Caste as the key

Print edition : April 28, 2001

It becomes evident from the byelections in two Assembly constituencies that caste has emerged as the most crucial factor that determines voter preferences in Uttar Pradesh.

THE recent Assembly byelections in the Haidergarh and Sadabad constituencies in Uttar Pradesh have once again proved that voters continue to be divided on caste lines in this politically crucial State. The message from the split verdict is clear: the UP polity continues to remain as fragmented and multipolar as ever, with not a single party likely to be able to garner a majority on its own.

While the Bharatiya Janata Party won the Haidergarh seat, it lost Sadabad to a comparatively new arrival on the State's political scene - the Rashtriya Lok Dal floated by Ajit Singh. It was also evident that both the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) could give the BJP a good fight. The S.P. has a slight edge over the BSP, but both these parties have emerged as strong contenders for power and could spoil the BJP's dream of winning the majority of seats in the next Assembly elections. U.P. is strategically crucial for the BJP as it draws its sustenance from the State. The State sends the largest number of BJP members to the Lok Sabha.

Chief Minister Rajnath Singh.-

If there is any one party that has no reason to look forward to the Assembly elections, it is the Congress(I), which has been decimated in the byelections. The defeat of its candidate in Haidergarh was all the more humiliating because the seat was held by the party. Its candidate Sarvesh Bajpai not only finished fifth but forfeited his deposit. He polled 1,649 votes, fewer than an independent candidate. In Sadabad too, the Congress(I) candidate lost his deposit. The message was clear: the Congress(I) is not just down, but out, unless it does some brilliant political manoeuvring to reverse its fortunes. The Congress(I)'s MLA, Surendra Nath Awasthi, a Jitendra Prasada loyalist, had vacated the Haidergarh seat for Chief Minister Rajnath Singh. Rajnath Singh's victory was a foregone conclusion. He won with a record margin of 41,172 votes. In any case, Chief Ministers are not known to have lost byelections. What was, however, surprising was the stark defeat of the Congress(I). No one expected the Congress(I) to win the seat but it was thought that it would face a respectable defeat, given the embarrassment the BJP suffered following the Tehelka expose and the slight edge the Congress(I) was seen to have acquired after that.

Stunned by the electoral blow, senior Congress(I) leaders are taking refuge behind the cliched argument of "misuse of official machinery", which, however, carries no credibility. For, if it was true, then the RLD could not have wrested the Sadabad seat from the BJP with an impressive margin of 11,000 votes. The Congress(I) leaders also attribute the party's defeat to the twin curses of "casteism and communalism" which, they say, have done irreparable damage to the party's prospects. "We have never pandered to either casteism or communalism and are paying the price for it," senior Congress(I) leader Mohsina Kidwai said. She also held S.P. leader Mulayam Singh Yadav responsible for the plight of the Congress(I) in U.P. "Mulayam Singh Yadav and the BJP are indirectly helping each other to keep us out of a direct contest. Both can prosper only at our cost," she said.

But the reality that the Congress(I) can achieve nothing without the support of these "casteist" parties has dawned on its leaders with greater clarity than ever before. Despite the party's bitter experience of forging an alliance with the BSP in the past, which they admit was "not good enough", the leaders are talking of an "alliance with secular parties". Ask them whether secularism takes precedence over casteism, and whether the Congress(I) is willing to compromise with casteism for the sake of power, of course in the name of saving secularism, they clam up. "It is too premature to talk of alliances or coalitions with specific parties,' is all they would say.

For the BJP, too, the byelection verdict has not been a cause for celebration as Rajnath Singh's victory got overshadowed by the defeat in Sadabad, that too at the hands of the RLD. The RLD victory can be explained by the fact that Sadabad is dominated by Jats, the caste group that props up the party. The defeat was stunning for the BJP as it had done well in recent times in western U.P. The RLD rode to victory on the plank of "Harit Pradesh", the name for a separate State that Ajit Singh wants carved out of western U.P., which has now acquired emotional overtones in the "green" belt.

In order to ascertain the reasons for its defeat in Sadabad, the BJP central leadership has asked the State unit for a report. Party spokesman Narendra Modi, however, does not see any reason for despondency. According to him, the results have shown that U.P. will once again witness a multipolar contest and as in any such contest, those who have an edge in forming alliances stand to gain.

The party is not shy of talking to prospective alliance partners. Talks with the BSP are already on despite past experience. Even if an electoral understanding is not worked out, a post-poll alliance with the BSP is not ruled out. "We believe in the dictum of communication, cooperation and coordination, even with our opponents," says Modi.

The BSP is adamant about fighting the elections on its own. "We are going to form the next government in Uttar Pradesh. The anti-BJP vote has consolidated in our favour, we are viewed as the only party that can single handedly defeat the BJP, and this perception will help us reach the magic figure of 213," says a senior BSP leader. His optimism stems from the fact that the BSP performed so well in both Haidergarh and Sadabad, where it was never in the reckoning before. The party finished third in Haidergarh, behind the S.P. by 409 votes (the S.P. candidate polled 29,059 votes and the BSP candidate 28,650 votes). In Sadabad, the party finished fourth behind the S.P. According to the BSP leader, the S.P. stands exposed in its anti-BJP campaign and the disillusioned anti-BJP voter is gravitating towards the BSP.

The S.P. is undaunted by the challenge facing it and is confident of capturing power along with its other Lok Morcha allies. "The byelection results have proved that the contest in Uttar Pradesh has narrowed down to the S.P. versus the BJP. Nobody else matters, the Congress(I) has been wiped out and the BSP remains suspect for its stand towards the BJP. Only we have remained steadfast in our fight against communal forces and we will form the government this time," says Mulayam Singh Yadav.

Such tall claims notwithstanding, the three-way political contours in U.P. are becoming sharper with each passing day. The BJP, which secured 32.5 per cent of the votes in the previous Assembly elections, hopes to retain its predominant position yet again with help from its allies. But it remains under serious threat from regional parties. Both the S.P., with a 21.8 per cent vote share, and the BSP with a 19.6 per cent vote share, are adopting increasingly aggressive postures and staking their claim to power, equally confident about their prospects. The voters, however, continue to be as enigmatic as before, keeping the parties on the tenterhooks by not delivering a decisive verdict. And, predictably enough, caste has once again emerged as the most important factor in the State. In U.P., issues such as corruption can wait.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor