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The Transformation of Backward Class Politics in Uttar Pradesh

Gilles Verniers ( teaches political science and is co-director, Trivedi Centre for Political Data, at Ashoka University, Sonipat, Haryana.

A major political development in Uttar Pradesh in recent years has been the growing elitism in candidate recruitment by parties. While parties claim to have become more socially inclusive, they tend to enrol their candidates from among the new business elites of the state, who seek to further entrench their domination through participation in the democratic process. This has far-reaching consequences on backward class politics.

The last three assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh (UP) have all produced single majorities, won each time by a different party—the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in 2007, the Samajwadi Party (SP) in 2012, and most recently by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2017. This succession of majorities marks an important shift in UP politics, which was characterised before 2007 by profound governmental instability.

Before Mayawati in 2007, the last party to have obtained a single majority of seats was the Congress in 1985. The last chief minister to have completed a full term was Sampurnanand in 1960. Between the last Congress government of N D Tiwari in 1989, and the 2007 election, UP has been governed by 10 successive chief ministers and placed under President’s rule on four occasions.

Another break from the past is the fact that the three campaigns that led to these majorities were based on very general, inclusive discourses, as well as inclusive electoral strategies. All parties that won adopted a catch-all discourse centred on the promise of development for all, and claimed to be themselves inclusive, notably by providing representation to a wider array of castes within their fold, through inclusive ticket distribution strategies.

These three campaigns were also highly personalised, focused on the projection of the individual and providential qualities of party leaders. The ground for the highly personalised campaigns of Narendra Modi in UP and its all-encompassing tone in 2014 and 2017 was prepared by such campaigns and the similarly inclusive tone of the BSP and SP campaigns in 2007 and 2012, respectively.

The two questions that this article asks are: what has been the impact of the recent political change in UP on backward caste/class politics? And more specifically, what is the role and place of caste in the building of these majorities?

To answer these two questions, I examine several important changes that have occurred in UP politics over the past two decades: the greater inclusiveness of parties in terms of candidate recruitment, the localisation of parties’ caste-based strategies, and the changing profile of UP legislators. In the second part, I provide two broad explanations for these changes. I argue that the limitations of caste politics and the transformations of the context of electoral politics have created incentives for backward caste parties to recruit candidates from among local elites. The article concludes with five implications of these changes on our understanding of backward caste politics.1

This article is based on an original data set on UP state legislators built for the author’s doctoral dissertation. The data set combines publicly available data on UP legislators (performance data from the Election Commission’s elections reports, and socio-demographic data from candidates’ affidavits since 2003 and from the Vidhan Sabha who’s who since 1952) with information on the caste (jati), religion and occupation of members of legislative assembly (MLAs), collected through fieldwork between 2007 and 2014. This data set is now part of a larger data set on Indian legislators, co-owned by Christophe Jaffrelot, Sanjay Kumar and the author. While the data goes back to the early 1960s, the period of study considered here starts towards the mid-1990s.

Mid-1990s: Inclusive Turn of Electoral Strategies

One major change in UP’s electoral politics is that no major party will publicly admit anymore to targeting specific segments of the electorate to the exclusion of others.2 The BSP showed that to build majorities, parties should dilute their caste-based preferentialism, provide descriptive representation to a wider array of castes, and forge local alliances between their core support base and candidates belonging to other locally powerful groups, wherever this is possible.

The BSP’s winning strategy of 2007 has been well documented (Kumar 2007; Pai 2007, 2013; Palshikar 2007). The BSP converted 30% of the votes into 51% of the seats by fielding many upper-caste candidates and by attracting a significant part of votes from upper-caste voters—16% according to a Lokniti– Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) survey (Verma 2012). Between 2002 and 2007, Mayawati doubled the number of tickets distributed to upper-caste candidates. She complemented this strategy by changing the party’s discourse from explicit lower-caste appeal to the articulation of a new vision of the party—a sarvajan party (“for the entire society”) rather than a bahujan (“the majority”) party, largely for the lower castes (Jaffrelot 2010; Pai 2009). In so doing, she expanded a strategy devised by her mentor, Kanshi Ram, who theorised that the BSP would not win elections on its own without co-opting individuals belonging to locally dominant groups, mostly the Other Backward Castes (OBCs). Between 1993 and 2007, the OBCs made up over 40% of the party’s MLAs, by far the largest group of castes represented among the BSP MLAs (Jaffrelot and Verniers 2012).

