Caste calculations

Published : Dec 30, 2005 00:00 IST

With Uma Bharati giving enough hints that she will play the caste card, politics in Madhya Pradesh is in for a churn and the worst sufferer may be the BJP.


IT was only two years ago that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) routed the Congress to end the 10-year-old rule of Chief Minister Digvijay Singh in Madhya Pradesh. The party won a two-thirds majority and an overwhelming 42.5 per cent of the votes polled by riding the "bijli, sadak and paani" wave, thus making bread and butter issues and not Hindutva its main campaign plank for the first time. The task of proving that the BJP cared for much more than Ram and Hindutva was assigned to Uma Bharati, the saffron-clad sanyasin with mass appeal and oratorical flourish. She led the BJP to a victory that took even her party colleagues by surprise.

Uma Bharati's persona added to the magnetic pull of "bijli, sadak and paani", along with issues such as unemployment, poverty and hunger. There was a rare sincerity in her message and appeal, which people believed. She reduced the Congress to just 38 members in the 230-member House, its vote share a mere 31 per cent; it seemed as though the party would be gone from the State's political horizon for a long time. That, however, may not be the case now. Not because of the Congress has redeemed itself, but because the BJP has frittered away its mandate.

Three Chief Ministers in two years, and dissent, rebellion and even brawls within the party have dominated the BJP's rule so far. On November 28, when Shivraj Singh Chauhan was to be named the third Chief Minister, party workers clashed and threw chairs and tables at each other in public, and chaos reigned. To top it all, Uma Bharati was thrown out of the party twice, first in November last year and again now, for "indiscipline".

The sanyasin who led the BJP's return to power in Madhya Pradesh in November 2003 is now on a padayatra from Bhopal to Ayodhya to protest against the "hijacking of the party by a handful of individuals". She has declared war on the BJP for giving up its core ideologies of suraj, swaraj and shuchita (good governance, self-rule and probity and purity in public life). "Mine is not a fight for power but for principles," she declares.

Where does all this leave the BJP? How much more damage can Uma do to the party when she charts her own course? Unlike last November, when the party took her back, this time the mood is decisively against her and Uma Bharati too is bent on proving that she represents the "real BJP" in Madhya Pradesh. Her strength is her mass appeal; whether she is in the BJP or out of it, she commands a considerable following.

Her yatra, though without any organisational backing or publicity, has drawn a reasonably good response and at least a few hundred people walk with her at any given time. On the Bhopal-Raisen road, for instance, this correspondent saw people who had nothing whatsoever to do with the BJP falling at her feet, vowing to follow her until Ayodhya, garlanding her and requesting her to stay the night at their houses. A visually impaired beggar, Balmiki, though not a supporter of the BJP, was walking with "Uma didi" until Ayodhya, supported by his seven-year-old son Lal Vikramaditya, because he believes that "Uma didi is right".

"My whole fight is for principles: whether a group of four or five people can dictate terms to elected MLAs who represent lakhs of people or whether MLAs should have the right to elect their own leader? I have nothing against Shivraj Singh Chauhan but he was imposed on the MLAs against their wishes by the group of four who have hijacked the party. The MLAs were threatened with anti-defection law to secure their consent. This cannot be allowed in a democracy," Uma Bharati told Frontline.

She said she had no lust for power and had not demanded that she be made the Chief Minister. But, she added, the democratic process should have been followed in electing the new Chief Minister. Asked whether her expulsion from the BJP would lead to her forming a new party, she shot back: "Which BJP? The BJP is not these four-five people. The real BJP is the lakhs of people who have associated themselves with it and who are with me."

Senior BJP leaders, however, dismiss the response to her yatra as nothing more than curiosity, which can do no harm to the party. "People flock to see her out of curiosity, as they would to see a monkey or a bear," said former Chief Minister Babulal Gaur. Gaur became the Chief Minister after Uma Bharati resigned because of the Hubli flag-hoisting case and subsequently he stepped down after the party leadership yielded to pressure from Uma Bharati.

