Further expansion of the BSP's influence in the other northern States will depend crucially on its performance in office.
THE stunning victory of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in Uttar Pradesh, the country's most populous and decisive State, is undoubtedly an extraordinary event in the history of Indian democracy. U.P. is not just any other State.With 80 Members of Parliament and 403 Members of the Legislative Assembly, it accounts for 16 per cent of the country's population and has a significant say in the formation of the government at the Centre. Polling over 30 per cent of the vote, the BSP won a clear majority by projecting itself as the only viable alternative to the Mulayam Singh-led Samajwadi Party's (S.P.) misrule and by turning caste politics on its head to create a new social alliance, of the underprivileged, of historic s ignificance. By focussing on law and order and the need for a law-governed polity, Mayawati succeeded in blending the need for law with the yearning for social justice within this framework. This is the first time a Dalit leader has won an absolute majority in any State. The last time a party got a majority of its own in U.P. was in 1991 when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won 221 out of the 425 seats the State had before Uttranchal (now Uttarkhand) was carved out of it. The BJP victory was built on a highly divisive and communal campaign against the backdrop of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement.
The past two decades have witnessed profound social and political changes in U.P. Two major kinds of mass mobilisation, epitomised by backward caste politics and cultural nationalism, managed to displace the Congress coalition from its position of dominance. The S.P. and the BSP, representing the marginalised sections of society, emerged as the principal power blocs to replace "upper caste" domination. Both in their own ways spoke for the underclasses and their aspirations; their simultaneous rise to prominence acquired the dimensions of a silent social revolution. Taking advantage of the first-past-the-post-system or the winner-takes-all phenomenon, both parties increased their support base, which catapulted them to the control of the government. Between 1993 and 1997, the BSP leveraged itself into a governing position three times in spite of its limited base: as a coalition partner with the S.P.; as a minority government supported from outside by the BJP in 1995; and as a coalition government with the BJP in 1995. In these three stints, Mayawati pursued an aggressive Dalit agenda. If the 1990s saw political power shift from the upper castes to backward castes, today the balance of power has shifted even more dramatically, with Dalits posing a formidable challenge to backward caste power.
But, ironically, Dalit hegemony can be achieved only if the Dalit-led party can reach out to non-Dalits as the numerical support of Dalits is simply not sufficient to win a political majority. Critical to the BSP's electoral success this time is the substantial increase in the proportion of non-Dalit votes, which, according to the Indian Express-CNN-IBN-CSDS post-poll survey data, went up from two-fifths to nearly half of the BSP's votes. This major increase in vote share has come about through the reinvention of the party as a multi-caste coalition. For the last several years, the BSP has worked to expand its social base with the help of the slogan of "sarva samaj", or a society that includes all sections. And this was topped up by a series of astute alliances that helped the party to magnify its support base and engender a swing of nearly 7.4 per cent in its favour.
Since the dissolution of the Congress-led social coalition in the late 1980s, this is the first such attempt to unify a multiplicity of groups in the political arena. However, this coalition is quite different from the Congress's rainbow coalition in the years immediately after Independence, which was under upper caste leadership while the leadership of the BSP's coalition is with Dalits.
The bulk of the BSP's support has come not from the high-profile upper castes but from the lower Other Backward Classes (OBCs); in addition, it has got 17 per cent votes from Muslims. The class factor is an important feature of its social base - the poor of all communities have tended to tilt towards the capacious elephant symbol. Even though the BSP may have rebuilt the Congress-style rainbow coalition and has clearly succeeded in garnering the support of non-Dalit voters, the BSP's victory does not signal a fundamental break with the politics of identity. Voting patterns do not indicate that people have risen above caste identities given that both the BSP and S.P. make appeals principally on the basis of caste identity, albeit as an instrument of political inclusion. The BSP's core support remains caste-based and draws largely from Dalits - its vote share among them (70 per cent) is one of the highest recorded for any large social group in any State. The CSDS (Centre for the Study of Developing Societies) data shows that both the S.P. and the BSP have held on to their core caste support, that is, Yadavs and Dalits respectively, which suggests that the two parties continue to be the automatic choice of most Yadavs and Dalits in the State. Moreover, the S.P.'s vote share has remained the same. Not surprisingly, the champions of identity politics, the S.P. and the BSP, were able to retain or add to their vote share, while the Congress, which subscribes to a please-all approach and talks of inclusion, failed to make any headway.
Although the share of Dalits in the total population of the State is quite high in Tamil Nadu and Punjab, in fact higher than in U.P., and the upper castes are much more salient in the population and vastly more significant in U.P. than in any other State, it is only in this State that Dalit numbers have been translated into autonomous political power.
The focus of attention so far has been on the process and strategy of mass mobilisation, especially when the party has been in power, and not on the tangible benefits for the poor and oppressed that provide the bulk of support for these parties. Although the relationship between social power and the interests a ruling party pursues is complex, the critical issue today is the role and consequence of policies of economic and social development, which provide greater space and autonomy to Dalits, for enhancing human capabilities and well-being.
