After the recent assembly elections, observers of the UP political scene have claimed that the winner, the BJP, had diversified its social basis to such an extent that it was now more representative of society than any other political party and that it could even appear as an embodiment of social engineering. Such conclusions need to be revisited on the basis of the empirical data which are now available.
First, the diversification in question is limited to some caste groups. The BJP, over the last five years, has coopted non-dominant Dalit jatis and non-dominant OBC jatis in order to counter the Jatav-oriented BSP and the Yadav-oriented SP. This tactic has found expression in the nomination of a large number of candidates coming from small Scheduled Castes and Backward Castes which were not significantly represented in the UP assembly — and which have seized this opportunity to send some of their leaders into the corridors of power. These jatis rallied around the BJP not only because they resented the way pro-Mandal forces had cornered reservations, but also because they appreciated the Hindutva ethos, including Sanskritisation. As a result, besides Jatavs, BJP MLAs come from all kinds of jatis, including Pasis, Lodhis, Kushwahas, Shakyas, Sainis, Koris, Nishads, Kashyaps, Binds, Kalwars, Telis, Sonars, Khatiks, Rajbhars, Dhobis and Valmikis. How much more plebeian and representative of society does the variety of the BJP MLAs’ background make the party?
If the BJP includes representatives of small castes, it excludes religious minorities: The ruling party has not nominated even one Muslim, once again, in 2022. Interestingly, the massive underrepresentation of Muslims in the UP assembly is not seen as a problem by most of the observers who emphasize the BJP’s “inclusiveness”, as if it was now taken for granted. UP’s largest minority, which accounts for about one-fifth of society, is bound to become invisible.
But the BJP is not more democratic either, because upper castes remain dominant – and even hegemonic if one considers the composition not only of the assembly but also of the government. Forty-three per cent of the BJP MLAs come from the upper castes – who represent only one-fifth of the state society, whereas its OBC MLAs form one-third of its MLAs when OBCs are about 50 per cent of the state population. Among the upper caste MLAs of the BJP, 17 per cent are Brahmins and 16 per cent are Rajputs, whereas these two groups represent about 10 and 7 per cent of the society of UP. Their over-representation is even more dramatic in the government that Yogi Adityanath has made after being re-elected.
Certainly, much like the pre-election expansion of the Council of Ministers, UP’s new cabinet has a substantial number of OBC ministers (20) who represent 38.8 per cent of the total — and again, most of them come from non-dominant jatis. But two caveats need to be underlined. First, more than half of them (11) are sworn in as Ministers of State whereas upper castes, who hold 21 posts in the council, occupy powerful cabinet berths. Moreover, while the BJP has retained OBC leader Keshav Prasad Maurya as the deputy chief minister despite his electoral loss, unlike in 2017, Maurya’s powerful PWD portfolio has been given to Jitin Prasada. Besides, the Thakur chief minister holds 34 portfolios including Home, while the other powerful portfolios such as Finance (Khatri), PWD (Brahmin), Health (Brahmin), Agriculture (Bania), Urban Development (Brahmin), and Higher Education (Brahmin ) remain with upper-caste cabinet ministers. By contrast, OBC ministers have secured the less powerful Labor, Animal Husbandry, Jal Shakti, and MSME portfolios. The only Dalit in the cabinet has got Women and Child Welfare. The near absence of religious minorities in the council of ministers is well in tune with the BJP’s Hindu majoritarianism. Like the last time, a solitary Muslim leader, Danish Azad Ansari, belonging to a backward class, has been sworn in as a minister of state, even as Baldev Singh Aulakh, the only Sikh MLA in the UP assembly, has been retained as a minister of state. This low representation (3.7 per cent) of religious minorities can be contrasted with the SP government in 2012 which had 22 per cent representation of religious minorities in the council of ministers.
In fact, during the “Akhilesh moment”, between 2012 and 2017, UP politics was much more representative of the state society, as Gilles Verniers shows in his PhD thesis. The presence of Muslims among the SP’s MLAs was proportionate to their demographic weight (at 19 per cent); the percentage of OBCs among the SP’s MLAs (27 per cent) was not as large as the percentage of OBCs in society, but it was larger than the share of upper caste MLAs (26 per cent) – and Yadavs represented a little bit more than half of them, with Kurmis, Kushwahas, Nishads, Jaiswals, Shakyas, Chaurasias, Gadaryas and Mallahs also represented. Certainly, the percentage of upper castes in Akhilesh’s council of ministers (33 per cent) remained higher than that of OBCs (31 per cent), but it was closer to the share of upper castes in society as in today’s cabinet: 45 per cent.
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The decline of upper castes in the UP politics under the SP was precisely the reason why they rallied around the BJP – as evident from the fact that more than 70 per cent of them voted for the party in 2022 – and why they supported Hindu nationalism: communal identity was clearly the best antidote to caste (and class) politics. Instead of mobilising against the savarnas, Dalits and OBCs were requested to fight “the Other par excellence”, the Muslim. It worked fine, largely because the BJP targeted those who had not benefited from reservations as much as Jatavs and Yadavs – because quota politics had divided SCs and OBCs along jati lines, a development BSP and SP leaders need to if they want to reunite their traditional core constituencies.
Dhawan is a student of National Law School of India University, Bangalore. Jaffrelot is senior research fellow at CERI-Sciences Po/CNRS, Paris, professor of Indian Politics and Sociology at King’s India Institute, London