The framers of the Constitution, aware of the historical injustices of the caste system, included provisions in the form of reservations to ensure proportional representation in political institutions of Scheduled Castes (SCs) at various levels like the Lok Sabha, State legislatures, panchayats, and municipalities. The aspirations of SCs for political representation had been partly shaped by a fear that socially dominant sections, i.e., upper-caste Hindus could manipulate liberal democracy and continue reproducing the oppressive hierarchies – of which the SCs had been the historical victims (Guru 2011). Moreover, in a society wherein the conception of politics and the benefits of the state at large is conceived through access to state power (Mehta 2012), it was logical for each collective group to secure its claim to state power to ensure its welfare.
At the national level, political representation has in fact led to an increased redistribution of resources, especially in the form of targeted redistribution that favours SCs (Pande 2003). Moreover, it has laid the ground for SCs, especially Dalits, to collectively assert their aspirations in electoral politics in order to provide long-term benefits for their community as a whole. In this article, I examine this specific aspect of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) government in Uttar Pradesh. I seek to explore BSP’s control of state power and its apparent failure in providing long-term welfare to Dalits, which has been explicitly BSP’s core constituency.
The BSP was established on 14 April 1984, which was symbolically Ambedkar’s birthday. Its rise coincided with an upsurge in political participation by the Dalit electorate, and an open public discourse surrounding caste and social justice in the third electoral system (Yadav 1999). The BSP was part of coalition governments four times since 1993, before forming the government as the single largest party with 206 seats and 30.6 per cent of the vote share in 2007. Political analysts attributed this victory to a host of different factors. However, the bottom line remained that the government of UP was being led by a coalition headed by leadership of SC legislators, who sought to bring about political, economic, and social upliftment of the Dalits (Jefferey et al. 2008).
The administration and politics of the BSP during its multiple tenures have come to be defined as “patronage democracy” (Heath and Kumar 2012) and “symbolic conquest of the public space” (Jaffrelot 2003). In effect, it included appointing Dalit magistrates in almost half of the districts of UP, reserving posts in the police administration for Dalits, the widespread building of statues of Dalit icons, and expanding the Ambedkar Village Scheme to villages with a major presence of SCs. It led to a sense of newly found access to state power for these communities (Jefferey et al. 2008; Teltumbde 2018). This has been embodied in the assertion of their rights in terms of access to public spaces that were hitherto out of their reach, enthusiastic participation in the instalment of Ambedkar statues, and increased demands of accountability from district administrations. Further, these symbolic politics was also integrated with material demands in terms of ownership of communal land by landless labourers (Jaoul 2006).
However, despite gaining full control of the government for five years from 2007, the BSP failed to achieve any substantial welfare for its core constituency. The results of subsequent elections bear witness to this (Heath and Kumar 2012). Symbolic change can necessarily go only so far in transforming the material structures that continue to have an oppressive hold over Dalits, especially in rural areas where they are subject to the dominance of higher castes who own the majority of the land. It has failed to alter the bargaining power of the lower caste labourers in relation to upper caste farmers, which is crucial for any form of economic empowerment (Jefferey et al. 2008). Further, despite meeting out large scale targeted redistribution programs, the support for the BSP declined because it was not accompanied by any improvement in social infrastructure like health and education, which are highly valued by the oppressed communities (Heath and Kumar 2012). In essence, the single-minded pursuit of symbolic conquest based on identity politics eschewed the imperative for a mass movement, thus relegating transparency and collective aspirations of Dalits to only symbolic concerns.
For further analysis, the socio-economic structure of UP can be classified into three blocs – an urban, land-owning elite consisting of upper-caste Hindus who dominate salaried employment in the state, a rural elite consisting of middle castes like Jats with access to political and economic power, and a third bloc consisting of Muslims and SCs who are largely landless labourers (Jefferey et al. 2008). It is this third bloc that has historically been systematically excluded from access to public goods and services at the local level (Keefer and Khemani 2003). According to Bardhan’s theory, the rural elite is a major impediment in the provision of public goods to SCs (Bardhan 2012). They tend to disproportionately access targeted redistribution provisions by the government owing to their political and economic power at the local level, especially in villages. This phenomenon is witnessed in UP under BSP rule through conflicts arising between Dalits and Jats over the use of communal land and the social dominance of higher castes in controlling the administrative structure in rural areas. Moreover, a large proportion of Dalits in rural areas are landless labourers and live far away from non-farm employment. Ownership of land is therefore critical to ensure their substantive empowerment. Land redistribution measures are, however, fiercely resisted by the dominant castes in rural areas.
A last line of analysis, propounded by Anand Teltumbde, argues that there is an inherent flaw in the assumption that electoral success based solely on the basis of caste identity can lead to long term results (Teltumbde 2018). This is because there is an asymmetry of resources and goals between a Dalit party and the ruling class. The collective goal of a Dalit party, if it were to stay true to its ideal of radically transforming social hierarchies, will come to heads with the goals of the ruling castes and classes who seek to uphold the status quo. Moreover, by pursuing this approach, a Dalit party risks turning into a ruling class party that strengthens caste consciousness, instead of annihilating it. It ignores pertinent class divisions and pushes the discourse around issues of economic mobility and land redistribution under the carpet, instead of focusing solely on the question of symbolic assertion.
In conclusion, it is evident that the analysis of the failure of the BSP to provide long term benefits to its core constituency of Dalits escapes simplistic reductions to any one form. It is also distinguished from similar phenomena which bore different results in South India due to its unique institutional setup and history of class mobilisation (Jefferey et al. 2008). The symbolic politics and the conquest of the public space that is indulged in as a major part of its strategy were definitely important as a form of Dalit assertion and self-worth. However, the scope of such practice has been myopic and its effects can only be assessed in an abstract sense. Ruling class resistance to policies directed towards the welfare of SCs has been a significant impediment too, but the efficacy of the policies so formulated is itself questionable.
The experience of the BSP, however, raises larger questions regarding the form of politics employed by Dalits. A narrow focus on state capture, necessitated by the insecurities generated by the form of liberal democracy prone to majoritarian tendencies, must be expanded to address the collective aspirations of Dalits. As Mehta suggests, political negotiation based on an ambition to reach mutually beneficial agreements between collective groups is necessary to establish the legitimacy of our democracy (Mehta 2012). But one must also ask whether the fundamental assumptions for reaching agreements of one side, namely the ruling class, might be completely antithetical to the goals of other groups. This further brings into question the scope and effectiveness of the current form of electoral democracy in fulfilling the aspirations of oppressed communities.
 Reservations in Panchayats and Municipalities were added to the constitution through amendments to Article 243 of the Constitution.
 Some have alluded to the idea that the victory must be seen in terms of the secular credentials of the electorate as reflected in the social composition of the BSP candidates (Gupta and Kumar 2007) while others have pointed to the unique homogeneity of sub-castes within the Dalit fold in UP as the basis of BSP’s strength (Teltumbde 2018).
 This scheme had the goal of ensuring that basic civic amenities like electricity, roads and water were accessible to Dalit households which were usually segregated in rural UP and also involved the higher allocation of funds for social infrastructure.
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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s). They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of NLSIU, Lokniti or its members.