In 2012, the SP adopted a similar strategy of expanding its support base, including more upper castes among its candidates. The SP campaigned on the theme of inclusive development and social harmony, with a focus on the youth. Mulayam Singh Yadav’s son, Akhilesh, led the campaign as the new figurehead of the party, projecting an image of youthful change. Its campaign slogan—Ummeed ki Cycle (the cycle of hope, the bicycle also being the party’s symbol)—was an inclusive one. Televised advertisements showcased the SP with a social rainbow of farmers, students, urban professionals, housewives, and female professionals.

Between 1993 and 2012, the share of OBCs among the SP MLAs fell by nearly half, from 50% to 27% (Jaffrelot and Verniers 2012). In 2012, the four main groups—upper castes, OBCs, Scheduled Castes (SCs), and Muslims—were nearly equally represented among the SP’s MLAs. Similarly, the share of OBCs among the BSP MLAs declined sharply in 2007, when the party made space for more upper-caste representation. Thus, the overall composition of the assembly became more diverse, as the two dominant regional parties themselves offered representation to a greater array of castes.

Despite the similarities in strategy, some caste–party alignments subsist. In 2012, both the Congress and the BJP distributed a higher share of tickets to upper-caste candidates (34.4% and 47% respectively), while the BSP and the SP gave them nearly a third of their tickets (28.8% and 29.3% respectively). In 2017, the BJP distributed nearly half of its tickets to upper-caste candidates and a quarter to non-Yadav OBCs (Verniers 2017). It also avoided distributing many tickets to Jatav Dalits and did not offer a single ticket to Muslims.

If we break down these caste categories, we see that further jati–party alignments persist. There are more Yadavs, Rajputs, Pasis, and upper-caste Muslim candidates on the SP side, while there are more Brahmins, Jatavs, Kurmis, and Lodhs on the BSP side. The BJP favours non-Yadav candidates amongst its OBC candidates (Kurmis and Lodhs), while the SP usually distributes nearly half of its OBC tickets to Yadav candidates. The same logic prevails among the SCs, among which only a few groups—Jatavs and Pasis—get the lion share of tickets from most parties.

There are, thus, limitations to the claim of caste inclusiveness of political parties, even if the assembly has become more diverse (see Figure 1). Most voters also belong to groups that are not explicitly represented by any specific party (Verniers 2016). The inclusive turn of parties has essentially meant that regional parties have opened their doors to greater representation of the groups they initially opposed, that is, the upper castes.

Localisation of Electoral Strategies

The inclusive turn of parties’ electoral strategies does not signify that parties overlook caste as a factor for candidate selection. Across parties, the distribution of tickets is primarily made according to constituency-level circumstances—first and foremost according to the local caste demography—and not from any predefined caste representation balance. Parties seek to maximise their chances to win seats by giving tickets to candidates who can bring enough votes from their own community (and beyond), in addition to the votes of their core support base, when they have one.

During the Mandal period, parties’ electoral strategies aimed at consolidating a core support group and seeking representation from other groups in the areas where their core group lacked sufficient demographic strength. In such constituencies, parties sought to have the votes of their core group supporters transferred to candidates belonging to other groups, thus seeking to create winning local social coalitions.

In this process, the local demographic and sociological context determines the composition of local alliance. The parties’ inclusiveness is achieved through the aggregation of localised caste calculations, rather than through the building of pan-state alliances between castes (Chandra and Parmar 1997). In other words, diversity is a by-product of parties localising their electoral strategies, and not the consequence of an ideological shift towards inclusiveness.

Localised strategies enable parties to adapt their strategies to local circumstances and maximise their gains, in terms of seats, by mobilising the minimal segments of the electorate required to win. These strategies also enable parties to develop a very general discourse while leaving it to the candidates to carry out the caste appeal locally. Parties need to maintain an all-encompassing discourse to attract support from floating voters, who tend not to respond to caste appeal.

This strategy pays off so long as the rest of the electorate—other competing groups and non-aligned voters—remain highly fragmented. In 2017, non-aligned voters overwhelmingly supported the BJP, which made minimal winning social coalition strategies ineffective.

