Hindustan Times
New Delhi
The Uttar Pradesh elections seem to be resurrecting the past memories of Mandal versus Kamandal contest only at the level of polemics. After chief minister and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Yogi Adityanath’s claim of the polls being an 80% versus 20% (read Hindu versus Muslim) contest, Yogi’s former cabinet colleague Swami Prasad Maurya, who deserted the BJP to join the Samajwadi party (SP), claimed the election was actually a fight between 85% versus 15% (read non-upper caste Hindus and Muslims versus upper castes). The Mandal-Kamandal binary and its various mutations have defined politics in the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar for three decades now.

The underlying logic, at least at the level of rhetoric, is simple. The votaries of Mandal claim that due to India’s feudal past, upper castes have historically exploited the other backward classes (OBCs), scheduled castes (SCs), scheduled tribes (STs) and the majority of Muslims in India, and the only way to undo this injustice was to capture political power, a project eminently possible thanks to India’s universal franchise system. OBCs, SCs, STs and Muslims together vastly outnumber upper-caste Hindus.

The BJP, on the other hand, has always claimed that Mandal-based parties such as the SP have only helped their own causes (for instance, the Yadavs in both Bihar and UP) in the name of social emancipation after capturing power. It is only when the BJP is brought to power that true development, welfare and emancipation takes place, the party argued.

But polemics in politics need not always confirm to reality. Does this hold for the Mandal-Kamandal binary as well? Here are three charts that try to answer this question.

Only rich contest the elections and the richer manage to win

The average assets of a candidate who contested the 2017 assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh was 1.9 crore, according to a report by the not-for-profit political party watchdog Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR). Average assets per MLA elected in 2017 was 5.9 crore. ADR collects these values from election affidavits filed by the candidates.

“Among major parties, the average assets per MLA for 312 BJP MLAs analysed is 5.07 crores, 46 SP MLAs have average assets of 5.84 crores, 19 BSP MLAs have average assets of 17.84 crores and 7 INC MLAs have average assets worth of 10.06 crores” the ADR report said. These numbers suggest that among all major parties, only the super rich contest elections. Uttar Pradesh had a per capita income of 64,120 in 2017-18 and the average asset holdings of the top 10% of the state’s population were worth 97.5 lakh, according to the 2019 All India Debt and Investment Survey of the National Statistical Office.

Ticket distribution pattern does not endorse either 80-20 or 85-15 contest

Polemics about the elections being an 80-20 or 85-15 contest suggest the larger cohort, which the parties claim to represent, is united behind them. The least one would expect is that the party in question tries to mobilize the groups it is targeting. Data on caste background of candidates, sourced from the database of the Trivedi Centre for Political Data (TCPD), does not support such claims.

If the BJP were really serious about consolidating all Hindu votes, it would make an equal distribution of tickets among them. That is not the case. Almost half of the BJP’s candidates in the 2017 elections were upper castes. It was far greater than their share in population. The BJP also fielded a lower share of Yadavs, who are the core support base of the SP in the state. Yadavs and Jatavs, the core support base of the SP and BSP, respectively, have a higher share among the candidates of the parties, but their share is not too disproportionate. Similarly, the SP and BSP fielded a significant share of upper caste candidates, something that goes against the clichéd Mandal rhetoric. In other words, parties are more pragmatic when it comes to distributing tickets on the ground than what their political polemics would suggest.

Political power is key to upward mobility of the social elite

If it is only the super rich who contest elections, and all political parties make social compromises against what their political rhetoric suggests, why do people fall for such rhetoric? The newfound assertion of the non-domiant castes in Indian politics can be thought of as the relatively less privileged social elite leveraging their social group’s electoral strength to make stronger bargains from the socioeconomically dominant communities in the political system.

The communities currently enjoying a dominant economic position would not be where they are had they not had political power. This is best seen in a comparison of average asset levels of candidates and MLAs in the 2017 assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh. It uses a caste-wise database of candidates compiled by TCPD that the centre matched with candidate-wise asset database from ADR at HT’s request.

The comparison showed Yadav candidates were not far from the average asset level of upper-caste candidates, whereas SC and ST candidates are almost at the same asset level as non-dominant OBCs. It will not be wrong to say that every community wants to move to the right hand side on the chart, and the ones already on the right cannot retain power unless they do business with the ones on the left.

With the Indian economy having lost higher growth momentum of the past decade, and given the shrinking footprint of the state in the economy, it will become even more difficult for the entrenched sociopolitical elite to accommodate the aspirations of their strategic allies from non-dominant social groups. It means that political conflict and perhaps the revolving doors for non-dominant caste allies are unlikely to end anytime soon in India.

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