Limits of identity politics

The BJP’s victory in U.P. is quite a watershed. The party has come to power in the State before, but never with such a high vote share (more than 41% along with allies). Yet, besides the BJP’s win, what is significant in this election is the rout of the SP and the BSP, two representatives of the ‘Mandal era’ or, more accurately, lower caste assertion in Indian politics.
As political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot argues in his book, India’s Silent Revolution, the evolution of India’s post-Independence polity – from being dominated by a single party (the Congress) to a multifarious, deeply “regionalised” system – was made possible by a “silent revolution” of the lower castes. This revolution played itself out distinctly and during a different time period but surely in south and north India. It resulted in the Other Backward Classes occupying centre-stage in politics, a process that was accelerated after the implementation of the Mandal Commission recommendations in politics. The rise of the BSP, from an interest group representing the Dalits to a political force, is also documented in the book.
‘Ethnic parties’, as political scientist Kanchan Chandra termed them in her book, Why Ethnic Parties Succeed, managed to do well in States where voters registered their political choice based on the ethnic head count of support for the party. This choice was also because U.P. and other parts of India had a patronage democracy, where the government could monopolise resource distribution on an ethnic basis. But politics of this kind is limiting. With the SP’s strongest support and dominant ethnic base limiting itself to the Yadavs and Muslims, and the BSP’s to the Jatavs, there was always the possibility of resentment among other communities limiting the chances for these parties.
In the run-up to the 2017 elections, the SP noticed this frailty and sought to project Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav as the face of development, taking a leaf from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s book. The BSP, on the other hand, attempted something new, a coalition of the “underprivileged” in a Dalit-Muslim alliance, but which echoed the same parameters that were set for ethnic identity politics in U.P.
The reasons for the success of the BJP needs to be studied more thoroughly. But it is clear that the politics practised by the SP and the BSP has reached a cul-de-sac and requires reinvention. Perhaps these parties could go beyond ethnic head counts and address the real reasons for lower caste assertion.
The writer is a columnist.

Source : The Hindu