indian jurisdictions where reservations began only in the 1950s. Caste coalitions in these States have evolved over time under progressive and secular non-Congress leaderships. Kerala and Tamil Nadu are notable examples. In the Northern States in contrast, particularly in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, caste politics following V.P. Singh’s announcement on reservations emerged as an acute and violent phenomenon.

On the one hand, the upper caste groups excluded from reservation were enraged both by the estimate that the OBC made up 52% of the country’s population (the critics argued the proportion was around 36%) and more especially by the recommendation to reserve 27% of university admissions for the OBC. On the other hand, the controversy galvanized the OBC and Dalits leading to the formation of caste-based parties and vote mobilization in both Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (founded in 1984) and the Samajawadi Party (founded in 1996) were direct beneficiaries in Uttar Pradesh. Additionally, the emergence of caste politics coincided with the rise of religious fundamentalism leading to anti-Congress and anti-secular coalitions between caste parties and the Bhartiya Janata Party, as well as coalitions involving the dominant Yadav caste group and Muslims pitted against other backward castes and Dalits. Mayawati Kumari’s victory in Uttar Pradesh might be the beginning of a new phase of equilibrium in Northern caste politics.

The political advancement of the backward castes at the State level was supplemented by the empowerment of the Indian local government system of Panchayats as Constitutional entities by the 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Indian Constitution in 1993. The Amendments provided for the representation of women (33%) as well as Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes at the Panchayats and for reserving the post of Panchayat President for a member of these groups in specific circumstances.

Politics at the Panchayat level offers a sharper reflection of caste contradictions on the ground than at the senior levels of government, for it could be easier for a Dalit to become the Chief Minister of a State than for another Dalit to be accepted as the President of a Panchayat. The Dalit empowerment at the local level invariably faces bitter opposition from the dominant castes. The dominant caste is the particular caste group in a village or a district that on account of its numerical superiority and access to land resources ownership exercise power over other castes, particularly Dalits.

Many dominant castes fall under the category of Other Backward Classes and therefore benefit from affirmative reservations, on the one hand, and oppress the smaller and weaker castes on the other. The operation of the dominant castes not only at the local level but also at the state level and the fierce competition even between backward castes for limited opportunities underscore the structural challenges to transforming India’s unequal caste society to an egalitarian social order.

The Indian Constitution is unique in setting goals and policy directives to bring about this transformation but without a corresponding economic program the achievements on the political and legislative fronts will not translate into real change in the lives of the marginalized people. Equally, in the context of uneven and lopsided economic development, affirmative actions and reservation programs will lead to a consolidation of caste identity politics rather than a weakening of the caste system.

While initiating economic liberalization and announcing caste reservations, V.P. Singh ignored the more structurally significant recommendations of the Mandal Commission, namely, surplus land allotments, financial and technical assistance for small industries in vocational communities, separate financial institutions to address their specific needs, vocational training and upgrading skills, and literacy and special educational programs. Singh’s successors have equally ignored these priorities while pandering to caste politics.

It is not a question of mere neglect but one of contradiction between the priorities of the bottom three quarters of the Indian people and the globalization priorities that mostly benefit the top quarter of them. And the latter are a sizable population, as big as the United States, and few Indian political leaders will dare challenge their interests. More victories like that of Mayawati Kumari are necessary to force a ‘priority shift’ in Indian politics.

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