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A wake-up call for regional parties relying only on identity politics

LiveMint logoLiveMint 16-05-2014 Devendra Kumar

Identity politics for India is not a new phenomenon though it has taken different shapes and colours in the past. Identity politics based on religion and language played out in the pre-independence era; then Dravidian politics played a prominent role in Tamil Nadu in the early days of independence. Later, first the Jan Sangh and then the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) played identity politics by taking a Hindu nationalistic line.

This had limited success until recently—although the BJP did form a government twice.

Hindu politics alone has never worked for the BJP beyond a point, unless governance also became a principal agenda, as in this election. Caste politics was another factor which contained Hindu politics in the heartland states—by splitting the Hindu vote among caste-based parties.

Though caste has always been an important determinant of politics at the local level, particularly in northern and central India, it was never a guiding principle until the Mandal Commission’s recommendations on caste reservation were implemented in 1990. The Mandal Commission gave birth to some very strong political personalities on the social justice and caste identity platform in the heartland states.

Mulayam Singh Yadav, with a Muslim-Yadav combination and Mayawati with 22% Dalit support, ruled the roost in Uttar Pradesh for more than two decades. Ajit Singh in western Uttar Pradesh and the Chautala family in Haryana dominated the political discourse in their respective territories for many years with the support of Jats. Lalu Prasad, with the combined strength of Muslims, Yadavs, Dalits and most backward classes (MBCs), ruled Bihar for 15 years. And Nitish Kumar, with the backing of Kurmis and Kushwahas and later by adding the Mahadalits and MBCs, carved a space for himself in Bihar politics.

Narendra Modi-led BJP was expected to face its biggest challenge in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, which account for 120 Lok Sabha seats, because of this complex caste equation and the strong presence of caste-based regional forces in these two states. The BJP with its alliance partners proved all caste-based assessments wrong and overcame traditional barriers by winning 93 of these 120 seats.

Graphic by Yatish Asthana/Mint

Modi’s aide Amit Shah was sent to Uttar Pradesh to lead the BJP’s strategy in the backdrop of the party’s abysmal performance in the 2012 assembly elections when it had polled just 15% votes. The biggest challenge Shah faced was in rejuvenating the party’s organization, adding new castes into the BJP fold by appropriate social engineering, and selling the Gujarat governance model. The results of the Lok Sabha election show that Shah succeeded on all these parameters.

The Lok Sabha results reflect that Shah managed to break traditional caste barriers and attract all sections of voters, including other backward classes (OBCs), Dalits and some sections of Yadavs too.

What worked for BJP in attracting all these social segments? Communal polarization in the aftermath of last year’s Muzaffarnagar riots would be considered as the main factor behind the BJP’s success by a section of political pundits. But the BJP leadership would like to claim that it was Modi’s continuous emphasis on governance that worked for it.

It is difficult to suggest which one of the two would explain it better but it is safe to say that the caste-based politics of Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party and Rashtriya Lok Dal was totally rejected by the voters of Uttar Pradesh. Instead, they preferred to give their mandate to Modi’s strong leadership and promise of good governance.

Let us take the case of Bihar, where Nitish Kumar parted ways with the BJP last year, presuming he had the support of his core constituency of Kurmi, Kushwaha and the newly carved out vote bank of Mahadalits and MBCs. Modi was able to dismantle the caste-based politics of Nitish Kumar with his promise of good governance and because of what was perceived to be an act of betrayal by Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United).

Riding on the Muslim-Yadav combination, Lalu Prasad too was placed on the front row by some political commentators but the Bihar results reflect that a section of Yadavs also supported Modi for his good governance campaign. As in Uttar Pradesh, in Bihar too traditional caste-based politics did not work for regional players, and the BJP, along with its allies, emerged strongly.

Haryana has close to a 25% Jat electorate who provided a strong footing to the Chautala-led Indian National Lok Dal (INLD). In the last assembly election in Haryana, the INLD presented a major challenge to the Congress party and the BJP remained a marginal force. However, by winning seven of the eight seats it contested, the BJP has now overhauled the traditional narrative of Jat versus non-Jat politics in Haryana, and got support from all social segments. Since there is only a small Muslim population in the state, the BJP’s emphatic performance can only be attributed to Modi’s governance promises and the failure of the INLD and the Congress on this account.

Political pundits will continue to debate over what worked for the BJP in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Haryana but it is certain that voters in these states have rejected caste-based politics and voted for good governance. Modi’s image of a strong Hindu leader may have given additional teeth to the BJP’s governance campaign.

It is too early to conclude that identity politics, based on caste and religion, is on its way out—unless governance emerges as the main determining factor in a few more elections. But certainly it is a wake-up call for regional players who rely only on identity politics to cling to power.

The author is a psephologist and director of Research and Development Initiative.

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