The political ascendency of regional parties in UP through the 1990s and 2000s stemmed from a set of comparative advantages vis-à-vis national parties. They had superior knowledge of the local contexts through the spread of their organisations, particularly in rural constituencies. They also had faithful core supporters among the Jatavs and the Yadavs, while upper-caste voters tended to split their vote across parties. Their organisational strength and their dominant political position also helped them attract effective candidates, who stood a greater chance of winning by getting an SP or a BSP ticket.

But as electoral strategies become more localised, caste became one factor among others in the selection of candidates. Parties now needed to find suitable potential candidates within castes. They needed to find candidates who conformed to voters’ expectations—a reputation of accessibility and effectiveness—and who could also comply with the rules of the game, in terms of resources, local support network, ability to mobilise, and so forth.

One major consequence of the process of localisation is that tickets tend to be distributed to candidates for hire: local political entrepreneurs who invest in a party ticket to further some form of private interest, whether personal or group-based. This phenomenon can be gauged by looking at the economic background of MLAs, which reveals that the UP assembly may not be as diverse as it is thought to be.

Changing Profile of MLAs

Much of the existing literature on the profile of legislators in India has focused on caste and the significance of lower caste assertion for democratisation (Chandra 2004; Hasan 1998; Jaffrelot 2003; Jeffrey et al 2008). If most scholars have nuanced views on the emancipatory character of the rise of lower castes, they usually agree that assemblies have become more representative and that this ought to be celebrated.

But the focus on the heterogenisation of political representation in UP on the basis of caste has overshadowed another phenomenon that has taken place at the same time, which is the growing homogenisation of the same political class in terms of occupation. Over the past 20 years, the number of candidates and MLAs declaring some form of business as their occupation has risen sharply, while those declaring agriculture or a liberal profession, has diminished.

This is a departure from the past when most MLAs either declared themselves to be farmers or members of some liberal profession, usually law. Through the 1950s and 1960s, farmers accounted for slightly below 40% of the assembly, a ratio that increased to 50% in the 1980s, at the height of kisan politics (Zerinini-Brotel 2009). In 2012, only 28.4% of the MLAs declared themselves to be farmers.3

According to the assembly’s who’s who,4 lawyers were traditionally the second most represented profession, making up an average of 18% of the MLAs until the 1990s. In 2012, only 3% of the MLAs declared law as their profession. Today, candidates with a business background have largely replaced these erstwhile prominent categories (see Table 1).

In the 1980s, 7% to 8% of the MLAs declared business as their occupation, a proportion that doubled in the following decade. In 2012, there were 33.4% self-declared businessmen in the assembly. And if one clubs with this category those who declared themselves to be industrialists (3.5%), builders, contractors and property dealers (8.7%), and traders (1.75%), this ratio increases to 47.6% of the MLAs.5

There are variations between parties. The BSP is the party with the highest share of businessmen among its MLAs (66.3%), largely from the construction and real estate sectors. It also has the smallest share of farmers (15%) among parties. The BJP, too, has few farmers (17%), which is not surprising given that before 2017, most of its MLAs were elected in urban or semi-urban segments. It also has the highest ratio of self-declared politicians or social workers (15%). The Congress, which also has the smallest number of MLAs, counts no builders within its ranks. Both the BSP and the SP have fewer representatives practising the liberal professions than the national parties.

In terms of occupation distribution among castes in 2012, we see that businessmen are most represented among Jats (60%), OBCs (53.8%) and Muslims (51.5%). There are slightly fewer businessmen among the upper castes (46.8%) and the least among the SC MLAs (36%) (see Table 2).

2017 offers continuity as far as the occupations of MLAs are concerned: 48.6% of total MLAs are declared as businessmen (47.4% for the BJP alone), against 27.5% of self-declared farmers (Verniers 2017). While the BJP victory has meant a resurgence of upper caste representation, it has not affected the overall class composition of the assembly.


These broad transformations can be explained by the limitations of traditional caste politics and the necessity for parties to adapt themselves to the changing context of electoral competition in UP.

Limitations of caste politics: Caste politics in the 1990s largely consisted of consolidating the party’s core electoral base, notably by antagonising other parties’ support bases. Each party would concentrate on their respective bases, thus limiting their ability to mobilise across groups. The ensuing political fragmentation led to chronic governmental instability, as no party could obtain a majority of seats. Caste antagonisms and acrimonious relations between party leaders further prevented any attempt at coalition-making
to succeed.

