(First published in The Pioneer dated March 13, 2012)
Now that the Samajwadi Party has trounced the Bahujan Samaj Party in the polls and stormed back to power in Uttar Pradesh with a commanding mandate that the party has never enjoyed in the past, it has become fashionable to say that the people of the State have risen above caste and religious considerations to elect a Government. Some analysts have been tempted to even compare the verdict with that of neighbouring Bihar which broke free from the caste web that Mr Lalu Prasad Yadav had spun and ensnared the voters in for years together. But such a comparison is inaccurate for the simple reason that, in Bihar the political shift has been on a gigantic scale with the JD(U) and the BJP forming a coalition to break Mr Lalu Prasad Yadav’s back. In Uttar Pradesh, there has been no such creative political restructuring. The result, therefore, is reflective more of shifting loyalties than about representing a new social order.
The State’s two prominent castes have voted in nearly exactly the same manner that they did in the 2007 Assembly election. The Dalits have voted for Ms Mayawati and her BSP and the Yadavs have voted for Mr Mulayam Singh Yadav and his SP. What has changed since 2007 is that the Muslim voters this time returned to their old habitat, the SP. A large section of these voters had five years ago backed the BSP on Ms Mayawati’s promise to give them a better deal. The alienation of the minority voters in Uttar Pradesh was complete by the time the Lok Sabha election was held in 2009, and the immediate beneficiary then became the Congress. Since then, the Congress has lost momentum although it continued to shower the Muslim community with all sorts of fantastic assurances. With the anti-incumbency factor working against Ms Mayawati and the SP pledging a far more lucrative deal, the Muslims returned to the SP’s fold.
If there was a socio-political restructuring in recent times, it was in 2007 when Ms Mayawati achieved the seemingly impossible: She brought the caste highest in the social order and the caste lowest on the social ladder on a common platform and forged an alliance that won for her party more than 200 seats in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly. Brahmins and Dalits voting for a common candidate had become a thing of the past; the phenomenon existed during the Congress’s heyday before the Mandal storm and Mayawati hurricane arrived and blew the combination apart. In the election of 2012, we have seen that the Brahmin voters have divided their loyalties among the BJP, the Congress and to some extent the SP. Again, this is not a new development, because the Brahmins and other upper castes in the State have been with the SP, the Congress and the BJP earlier.
Had the SP been successful in winning over sizeable, if not all, sections of the Dalit voters, it would have qualified as a political revolution. Since that has not happened, the SP has an opportunity — now that it is in power — to prepare the ground for such a transition. But there are little indications that the party is even thinking on those lines. Either it has already given up on the venture of winning over the Dalits as being ‘impractical’ or it is so consumed by the traditional OBC dislike for the lower castes that it is unable to break free from the shackles of prejudices of the past.
Whatever may be the reason, the present offers an opportunity for the SP to undo its past and extend its political patronage to the Dalits. It must understand the ground situation to convert its political foes into allies. Ms Mayawati had succeeded in giving the Dalits a sense of ‘dignity’ more than anything else. The Dalits got little in terms of real development: Their economic situation remained as pathetic as it had been before she came to power, their educational standards stagnated at previous levels and they remained as deprived as always of basic amenities like potable water and electricity in the rural areas of the State. Ms Mayawati did nothing to address their economic plight. All that they received from her is that sense of ‘dignity’ from the administration, the police and others who had once treated them with contempt.
Can the Samajwadi Party ensure for the Dalits the ‘dignity’ which they received during Ms Mayawati’s regime? If it can do so and top it up with some concrete welfare measures that the BSP failed to deliver, the SP may yet win them over. After all, if the BSP could attract the upper castes in 2007, why cannot the SP gain the trust of the Dalits, who comprise more than 20 per cent of the State’s population?
But, while it may be true that there has been no social engineering of the kind that was witnessed in 2007, it is also a fact that the voters, including the Dalits, are eager to see real social and economic progress. Since the SP enjoys an industry-friendly image, it should not be difficult for the party’s Government to kick-start infrastructure and other projects that have been languishing for some years now. If the new Government manages to spread the benefits of economic growth across the State and across caste and community lines, it will win over new voters and expand its base.
Ms Mayawati would like to give the impression that the economy has done well during her tenure. Indeed, the State’s Gross Domestic Product grew at a healthy rate of more than seven per cent over the last five years, touching over eight per cent in 2010-2011. But few people in the State have benefited from this, and least of all the Dalits or the other disempowered groups. Close to 25 per cent of the incidents of infant mortality have been reported from Uttar Pradesh. In most other social indices the State continues to score poorly and is placed near the end of the table of the best performing States in social indicators.
According to Human Development Report 2011, just 49 per cent of total households in the State had electricity for domestic use in 2008-09; the figure for rural households was an abysmal 37.6 per cent. These are statistics, but in reality many of the households are only nominally connected to electric poles that do not have power supply. The Human Development Report also points out that projected life expectancy at birth in the State during 2006-10 had been 64.2 years, which is lower than the figures available for most other States.
Many of these poor performing indicators have directly impacted the plight of the Dalits. It is, thus, logical to expect that the situation of the Dalit population would improve if Mr Akhilesh Yadav’s Government paid attention to pulling the State out of the morass it is stuck in. The cost of failure will be enormous. The SP must not forget that the BSP has secured 26 per cent of the votes and can, therefore, regain the advantage at the slightest hint of failure by the new Government.