Voters these days like to give decisive mandates. The drama of post-poll alliance making in hung assemblies is increasingly a distant memory. After 17 years of unstable governments in Uttar Pradesh, the Bahujan Samaj Party’s Mayawati won with a full majority in 2007. Five years later, in 2012, Akhilesh Yadav became chief minister with a clear majority.
There is little doubt that if elections were held tomorrow in Uttar Pradesh, the Bahaujan Samaj Party’s Kumari Mayawati would become chief minister for a third time, with a full majority. But election are nine months away, who knows which way the direction of the winds may change?
Too small and scattered, the Most Backward Classes, the MBCs, are a substantial vote in UP. They are the swing vote. They vote for the party they think is winning. You get the MBC vote after you have created the impression that you are likely to win.
There is little doubt that if elections were held tomorrow in Uttar Pradesh, the Bahaujan Samaj Party’s Kumari Mayawati would become chief minister for a third time.
If MBCs are the last vote, the first vote in UP is that of Brahmins. About ten per cent of the population, often concentrated in particular regions, it is the Brahmins who Mayawati wooed in 2007.
The Brahmin vote matters a lot more than 10 per cent. Brahmins have a disproportionate share of the public discourse. In the local media, at the chai shop, amongst the chattering classes, Brahmins have power to influence the sense of the political ‘hawa’.
Post-poll surveys after the 2007 election showed that only 17% Brahmins had voted for the BSP, and most of this was likely concentrated in seats where the BSP had given tickets to Brahmin candidates. Yet it is their capability to give the impression that the party they are supporting, mattered a lot.
After becoming chief minister of the most important state with a full majority, breaking the jinx of unstable governments, Mayawati developed prime ministerial ambitions (much like Nitish Kumar these days). She was so consumed by that thought that she even held a rally in Kohima, Nagaland! Governance in UP suffered.
After becoming chief minister of the most important state with a full majority, breaking the jinx of unstable governments, Mayawati developed prime ministerial ambitions (much like Nitish Kumar these days).
(Supporters listen to Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati during an election rally in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh, April 27, 2014. AP Photo/ Rajesh Kumar Singh)
In the 2009 general elections, alarmed at the prospect of a Dalit becoming prime minister, Brahmins decided to support the Congress. There are many reasons why a party wins or loses, but this was one of them in 2009. Along with factors such as NREGA and farm loan waiver, Brahmin support was party responsible for the Congress winning 21 (of 80) seats that election, up from 9 seats in 2004. Their ally, the Jats’ Rashtriya Lok Dal, won another 5.
Similarly, the Samajwadi Party in 2012 wooed Brahmins in a big way, creating the impression that they were shifting from Mayawati to Akhilesh Yadav. After winning just 20 seats in that election, the BSP feared losing its core Dalit base. To stop alienating her Dalit voter base, she allowed, after 2009, Dalits to register larger number of cases under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities Act). She also started to help some Dalits regain land that they had titles for, but was illegally occupied by upper castes. These small measures alienated upper castes, especially Brahmins, who found it important to put their weight behind the Samajwadi Party to make sure there was no ambiguity about Mayawati losing.
In this process, while the BJP still retained the largest chunk of the Brahmin vote, that share kept declining. Brahmins in UP have a simple problem with the BJP. After Atal Behari Vajpayee’s exit from the political scene, the BJP has not been able to give them a Brahmin leader of high stature. The tallest BJP leader in UP, Rajnath Singh, is a Thakur, and Brahmins aren’t particularly fond of Thakurs. Kalraj Mishra and Murli Manohar Joshi could never reach that stature.
Brahmins in UP have a simple problem with the BJP. After Atal Behari Vajpayee’s exit from the political scene, the BJP has not been able to give them a Brahmin leader of high stature.
For Brahmins, as with most voting blocks in UP, seeing more Brahmins in the assembly is more important than Hindutva. Brahmins see the Congress, even today, as their natural party of power. The Congress system was a rainbow coalition of extremes -- Dalits, Muslims and Brahmins, excluding the OBCs who largely went with the socialists. In this Congress system, the Brahmins reigned supreme. Thakurs were also part of this Congress system.
As Rahul Gandhi’s efforts have shown, it is impossible to make a dent in Mayawati’s Dalit votebank. However, if Brahmins see the prospect of regaining political prominence through the Congress, they wouldn’t mind going that way – particularly if the BJP again fails to woo them. If the Congress is able to woo Brahmins and create the impression that it is suddenly becoming a serious player in UP 2017, the Congress may also be able to Muslims (18%) and Thakurs (7%). That’s a 35% vote block, enough to create the impression that the hawa is with the Congress, and the swing MBC voters could follow.
The 2014 Modi wave was an exceptional situation, where the BJP got some votes from all communities except Muslims, and won 71 of 80 seats. The Brahmins were on the right side, not least because they dominate the RSS.
As Rahul Gandhi’s efforts have shown, it is impossible to make a dent in Mayawati’s Dalit votebank. However, if Brahmins see the prospect of regaining political prominence through the Congress, they wouldn’t mind going that way.
(A supporter holds a mask of Narendra Modi during a political rally in Robertsganj, in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, Saturday, May 10, 2014. AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)
But as Delhi and Bihar have shown, the Modi wave is not a factor in state elections. The BJP can succeed in UP only if it adopts a Brahmin first strategy. After wooing Brahmins and Thakurs, it could add the non-Yadav OBCs and MBCs. The mistake that the BJP makes is that it is not able to keep Brahmin voters happy, alienating them by putting non-Yadav OBCs at the forefront.
In short, Brahmins are the most important community in Uttar Pradesh, despite the fixed vote blocks of Mayawati’s Dalits and the Samajwadi Party’s Yadavs. If either the Congress or the BJP, or both, announce a Brahmin CM candidate, the sense that UP 2017 is Mayawati’s for the taking, could change.