A second limitation is that caste politics is a game of a few and not many. Most castes are too small or too geographically scattered to constitute a core support base for any party or candidate, even locally. Nearly 40% of UP’s castes have never sent a single representative to the assembly.6 These are essentially non-Jatav SC castes, or castes that belong to the Most Backward Class category. They constitute a floating electorate that is generally indifferent to caste appeals.

Besides, the Lokniti–CSDS survey data shows us that only a few groups vote cohesively for specific parties.7 These are the groups—Jatavs and Yadavs, essentially—that have both numerical strength and a party of their own. Other groups, including the upper castes and the Muslims, split their votes between parties and local candidates.

Finally, there has recently been a growing differentiation of caste voting along class lines, the richer segments of most castes voting preferentially for the BJP. CSDS survey data reveals, for example, that among the Yadavs—who remain a core support base for the SP—the richer segments tend to vote more for the BJP (Jaffrelot and Kumar 2015).

This is not to say that caste arithmetic no longer matters or operates but that it is insufficient to win an election. Caste still determines the distribution of tickets, which in turn shapes the representation that caste groups enjoy in the assembly.

Changing context of electoral politics: The second explanation comes from the transformation of the informal rules of the electoral game. The rising cost of entry into politics, the general competitiveness of elections, and the system of incentives offered by parties to their candidates, have a strong filtering effect on who contests on a strong party ticket, with a skewed representation of local strongmen and businessmen. The centrality of money in electoral politics also pushes many politicians to develop business activities once they are elected.8

Politics also offers numerous incentives to local businessmen to invest in a particular candidature. One of the incentives which is access to state protection and networks, and political patronage, enhancing their social status. Most of the businessmen–politicians I have encountered during fieldwork belonged to specific sectors of economic activity: construction, real estate, transport companies, brick kiln ownership, and liquor production and distribution. This is not coincidental, as these sectors are close to the state (through public contracts or the licensing system). They are also the fastest-growing sectors of economic activity in UP, generating large amounts of unaccounted cash, which can be used to fuel political activities (Kapur and Vaishnav 2011). They are also among the most criminalised sectors of economic activity.

The success of regional parties in recent years has been based on their ability to attract candidates drawn from local elite groups. Parties like the SP or the BSP outsource the business of winning seats to individual entrepreneurs who invest in politics to further some form of private interest, personal or group-based.

Moreover, political careers tend to be short-lived. Individual incumbency data from the Trivedi Centre for Political Data (TCPD) suggests that less than a quarter of first-time MLAs are re-elected for the second term. Parties often reject a significant number of their own incumbent legislators, while the voters sort through the rest who manage to rerun.

The combined effect of the spiralling cost of entry into politics and short political careers act to filter out aspiring candidates who cannot cope with or afford the process of getting elected. The costs involved and the anticipated swift exit have simultaneously created structural incentives for predatory behaviour, as successful representatives know they have little time to recoup their investment.

Parties have adapted to this state of affairs by co-opting candidates who possess the necessary resources to compete effectively—the right caste affiliation given the local demography, and support from local economic elites. These candidates usually belong to dominant local groups, or contest with the support of dominant local groups.

This is not a new phenomenon. The Congress, in the past, relied on upper-caste candidates because their high status granted them some authority over voters. But these upper-caste candidates also possessed the land that provided them with the resources to sustain themselves in politics. With the transformation of the economy and the slow transition from an agriculture-based economy to a more market-based set of business activities, the source of resources available to fund political life shifted. In a market economy, those who hold the key to the markets are bound to derive power from it.

Implications for Backward Caste Politics

All these transformations have had five major implications for backward caste politics in UP.

The first implication is the elitist turn of backward caste parties themselves, which were motivated by broader political and economic transformation and the overall competitiveness of electoral politics to recruit their candidates among locally dominant groups. The two parties that have incarnated the rise of the backward classes in UP—the SP and the BSP—have become the parties of the state’s new elites, associated with expressions of local caste dominance. There is a disjuncture between the sociology of the political class and the sociology of the social categories that the parties seek to mobilise.

