Vidya Subrahmaniam, Press Release
That today sections of upper castes seem to prefer the BSP to the BJP speaks to the long distance travelled by Mayawati's party.
FOR THE past month, medical students in the Capital have been protesting the "quota issue" with brooms and mops in their hands - in a crude symbolism against the Scheduled Castes. Were they to travel to Uttar Pradesh, they would discover how much behind the times they are. In her book, " Mere sangharshmai jeevan evam bahujan movement ka safarnama " (My struggle-filled life and the journey of bahujan movement), Mayawati explains how she reached out to Brahmins (and later other upper castes) and how the latter, in trickles to begin with but gradually in greater numbers, began to respond. The first step was to tap the more socially committed among Brahmins and through them appeal to the larger community. But lest this should be understood as a dilution of the Bahujan Samaj Party's opposition to "manuwad", there was a caveat. The BSP needed Brahmins - and other forward castes - to come over but on its terms. Those who responded, Ms. Mayawati let it be known, would be amply rewarded, by way of the party ticket, Rajya Sabha nominations, and ministerial berths.
The BSP chief's earliest breakthrough was the induction of Satish Chandra Misra, Advocate General in the BSP Government, who agreed to canvass support among like-minded Brahmins. Mr. Misra's positive feedback led to the appointment of coordinators tasked with organising district-level Brahmin mahasammelans (Brahmin congregations). The job was not easy. Forward castes in the north were not only more sizeable compared to the south, caste barriers were more entrenched in the absence of an enlightened social movement. The BSP itself was deeply resented for its strident anti-manuwadi campaign.
But mission "Brahmin jodo" (integrate Brahmins) was the worth the time and effort, and on June 9, 2005, Ms. Mayawati addressed the BSP's first State-level Brahmin mahasammelan. "It is not by chance that you have turned up here in such large numbers here," the BSP chief told the gathering. Her repeated assurance: the BSP was against "manuwad", or the Brahminical disdain for lower castes, but it was not against Brahmins. Therefore, any fear of a reverse discrimination in the BSP was unfounded. The Brahmin mahasammelan spawned other mahasammelans - of Rajputs, Vaishyas, and Yadavas, representing forward and backward castes. Each was an attempt to add another community to the BSP's Dalit core vote.
The enormity of the BSP's forward caste project is best understood in terms of the BSP-BJP relationship. Each time the BSP aligned with the BJP, the former gained and the latter lost. Between 1991 and 2004, the BJP's Lok Sabha seats from Uttar Pradesh declined from 51 of 84 seats to 10 of 80 seats. Between 1991 and 2002, its Assembly seats declined from 221 of 425 seats to 88 of 403 seats. In the same period, the BSP's Lok Sabha tally went up from just one to 19 and its Assembly seats from 12 to 98. There seemed but one explanation for this dramatic reversal: the BJP's core voters were disillusioned by its repeated pacts with the forward caste-baiting BSP. That the same segments, or even a section of them, could prefer the BSP to the BJP speaks to the amazing journey of a party that targeted, and was in turn targeted by, forward castes. As Sudhir Goyal, national spokesperson of the BSP puts it: "The transformation is a measure of our confidence. It is from a position of strength that we are talking to upper castes."
So, how do the BSP's Dalit workers react to the co-option of the "manuwadi" castes? With stoic acceptance: "Our fight is with the system. This is the only way the BSP can capture power on its own." Undoubtedly, this is the voice of a deeply committed cadre. On the outside, the BSP is all about Ms. Mayawati, with the media obsessively focussing on her clothes, jewellery, and "imperious" manner. On the ground, the BSP could be a cult instead of a party, with the cadre doggedly and silently propagating the party's ideology in the remotest villages. The commonest refrain among workers is " hum marne mitne ke liye taiyar hain " (we are ready to die for the party). For Salim Ansari and Raj Vijay, former and current presidents of the party's Mau unit, the BSP is a mission where the poorest workers give up bidis and paan to raise funds. The election drill is rigorous and starts early, with party candidates chosen almost two years in advance and put on test. Each constituency is divided into 25 sectors with ten polling booths to a sector. Each booth, accounting roughly for 1000 voters, is under the care of a nine-member committee, headed by a president and with at least one woman member deputed to motivate and mobilise women voters.
Says Mr. Ansari, " Behenji 's one message is: do not sleep. And we do not. The booth committees have a single goal - to ensure the maximum turnout of our voters. Each member has a specific duty, and we have already had rehearsals for what to do on voting day [eight months away]." So has the BSP really put together an unbeatable Dalit-forward caste-most backward caste combination? The many caste mahasammelans and the systematic targeting of the smaller caste groups - Chauhan, Rajbar, Malla, Maurya to name a few - would suggest so. Say BSP workers Ashok Kumkar and M.S. Chauhan: "As important as the Brahmin mahasammelans are the many more unpublicised efforts directed at the smaller castes."
Yet the experiment is not without its pitfalls. For instance, the pro-Mayawati mood, so visible among Allahabad forward castes, seemed driven less by a genuine change of heart towards the BSP than by the immediate imperative of removing Mulayam Singh. The language bordered on communal, with Mr. Mulayam Singh accused of "pandering to Muslims" and "protecting Muslims bullies." This leads to the question: Is forward caste support for the BSP merely opportunistic, with the BSP temporarily substituting for the BJP?
As important is a second question: Has the BSP been able to break traditional barriers in the villages? This writer travelled into the villages of Mau with a band of BSP workers. The Dalit villagers were easily identified by their enthusiasm and shouts of "Jai Bhim" (for Bhim Rao Ambedkar). The fervours made it impossible to tell between voters and workers. Both spoke of "working to the last breath " for the BSP and behenji . Bright-eyed Ranjana from Nausopur village typified this mix. "There is a BSP wave. The Brahmins are voting the haathi (elephant)," she gushed, even as she insisted on accompanying us to forward caste homes to "witness the revolution."
Ashok Kumar, the village pradhan, was emphatic that Brahmins would vote the BSP: " I have complete respect for Maywati as an administrator. She was tough on criminals and that is what we need now." Banke Bihari, another Brahmin, voted the BJP in 2002 and wants to give the BSP a try: "I would like to believe that she has changed." But were forward castes not jailed and harassed by previous BSP regimes? "Those who ought to be jailed, ought to be jailed." Ram Ashish Tiwari was bitter about the BJP's forgotten Ram mandir and the "Jinnah betrayal." "I do not know if I will vote the BSP. But I am not voting the BJP."
Yet attitudinal mindsets are not so easily demolished. At Umapur, our group ran into the openly hostile Rajnath Tiwari and his son. Said Mr. Tiwari: "The Ram mandir will be built and we will vote the BJP as long as we live." But were Brahmins not turning to the BSP? The son's hands flew to his ears, his disgust apparent, his words a torrent of abuse: "Ram, Ram, what are you saying? The BSP and us?" The effect was instantaneous. "Don't you dare," began Ranjana only to stop abruptly, her eyes misty, her fists clenched tightly. It was evident that she was holding herself back. Did she not want to retaliate? "I do but we have a larger goal. We have to win."
That the BSP has gained phenomenally on the ground is clear. But U.P. is a complex State where every day brings a new challenge. In the villages, each major caste has its own political party and the numbers can only increase as election day draws near. The Samajwadi Party's Muslim base is under threat from a new, more strident Muslim party. This could benefit the BSP or it could breathe life into the BJP. If the Congress revival is better than currently anticipated, it could affect forward caste movement towards the BSP. On the other hand, should the anti-quota forward caste anger spread to U.P. - currently reservation is a non-issue here - the Congress will be affected the most.