The Blog of Cafe Dissensus Magazine – we DISSENT

How to read the UP assembly election verdict?

By Sajjan Kumar 

The mammoth victory of the BJP in Uttar Pradesh Assembly election begs a serious reconsideration of the old assumptions that we hold while studying shades and nuances of Indian politics. Three sets of assumptions, distinct but interrelated, may help explain the riddle of U.P., taking even the top BJP strategists by surprise.

First and foremost, the question of epistemology and ontology, while studying the interplay of religion and caste in general and the subaltern agency in particular, demand a serious revision.

Secondly, the retreat of occupational identity, despite agrarian and business sector distress, and the emergence of ‘caste and religion’ mediated cultural aspirations enabling a new sense of identity needs to be factored in any political analysis.

Thirdly, elections must be studied more as a ‘war of perceptions’, rather than an arena of concrete and competing policy measures. The abstract signifiers of populism seem to have a sway in an era witnessing the multiplication of political parties having a near policy consensus. This leaves electorates with the option of making a choice more by perceptual differences in the absence of policy diversification.

The analytical challenge, here, would be to relate these assumptions to the electoral outcome that BJP witnessed in UP.

Let’s consider the three assumptions in some detail.

Firstly, the dominant episteme of political and electoral studies since the 1960s in India has been to employ the analytical framework of ‘familiar and given’ to understand the shifting identities and their implications for both society and politics. This episteme was most significantly employed in the seminal works of political scientists and sociologists like Rudolphs and Yogendra Singh in their celebrated ‘modernity of tradition thesis’. Thereafter, the ontology of caste and religion and their shifting interface dominated the episteme of political and electoral studies. Barring some exceptions from the class-based left accounts, the same was reaffirmed in the wake of aggressive identitarian turns of the 1980s and 90s, the shadow of which still clouds the mainstream analytical frameworks.

In this analytical framework, the major concern happens to capture the ‘new’ shifts that the interplay of religious and caste identities may have acquired. Therefore, it is pertinent and desirable that one takes into account the political implications of fluidity informing both identities and space that cut across cates and religion. The emergence and constant expansion of ‘Rurban Space’, which are neither fully urban nor rural but curiously contain an inscrutable enigma, besides sharing the characteristics of both spaces. The people inhabiting the space, though belonging to the same castes and religious profile as their rural and urban counterparts, are always into a state of ‘transitional identity’, wherein they are tenuously trapped into the elusive aspirations and entrenched anxieties, making their socio-political choices unpredictable. Unambiguously, this phenomenon, having a bearing upon the electoral choices, must be taken into electoral studies.

Secondly, while attempting to study the electoral choices, one must take into cognizance the emerging socio-cultural shifts among various strata and cluster of electorates by combining the ‘political economy’ and ‘cultural factors’, rather than treating them in an ‘either-or’ frame. It is an epistemological enigma as to why the acute agrarian crisis and business slump, which affected the majority of social constituency adversely, have not determined the primacy of people’s occupational identity over their ascriptive ones. Why can’t people, at least in the time of crisis, first and foremost perceive themselves into occupational categories like, farmers, peasants, workers, petty entrepreneurs, and a permutation and combination of them? Why is it that their ascriptive identity always manages to have an edge over the former even at the time when the reason expects the opposite? Why is it that the cultural aspirations of the populace in general and the subalterns in particular, mediate their ascriptive identities, so much so that the political parties across the board make a mockery of representative democracy by fielding candidates on the basis of ‘winnability quotient’, calculated on the basis of the demographic thickness of a particular caste and religion?

The riddle gets all the more complicated when one confronts the question, as to why one party succeeds on the same parameter, as the BJP did in UP 2017, while the others fail. These riddles demand a new epistemology wherein the analytical frame has to focus on the interplay of both political economy and cultural factors, rather than treating them as distinct spheres. This may answer why, despite being at the receiving end of the policies like demonetization which offered no concrete benefits, the majority of farmers ranging from upper castes to non-Yadav OBC castes, such as Jats, Gujjars, Kurmis, Lodh, Kushvahas, etc. ended up voting for the BJP overwhelmingly.

Thirdly, one must take into account the two features of electoral arena presenting an irony – the multiplication of political parties and political players, expanding the ‘choice basket’ of the electorates. The emerging policy consensus of every party in the field promises the same thing, leaving electorates confused whom to choose. The profundity of electorates’ confusion would have been lessened had a party delivered some concrete measures than its rivals. However, barring few state governments, when one finds a general sense of electorates’ disenchantment with the performance of all the parties that have been in the power, one has to concede that elections are fought more as a ‘war of perception’ rather than of policies. In the war of perceptions, the hollow abstract signifiers like ‘Achhe Din’, ‘Corruption Free Government’, ‘Decisive and Strong Image’ are deployed. Such signifiers are meticulously curated by the tireless work and combination of PR agencies, rhetoric, and polemics, which play on the aspiration-anxiety axis of the people by making the rivals responsible for all the ailments informing the electorates. In this war of rhetoric, consistency is the last concern. In one phase, the leader could talk about the Digital India and development and in the other he can talk, with equal ease, about the ‘Kabristan and Shamshan’ analogy. The running thread among all these myriad verbal jigsaws happen to be the acute anxiety of people and their popular desire, which are collected from the ground by employing thousands of skilled and semi-skilled paid and unpaid volunteers. Therefore, one could talk about representing all sections of society without fielding a single candidate from a particular community, who constitute more than 19% of the electorates and the analysts seem to buy the same.

Hence, the UP verdict should be taken as a lesson as to why the dominant analytical assumptions failed to see the magnitude of BJP’s victory, rather than jumping the gun and declaring the same as heralding a majoritarian democracy or Modivean consensus. 

Sajjan Kumar has submitted his doctoral dissertation at CPS/JNU and presently working as a Research Associate at ICSSR.


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