A second implication is that horizontal mobilisations of backward castes have largely become ineffective. Quotas and reservations have exhausted their mobilisation potential among the groups who now benefit from affirmative action since the implementation of the Mandal report. A few excluded groups, like the Jats in western UP, episodically rally on this issue, but otherwise, no one is swayed by the promise of minute modifications in the quota regime.

A third implication is that while backward caste parties have become more diverse, they have also become more centralised and internally autocratic. Caste-based diversity has had no bearing on power sharing within the party’s organisation, nor has it fostered greater internal democracy (Jaffrelot and Verniers 2012). Further, the rapid turnover of legislators and centralised control over party nominations ensure that the power of the central leadership of parties remains unchallenged.

The same diagnosis applies to the BJP, whose traditional collegial party organisation of local notables has been substituted by a centralised electoral war machine, entirely controlled by the party’s high command. Local cadres and faction leaders are either sidelined or hand-picked by the party’s president who, according to an anonymous senior cadre from the party, “decrees [an] internal emergency within the party state unit before the election takes place” (personal interview 2017).

As a result, parties determine the political supply. Voters must choose between candidates who have already made it through the filter by the rules of the game and by the parties they belong to. In many constituencies, the choice is limited to members of competing local elites.

Finally, the conjunction of these implications raises serious questions about the emancipatory promise that backward parties embodied at the time of their creation. The rules of the games and party politics have contributed to creating a predatory political class that invests in politics as a means to further private interests. Electoral politics and representation are instruments for the consolidation and expansion of the control that groups or individuals exert over territories.

These evolutions have had an overall negative impact on respecting conventional democratic norms, which are routinely flouted by the political class. The nonchalant attitude of parties towards crime and lawlessness has contributed to the development of a culture of impunity, which in turn has further encouraged various forms of rapacious behaviour.

The BJP victory in 2017 can be read as the outcome of a struggle between competing elites—the old traditional elites who have always resented being sidelined by backward politicians and parties, and the new elites of the state, who have emerged through Mandal and the transformation of the state’s economy.

The localisation of caste politics does not mean that transversal caste aspirations have ceased to exist. Caste-based violence is on the rise in UP, even more since the appointment of Yogi Adityanath as chief minister. Members of former dominant groups seek to violently assert their regained political influence; segments of Jatav Dalits have also started organising outside the BSP to counter the violence and discrimination they are subjected to (EPW 2017). If parties do not address these tensions and demands for group-based attention, there will be further incentives to look for avenues of caste assertion outside the realm of electoral politics.


1 “Backward caste politics” refers to a profound long-term process of social and political assertion of lower castes, who have been historically under-represented in elective assemblies and comparatively neglected by the parties in power during the first decades after independence. The “rise of backwards” is usually read under the lens of a process of greater power sharing, more diverse representation, and as a general trend towards democratisation.

2 With the exception of the BJP, which does not field Muslim candidates.

3 The legislators declaring both agriculture and business as occupation have been coded in the “business” category.

4 Data compiled from the biographical notices published by the UP legislative assembly, available on their website:

5 These self-declared professional categories should be treated with caution. For one, they are quite broad and vague. The “farmer” category does not distinguish between small and large landowners. Second, some candidates choose quite simply not to declare any occupation. Third, it is frequent that a declared profession conceals other sources of income. During my fieldwork, I encountered many lawyer–politicians who also owned factories, ran private schools, or were business associates of partners or friends. Finally, legislation regarding offices of profit pushes many politicians to transfer ownership of their businesses to some kin and declare themselves as social workers. Many candidates declare themselves to be professional politicians or social workers, while their spouses declare ownership of companies, petrol pumps, or stakes in real estate. These complexities lead one to think that the actual number of businessmen in politics is probably underestimated.

6 This figure has been estimated by running the list of castes represented in the assembly against the central and state lists for OBCs, SCs and STs.

7 CSDS–Lokniti survey data quoted in Verma (2012).

8 Between 2007 and 2012, among the 95 re-elected MLAs, 41 had shifted from a non-business related profession (agriculture, teaching, and medicine) to a business-related occupation. Thirty-six MLAs who had registered themselves as farmers in 2007 declared another occupation five years later. In short, nearly half of the incumbent MLAs shifted to some business activity after their first election.


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Updated On : 17th Aug, 2018


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