Consider three large states: Maharashtra, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. In all these states there are four major parties in contention. Among the top four contenders in each state, the INC and the BJP feature as national parties. There are two regional parties in each of these states. However, the difference in the type of those regional parties and the way in which the BJP and the INC engage in these states is quite revealing.
The INC, almost across all of India attempts to build a rainbow coalition. Typically its vote base includes some Dalits and Upper Castes in varying degrees and to a lesser extent some OBCs (likely the non-dominant OBCs in that region) when the party is doing well. The BJP’s main appeal is also similar — with the mix of OBCs increasing in case of a Hindu consolidation. The INC when under such pressures on its core vote, typically leans on Muslims to counter the BJP. The equilibrium shifts to one side or another based on local factors and may throw wildly different results. A problem arises for the two national parties when one coalition bloc in the above arithmetic is a bit too strong rendering their overall appeal vulnerable to dominant caste formations.
Typically, it begins with an OBC mobilization in almost all of India and that’s particularly true in the Gangetic plain. In Bihar there are two OBC formations lead by regional players that are dominant while the INC and BJP add to them. The Bihar Dalit formation is not as well organised as it should be given the percentage of Dalits in that State is one of the highest among large states. In Uttar Pradesh, however, the two main parties happen to be OBC and Dalit formations — rendering coalitions impossible without hurting their own longterm prospects. The structure also makes one wonder if the Dalits in Bihar have ceded space to the JDU or if the other OBCs in UP have ceded space to the BSP. However, a cursory look at the demographics makes it plain: Bihar’s Yadav population is 11% while Muslims form 16%; UP’s Yadav population is 16% while Muslim population is 18%
Though the numbers are similar, the Bihar numbers by virtue of falling slightly short give room for another OBC dominated party much more readily than in UP. That is, the SP can afford to slip a bit more among Muslims than the RJD can afford to. And even when the slip is steep, the natural social order gives the SP enough chances to comeback in UP than when RJD gets usurped in Bihar.
The BSP because of its social base cannot ally at all with either the SP or the INC — the former has an antagonistic base and the latter an overlapping and hence competing one. The INC by having flashes in the pan such as winning 20 MPs in 2009 General Elections is still not completely resigned to being a bit player and therefore does not want to surrender its Muslim votes and ally with the SP. That leaves the BJP is a four cornered contest by default in UP — a far better proposition for the party than what it faces in Bihar. The INC by virtue of its lack of strength and therefore fungible alliance ability in Bihar, poses a far more significant short term problem to the BJP.
Maharashtra on the other hand, offers a completely different picture. The presence of Dalits and Muslims in the State is slightly lower as a percentage of population when compared to Bihar and UP. The INC, interestingly, takes a completely different role in the state — it has a strong base among OBCs. And because of the OBC base and the party’s ability to not completely antagonize either the Dalits or the Muslims, the life of every other formation seems short lived and difficult. That also explains the long tradition of Dalit activism in the state that has remained at a certain level of electoral success (or the lack thereof, depending on one’s viewpoint). Even more surprising is that its alliance partner is the NCP, another party with a strong OBC base. The two parties on the other side of the coalition — BJP and SS — have limited specific caste reach beyond the upper castes and urban voters. The BJP-SS alliance in the state therefore is a pretty poor one for both the parties in the absence of a wave against the INC or Muslims or someone else. It’s further complicated by the fact that the five/six regions of Maharashtra are so different from each other. If one were to look at Maharashtra from the BJP HQ, praying of an NCP-INC break up and a social upheaval seems the best approach. Or, maybe the BJP should look to understand the long history of Dalit movements in Maharashtra’s hinterland.
The moral of the story seems to be: when a national party gets in an alliance with a regional party in a state, the probability of the national party ceding ground to the regional party is far higher than the reverse case. Except when this does not happen. And it seems to not happen only when the source of strength is the mid-section of the caste pyramid. Did someone say Mr Modi was an OBC leader?