Driving from Lucknow station to Hazratganj, the old shopping centre of the city, you see the role that caste has played in Uttar Pradesh politics. First you pass an equestrian statue of the Thakur warrior Rana Pratap erected by the Thakur chief minister, Rajnath Singh. From the days when Brahmins dominated Uttar Pradesh politics there’s the state’s first chief minister, Govind Ballabh Pant. On the other side of the road, staring him down, is the man who first successfully challenged that domination, the Jat, Charan Singh. Then comes the Dalit hero of the Mayavati era, Ambedkar. A helpless Mahatma Gandhi, who tried to lift Indian politics above caste and creed, looks down on the road rage, the angry horn blowing, the aggressive driving, the queue barging, as Lucknow’s citizens force their way across the road junction at the head of Hazratganj.
At the opposite end of the religious spectrum to the Mahatma, the RSS also does not like caste politics, or indeed any manifestation of caste, because it’s an institution which divides the Hindu community. Lal Krishna Advani, speaking in the town of Ayodhya during this election, claimed, “in 1990 the Ram temple movement united Hindu society”. Whether that is historically accurate or not in Uttar Pradesh there is no sign of Hindu unity in 2004. Divisive caste is very much at work.
In the village of Kurha Sadat, which is part of the Ayodhya constituency, the Dalits seemed solidly behind Mayavati. This time she has attempted to sow confusion amongst the Yadavs, the supporters of her arch enemy Mulayam Singh Yadav, by putting up a candidate from that caste. But a Yadav farmer said to me: “I won’t vote for the candidate, I’ll vote for my party, the Yadav party.” There was just a glimpse of a weakening of caste’s hold in the village. A young Yadav, who had a degree in Hindi as well as a diploma in electrical engineering, said he’d been inspired by Delhi’s chief minister, Sheila Dikshit, to vote Congress. He couldn’t quite explain why as he’d only been to the capital a few times, but complained, “those people who vote by caste are narrow-minded. From this welfare will never come”.
In Ayodhya itself I found that the Ram movement had divided the very community the VHP relies on to be the vanguard in the battle for the temple — the sadhus. Turning down a narrow alley, just opposite the majestic gates of the Maharaja of Ayodhya’s palace where the striped flag of the family flutters from the rooftop as though power still rests there, I made my way to a very small temple, the home of Mahant Bavnath Das.
A formidable figure with the cauliflower ears and the body of his days as a wrestler, he is the head of the Samajwadi Sant Sabha. The Mahant is no mean figure in Ayodhya, being a member and once chairman of the trust which controls Hanuman Garhi, one of the main temples in the town. He criticises the sadhus supporting the BJP and the VHP for “starting to do politics and leaving behind the Ram movement”.
He complained, “When elections came they raised it, when they were over they forgot it. The VHP and its sadhus, they have given a lot of trouble to Ayodhya.” This election the Mahant will definitely be telling his supporters in the sadhu community to vote for Mulayam Singh and get others to vote too. He denied that caste was a factor in the division within his community, saying, “a sadhu has no caste”. But a local journalist told me there was a caste division amongst the Ayodhya sadhus, and the Mahant was a Maladhari sadhu which indicated he was originally from a backward caste.
The BJP is hoping that the Vajpayee factor will unite the Hindu community in this election but if the village of Semra in the Prime Minister’s own constituency of Lucknow is anything to go by, those hopes will be dashed. There I came to realise why caste is so important in an election. A Brahmin was bitterly opposed to Mayavati because the police had confiscated one of the four “vehicles” he owned. “If that government had lasted,” he told me, “I would have lost at least one more. But when she went the police listened to me.”
A Dalit I met had recently been verbally abused by a Brahmin, and when he’d asked why, he’d been attacked. His head still bore the marks of that beating. The police had refused to register an FIR. “Why,” I asked. “Because Mayavati is not in power any longer,” he replied.
From Uttar Pradesh I draw the lesson that no Ram movement, no Vajpayee, and indeed no member of the Nehru-Gandhi family will overcome the caste factor in politics so long as the police and the administration remain politicised.