Much of the justification for autonomous political power for Dalits, for instance, revolves around the need for marginalised groups to have a voice and presence within the government, which will otherwise get submerged. Thus far, there is little evidence to indicate a significant improvement in the social indicators of human development of these groups. There has been some improvement in the well-being of all social groups, but the rate of progress has been inadequate over the period of mass mobilisation and during the period that lower caste parties have been in power. Dalits continue to be the most deprived of the social groups; they have the lowest level of consumption and the highest level of poverty and remain at the bottom of the occupational ladder, with the lowest share in salaried jobs and the highest share in casual labour.
Past records of lower caste parties in government indicate that the acquisition of power was rarely translated into tangible redistributive policies or programmes that addressed the vital concerns of the disadvantaged. Despite movements to mobilise Dalits and backward classes for the last two decades, there is no major increase in public investment in infrastructure, health and education.
During the period that the BSP has been in power, it has not put forward a transformative agenda for U.P.'s development, except the Ambedkar Village Programme and a small number of social welfare schemes that were not large or substantial enough to make a genuine difference. It did not initiate any major programmes or any real strategy to alleviate the poverty of Dalits despite the fact that they continue to suffer from the worst social indicators of well-being. The main emphasis was on reservation, which is legitimate given that Dalits continue to be grossly under-represented in government services, except at the lowest level.
At the same time, there is evidence to indicate that disparities between groups and within groups may have increased in these years. Despite some improvement in socio-economic conditions, Dalits are more disproportionately represented among the deprived than was the case earlier. Arguably, the disparities in well-being have to be located in the differences in approach and in the programmatic weaknesses of the mass mobilisation in U.P., which has focussed essentially on capturing power and making symbolic gains. Mass mobilisation has not given lower castes the leverage and political advantage that they have gained in southern India, for instance.
In Tamil Nadu, mass mobilisation was broad-based enough to create a space for social policies for the well-being of the deprived and the excluded as a whole. Moreover, there have been specific interventions for improving the health and the nutritional and educational levels of the poor, including poor Dalits and the OBCs. Direct interventions by the State government in these areas have yielded positive results. Though the Dravidian parties made no serious effort at structural reform, they advocated a set of social welfare policies, which, combined with the almost 70 per cent reservations for the lower castes in education and government, satisfied popular aspirations. Social welfare programmes ranged from massive urban housing development for the lower middle classes to rural programmes for building village roads, constructing school buildings, providing drinking water, installing one electric light connection in every hut, and the free midday meal scheme, all of which has given substance to the policy of redistribution. There is no evidence that U.P. governments have been proactive in any of these areas of public concern.
On the other hand, the fierce competition for the vote in U.P. under conditions of acute deprivation and underdevelopment has generated a politics that is averse to structuring and regulating power to serve social ends or to sustain a larger sense of purpose. As a consequence, disadvantaged groups and their parties, much like the dominant groups before them, tend to look upon political power as basically a vehicle for serving sectional claims. The tendency is to make use of mass mobilisation as a means of achieving power and not as an instrument for transformation and social improvement. Further, the emergence of broader social solidarities is impeded by the absence of non-electoral social mobilisation and public action. There is very little ground-level mobilisation outside the party system, which could push the government and political leaders to adopt more responsive strategies towards their constituents, and very few initiatives for policy reform such as the struggle for the Right to Information in Rajasthan or the Right to Education campaign in Madhya Pradesh. Such a public discourse is virtually absent in U.P. And when it exists, it is frequently used to serve particular interests.
The electoral victory of the BSP is U.P.-specific but its consequences are unlikely to be limited to the State. Even though the creation of a larger social alliance under Dalit leadership may not be replicable in other States, the BSP holds considerable appeal for the disadvantaged, disenchanted voters in neighbouring States, especially in Delhi, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. But further expansion of its influence will depend crucially on the performance of the BSP in office in U.P., especially because it has an absolute majority and because Mayawati runs a tightly knit party with complete control over the organisation. The challenge for the BSP will be to signal through its politics and policies that it can break with the past not just in terms of constructing a multi-caste coalition of voters and their representatives but also in building a truly inclusive society on the basis of equal opportunities.
The challenge will be to come up with social policies to create opportunities for economic growth but to do so in manner that is just and addresses the multiple disadvantages that mark contemporary U.P. Unless the BSP articulates a radical programme of redistribution, as opposed to a patronage-driven one, which addresses the primary contradictions of U.P. society, it will be difficult for Mayawati to sustain the inclusive coalition she has built. The revival of the State's economy and the raising of basic standards of human and social development will be its benchmark of survival. It can only do so through public policies, programmes and political action that give meaning to social dignity and a better material life for all the deprived groups that Mayawati now represents.
Zoya Hasan is Professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University and currently Member of the National Commission for Minorities.