The Elephant Paradox

By Shivam Vij

First published in Tehelka dated 10 March 2007

Saath saal puranay Sanghi ko tod laaye hain hum!,” (We have won over a sixty-year-old Sanghi — a member of the Jan Sangh — to our side) exults Sarvesh Shukla as he walks into his rooftop campaign office. Shukla is contesting from the Generalganj Vidhan Sabha seat in Kanpur in the UP Assembly elections, which will be held in April and May, on a Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) ticket. Festooned with plastic BSP flags, the office overlooks a busy marketplace — and exudes an air that matches the thirty-something candidate’s upbeat mood.

Shukla is a Brahmin. He was active in Kanpur University politics until recently and had little chance of getting a Vidhan Sabha ticket from any party. But the BSP is wooing Brahmins in a big way — “Sarvajan” (for everyone) is BSP’s new mantra. For now the “Bahujan” agenda — the project of uniting dalits, OBCs and Muslims in a coalition of the oppressed — has been shelved.

The “Sanghi” — a member of the BJP/RSS in popular parlance — Shukla has co-opted happens to be his 76-year-old uncle, Rajendra Nath Bajpai, who sports a beard and a tilak, and is known as “Pita” (father) in BJP circles. “They call it the elephant,” Bajpai says of the BSP’s election symbol. “But I see it as Ganeshji. And what I have got is a chance to put a tilak on Ganeshji.”

Bajpai will try and convince Generalganj’s voters, who traditionally vote for the BJP, to switch their allegiance to the BSP. “I will tell them they are voting for the Brahmin Samaj Party,” he says. “And don’t you know the other meaning of BSP,” his nephew adds. “Bijli, Sadak, Pani — electricity, road and water.”

Why are the Brahmins disenchanted with the BJP? The question touches a raw nerve. “The BJP is no longer a party that works for the benefit of Hindus,” Bajpai says. “It works only for its own benefit.” He begins naming all the Brahmin leaders in the party’s UP unit who over the years were either sidelined or just died (of natural causes). “Actually Brahmins were with the BJP because of Atal Behari Vajpayee, who is too old now,” he says. The nephew leans over and says sotto voce, “You know, Baniyas have taken over the BJP. For 15 years a Brahmin, Niraj Chaturvedi, was on this seat, but he didn’t get along with Rajnath Singh (the current BJP president). So the BJP brought along a Vaish, Salil Vishnoi.”

Kanpur has eight Vidhan Sabha seats and the BSP plans to nominate Brahmins in five of these. And of the total 403 seats in the UP Legislative Assembly, the BSP plans to field Brahmins in 120. The BSP has rarely won in any of these 120 seats; they are “expendable”. Traditionally, the party has had a lock on UP’s dalit vote bank — with a population of three crore, they constitute 21 percent of the state’s population. Among these, 55 percent belong to the Jatav (formerly Chamar) caste — the same as BSP chief Mayawati’s.

The fixed dalit votebank ensures that often, if the BSP does not win a seat, it comes second or third. He party’s project of allying with the OBCs (the Other Backward Classes, led by the Yadav caste) and the Muslims never took off, as these two communities have remained loyal to the Samajwadi Party (SP) (Though now SP’s Muslim base is shifting to the Congress). Traditionally, OBCs have been locked in a constant conflict with dalits, much more so than with the savarnas or the upper castes — the Brahmins, Baniyas and Kshatriyas. The causes range from land disputes, to atrocities on dalits, as well as the Yadav-isation of the local administration under the chief ministership of Mulayam Singh Yadav.

The BSP hopes to get the winning electoral arithmetic right so that Mayawati becomes the chief minister for a fourth time — and has to rely as little on coalition partners for seats as possible. This will enable her to run the government unhindered for five years.

So, the Brahmin-dalit alliance is a marriage of convenience, and every Brahmin in the BSP openly admits to it. Does this mean that they could discard each other just as easily? “Not really,” says a BSP worker in Lucknow, who doesn’t wish to be named. “What the BSP think-tank has done is to try and treat the Brahmin’s almost like a separate party, so that the alliance is viable in the long run.” You can see the separate Brahmin “party” in action when Shukla shouts: “Brahmin shankh bajayega / Haathi dilli jayega — the Brahmin will herald the BSP’s march to Delhi.”

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