Victory for religious identity politics over caste politics

Results of elections conducted in India’s largest and most populous state is out.

The Hindutva party of Prime minister Modi won a massive number of seats in the Uttar Pradesh State assembly. BJP and its allies got 80% of the seats ( 324 out of 403)  with a vote share of around 40 % in the first-past-the-post voting system in a state with 200 million people (fifth most populous in the world if it was a separate country).

In a three cornered contest, the main rivals of BJP was an alliance  between Samajvadi Party with Congress and the Bahujan Samaj Party. SP- Congress alliance got around 28 % of votes ( 54 seats) while BSP got around 22% of votes (19 seats).



What was the factors that helped BJP get a lead of around 12 percentage points over its nearest rival ?

As in most elections in India, identity politics based on caste and religion do play a major role along with anti incumbency factor. (SP was ruling party and did suffer from anti incumbency mood).

Identity politics was the bread and butter of Uttar Pradesh politics. Politics based on identity is tricky. It may not be able to tolerate an alliance that is outside the identity of the community that it is supposed to represent.

SP is originally a party of Yadav caste, a Hindu caste classified as Other Backward Caste or OBC. SP always used to get support of other OBCs and Muslims too and had some very conservative patriarchal Muslims as leaders. BSP is a Dalit party representing the original outcastes or untouchables of Indian society. Previously BSP under its woman Dalit leader Mayawati used to get good support of Muslims and even some upper caste Hindu Brahmins. Both BSP and SP had won elections on their own in previous years.

Now let us look at the caste and religious demographics of the State.

Hindu OBCs 40% but only around 9% are Yadavs

Dalits – 21 %

Muslims 20 %

Upper Caste 18 %

If you change it to a religion based statistics it will be like this.

80% Hindus

20% Muslims

What BJP did cleverly and efficiently was to create a religion based vote bank as opposed to caste-religion alliances.  BJP clearly delineated itself as a Hindu party by including Hindus of all castes (including Dalits) in their candidate list but no Muslims. Both SP and BSP had to dilute its identity politics by including Muslims in their candidate lists because they traditionally used to get support from them and without them they can’t never cross the magical 35-40% mark which is essential to win majority seats in the assembly. Thus pure  identity politics based on religion of 80% of voters easily won over mixed identity politics.

BJP had tried this before also but without this much success. So why it was so successful this time ?

One reason may be anti incumbency  mood against SP, the ruling party in the state. Another reason may be the larger than life image of Modi as a doer , deliberately built up by BJP. Even the demonetisation fiasco was projected as a feather in the cap of a doer PM.

Identity politics thrives when it is exclusive. It should exclude some sections of society and should try to portray them as the source of all problems. When it becomes an alliance of identities the ability to attract votes decreases. BJP used its natural exclusive Hindu identity and was able to beat others in the game of identity politics. It was similar to the way Trump used white Caucasian Christian identity.

Identity politics is an easy way to win an election. To defeat it you may need to lead people away from tribalism to humanism. It is not an easy task.


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