Phoolan, victim of caste politics?
By Javed M. Ansari
NEW DELHI, JULY 26. The motive behind the brutal killing of the Samajwadi Party MP, Phoolan Devi, on Wednesday, is yet to be established. Whether it was part of a larger ``political conspiracy'' or the fallout of a family feud over property, is still not known. One thing, however, is certain: Phoolan Devi's death, especially its timing, coming as it did in the run up to the Uttar Pradesh elections, is bound to have an impact on the State's politics. Her death has already acquired political overtones with the Samajwadi Party openly speaking of a ``political conspiracy.''
In Uttar Pradesh, caste polarisation is so complete and vicious that even matters of life and death are viewed through that prism. The caste base of political parties in the State runs somewhat like this. With the Congress fading out, the upper castes - especially the 13 per cent Brahmin population and the 12 per cent Thakur population - have gravitated to the BJP. In addition to the traditional Bania vote, the BJP has also managed to rope in a fair section of the non-Yadav backward caste votes for itself, primarily that of the Lodhs, thanks to the former Chief Minister, Mr. Kalyan Singh. However his ouster from the BJP has eroded its caste base.
The SP, led by Mr. Mulayam Singh Yadav, has the traditional support of the 8.55 per cent Yadavs and the 16.5 per cent Muslims, while the BSP has a stranglehold over the 23 per cent Dalit vote.
The Chief Minister, Mr. Rajnath Singh, has, in an attempt to wean away the non-Yadav backwards and the ``most backwards,'' carved out a special quota for them from amongst the 27 per cent reservation for OBC's special quota for the most backwards from the 27 per cent reservation, recommended by the Mandal Commission.
The SP too has been trying to reach out to the non- Yadav backward communities, especially the Lodhs and the Mallahs (fisherman) by propping up their caste leaders like Sakhsi Maharaj and Phoolan Devi. However, Mr. Singh's new reservation policy threatens to throw a spanner in the SP's works. Shrewdly, the SP has at once begun to highlight that the first casualty of the Chief Minister's new policy was Phoolan Devi, a member of the most backward community, Mallahs. The fact that Phoolan's political rivals in Mirzapur - the constituency she represented - share both caste and personal equations with Mr. Singh has helped.
It was not without reason that the SP leadership insisted on Phoolan's cremation being performed in Mirzapur. The party wanted to send a powerful message to the members of the backward castes that the BJP and Mr. Singh were victimising members of the OBC to help members of their own caste. The attempt was to prevent a possible drift of the most backward castes to the BJP as a fallout of the Chief Minister's new reservation policy and also to polarise the political and social line-up in the State.
For the SP, the move could become counter-productive and precipitate upper caste polarisation in favour of the BJP. ``They are trying to polarise the situation on caste lines but I can assure you it will work to our advantage'' says the senior BJP leader and Rajya Sabha MP, Mr. Sanghpriya Gautam.