UP elections: Why the rhetoric of caste vs development rings hollow
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Addressing a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) election rally in Lucknow on 2 January, Prime Minister Narendra Modi appealed to the people of Uttar Pradesh (UP) to vote for development. “It has not been vanvas (exile) of BJP but vanvas of development in UP”, he said. Modi was taking a dig at the other main contenders in state, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Samajwadi Party (SP), both of which are seen as caste-based outfits, and which have between them ruled the state since 2002. So, what will work in UP this time: caste or development?
A Mint analysis shows that the narrative of caste versus development is a deeply flawed one. There are three key reasons why elections in UP cannot be reduced to the clichéd binary of caste versus development.
First, the BJP, which pretends to be above caste, and its regional opponents in UP, are both dependent on caste-based support, with the BJP relying heavily on upper caste groups. Second, while voters say economic issues such as price rise and unemployment are key concerns during the elections, when it comes to voting preferences, there is still a clear caste bias. Third, while all parties depend on their respective caste vote-banks for electoral support, completely different considerations take over while fielding candidates. In fielding candidates, moneybags and moneyed caste groups dominate. Data from a number of surveys in UP, including the latest pre-election tracker survey conducted by Lokniti, Centre for Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) help us arrive at these conclusions.
The latest CSDS pre-poll survey for UP held in December 2016 shows that voters rate economic issues such as unemployment and price rise as being the most important electoral issues in the state. In fact, caste does not even figure in the list of important elections issues according to the survey.
A completely different picture emerges when one looks at the data on actual party preferences from the same survey. The electorate seems to be sharply polarized along the fault line of caste: almost three fourth of Jatavs (who form the core support base of the BSP) are expected to vote for the BSP and a similar proportion of Yadavs (who form the core support base of the SP) are expected to vote for the SP.
More than half of upper-caste Hindus are expected to vote for the BJP. Even in the 2014 elections, when the BJP swept the state, socio-religious group wise support was in keeping with the expected pattern, with majority of Jatavs, upper castes and Yadavs voting for BSP, BJP and SP respectively. A comparison of 2014 post-poll vote share figures with 2017 pre-poll estimates shows that while the SP and BSP have consolidated their social base, BJP has suffered some erosion among its upper caste supporters.
If the current scenario were to hold, the CSDS survey shows that the SP (30%) is likely to corner the highest vote share in the state, followed by BJP (27%) and BSP (22%). To be sure, 27% of those surveyed were non-committal on whether they would vote for the same party on polling day, and might swing outcomes in constituencies with tight races. It must be kept in mind that the ongoing feud in the SP might also change poll outcomes in a significant way.
Given the entrenched caste-based support for the three major political parties in UP, one would have expected that Yadavs and Jatavs would have a dominant share of MLAs in the state assembly. A look at socio-religious group wise share of MLAs in 2002, 2007 and 2012 UP assembly shows that this is not true. Despite the fact that majority of upper castes do not vote for either the BSP or SP, which were in power during this period, Hindu upper-castes have had the highest share in MLAs in the state assembly since 2002. Even a party-wise break up by socio-religious group shows that upper caste MLAs constituted around one-fourth of SP and BSP MLAs elected in 2002, 2007 and 2012. In contrast, the proportion of Jatav legislators did not exceed 20% for the BSP, and the proportion of Yadav legislators did not exceed 20% for the SP.
Even among Muslims, Muslim upper-castes have a disproportionate share of elected legislators, a recent paper by Prashant K. Trivedi of the Giri Institute of Development Studies, Lucknow and his co-authors, published in the Economic and Political Weekly (EPW), shows.
The changes in landownership pattern, educational mobility, and occupational diversification among socio-religious groups in Uttar Pradesh provide crucial insights.
Rough estimates of caste-wise share in population based on CSDS surveys show that Hindu upper castes account for 16% of the state’s population; with Brahmins and Thakurs accounting for 8% and 5%, respectively. Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and Scheduled Castes (SCs) have a share of 38% and 20% respectively. Yadavs and Jatavs, the main support base of SP and BSP account for 11% and 12% of the state’s population. Muslims account for around 19% of the state’s population.
A comparison of these figures with caste-wise share in MLAs shows that Thakurs have had the highest relative share of MLAs in UP since 2000. Among the major support base of SP and BSP, Yadavs seem to have done better as their relative share is better than other OBCs, while Jatavs have a lower relative share among MLAs in comparison to other SCs. Muslims were closest to getting parity in their share in MLAs and population in the 2012 assembly.
What explains this disparity between socio-religious group wise voting pattern and share in political representation? The answer seems to lie in economics. Richer caste groups enjoy a disproportionate share of political representation in the state, as Trivedi and his co-authors point out in the paper cited above. The paper draws on a survey of 7,195 households across 14 districts of UP.
If one reads the above charts together, one will find that Thakurs are the second most affluent caste in UP and they also have the highest relative share in MLAs in the assembly. The relatively affluent Hindu upper-castes also enjoy a relatively high share of representation in the UP assembly. The apparent mismatch for Jats (i.e., their relatively low political representation despite affluence) can be explained by the fact that they are confined to a limited part of the state.
The data clearly exposes the hollowness of the caste versus development narrative in UP. The BJP claims it is against identity politics, but its main support base is among upper caste Hindus and it has never had even one Muslim MLA in UP since 2002. The BSP and SP, despite claiming to represent the socially backward population, provide disproportionate representation to upper castes to gain from their wealth and social standing.
The data seems to suggest that all parties tend to use caste to build a loyal vote bank, and are prone to use moneybags and moneyed caste groups to win elections.