Gaur does not think Uma's ouster will damage the party. His reasoning is bizarre, though. He said: "Madhya Pradesh has seen 28 Chief Ministers since its creation. This has been the style of politics here. If it has not damaged the Congress, why should it damage the BJP?" In his opinion, the BJP is better off without Uma Bharati. He sees no future for her outside the party. "She will dry off like a drop out of the ocean," he said.

At the BJP office in Bhopal, other State leaders, too, agree with this assessment, in what seems like a celebration of her departure. "Personality politics has no future here, the organisation is supreme and now we will run the government in a remarkable way," said BJP general secretary Anil Dave, He said that though the events in the last two years had eroded the BJP's credibility somewhat, ultimately "results will speak, as they did in the case of Narendra Modi in Gujarat". He added that since the party had the "right media fora and a positive public perception now", the Uma episode had been neutralised.

However, if the party considered Uma's logic strong enough to remove Babulal Gaur, why did it not reinstate her as promised? BJP spokesman Nitish Bhardwaj (of Krishna fame in the television serial Mahabharat) said: "She committed the blunder of trying to destabilise our own government, as is evident now, under the pretext of Dusshera milan." He said many MLAs who had signed a letter to the party president demanding that Gaur be replaced later said they were forced to do so." According to Nitish Bhardwaj, the way Uma Bharati conducted herself in recent times, the things she said, the way she promoted hooliganism, all combined to this outcome. "Besides, she was not acceptable to the MLAs. They were jittery of her return," he said, adding that they wanted Gaur's removal but did not want her back. "People want somebody who is mature and stable as Chief Minister," he said. "She is a loose cannon who can only damage herself now."

Uma Bharati's supporters, however, are optimistic that she will establish her independent political identity. Though Madhya Pradesh politics has been generally devoid of the caste angle so far, Uma Bharati seems to be taking it in that direction. She alleges a "caste bias in the BJP". "Look at the Parliamentary Board. It represents only 10 per cent of India (upper caste). Where is the other 90 per cent?" she asks. She has given enough hints that she could be launching her own brand of politics with caste as its pivot.

"There is enough scope for caste-based political parties, otherwise parties such as the Bahujan Samaj Party [BSP] or the Gondwana Gantantra Party [GGP] would not have carved their own space," said Prahlad Patel, former Minister, who has now been expelled from the BJP for supporting Uma Bharati. What Patel says carries weight because in a two-party situation even the GGP managed to win three seats in 2003, getting over 8 per cent of the votes polled in the seats it contested. The Samajwadi Party (S.P.), which entered Madhya Pradesh in a big way for the first time in 2003, won seven seats out of 161 it contested, getting over 5 per cent of the votes. The BSP, too, has its own space, commanding a 10 per cent vote share, though it won only two seats in 2003. By this logic the BJP could find the going tough if Uma is on her own. The OBCs (Other Backward Classes) form a substantial 40 per cent of the population in Madhya Pradesh, of which a large section used to support the BJP because of "mass leaders" such as Uma Bharati or Prahlad Patel.

According to political observers, this class of voters could react now. Said Patel: "Our self-respect has been hurt and now the backward-caste people could vote for anyone defeating the BJP because it has proved that it does not respect people who have struggled their way up from the grassroots level."

Whether the BJP will suffer a loss or not, the Congress is already celebrating. State Congress leaders are jubilant that Uma has paved the way for their return to power. "The BJP will never return to power now. The party is finished. Its vote will get divided and we will come back with a bigger majority," said Jamuna Devi, leader of the Congress Legislature Party in the State. She said if elections were held today, the Congress would form the government.

But how much the Congress can capitalise on the BJP's woes is questionable because of its own internal dissensions. There is a strong section in the Congress that does not want to see Digvijay Singh back. "The Congress lost because of Digvijay Singh. People are still with us and want us back but minus him," said a senior Congress leader. Political observers in Madhya Pradesh, however, are unanimous that the direction Madhya Pradesh politics takes now will substantially depend on what Uma Bharati does.

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