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Reverse Social Osmosis in Uttar Pradesh

As assembly elections near in UP, a new political phenomenon has become noticeable. Traditional caste-based and exclusionary parties are reaching out to other groups, even rival caste and class groups, in the hope of forming a government on their own.

Reverse Social Osmosis in Uttar Pradesh

As assembly elections near in UP, a new political phenomenon has become noticeable. Traditional caste-based and exclusionary parties are reaching out to other groups, even rival caste and class groups, in the hope of forming a government on their own.


ith the approach of assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, political parties, politicians, psephologists, media and even the common man are engaged with the usual guessing game: who will win in these elections? How many votes and seats will be won? And who will be the next chief minister of the state? The thrill of the debate implies that people follow closely day-to-day developments: in this lies the strength of our democratic polity.

But, in doing so they may not be aware of a new social phenomenon that has silently appeared to upset all their calculations: the phenomenon of “reverse social osmosis”. By this we mean that the vote base matrix of the traditionally divisive or cleavage based “exclusionary parties” is undergoing structural changes; their traditional voters are moving away while a new set of voters are moving towards in. Brahmins are moving to the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), thakurs towards the Samajwadi Party (SP), and while some OBCs and Muslims are moving away from the SP, some dalits too are also now reportedly estranged from the BSP.

Presently thus there is a lot of flux and caste polarisation too is showing signs of metamorphosis: A phenomenon that came to attention of this author during the study and analysis of the Lok Sabha elections 2004. There was something special about that election and Yogendra Yadav labelled this as signalling the historical closure of a radical promise of the 1990s; the “second democratic upsurge” [Yadav 2004:5384]. Yadav further said, “A moment of closure did not of course mean a moment of negation or that of reversal. In many ways the process that began in 1990s had reached a point of completion.”

The thesis propounded by Yadav offered more questions than it answered. One, did the 2004 LS elections mark a historical closure, or a new opening for subaltern groups in Uttar Pradesh? Many traditional subaltern support groups, viz, the dalits, OBCs and Muslims, had started believing that their political parties were taking them for granted. Hence, while one possibility – the homogenisation of the subalterns – was ending, another, that of their release from the regimentation of casteist parties and their movement to other parties, was opening up. Two, did the moment of closure also mark a reversal of the democratic

Economic and Political Weekly March 10, 2007 upsurge? In fact, the interesting thing is that it did; the “reverse social osmosis” is all about that. Three, can we explain the “point of completion” of the process called the “second democratic upsurge”? Yes, this completion was virtually a state of equilibrium in the social osmosis process which was going on during the 1990s after the second democratic upsurge. All these questions need to be answered, and they can be answered using the reverse social osmosis theory.

Uttar Pradesh also experienced the “second democratic upsurge” that was an all-India phenomenon by the end of 1980s [Yadav 1996: 95-104]. The second democratic upsurge attempted to explain the release of the middle castes and the lower castes from the clutches of the Congress, which failed to give them their due share in the leadership structure of the party. The newly released social groups were absorbed by new political parties. However, we have yet to explain the dynamics of their absorption by these parties which were formed in the 1980s or in the beginning of the 1990s. We can explain this as “social osmosis”. In Uttar Pradesh two political formations – the BSP and the SP (both parties had the Janata Dal as its forerunner)

– with high caste concentrations appeared on the political firmament. The BSP was mainly a dalit-centred party and the SP/JD was mainly an OBC-centred party. The social groups, mainly the dalits and the OBCs, released through the second democratic upsurge represented the “lower concentration” (vis-a-vis the process of osmosis) side as they were widely dispersed in society, whereas the BSP and the SP/JD, focusing on their respective castes, represented the “higher concentration” side. The dalits steadily moved towards the BSP whose dalit ideology attracted them and represented the “higher concentration” zone facilitating the “social osmosis” in respect of dalits. Similarly, the “mandal” and the backward caste ideology attracted the OBCs exerting a kind of “osmotic pressure” on them to move towards the SP, thus a process of social osmosis in respect of the OBCs was facilitated. Thus, the phenomenon of “social osmosis” represented the dynamics through which the caste groups released in the second democratic upsurge were subsumed into new political formations, i e, the BSP and the SP. This continued throughout the 1990s.

The process of social osmosis, however, is a slow one, as we can see from the slowly increasing vote share of the BSP and the SP – in assembly elections during 19912002 (Table 1).

The SP took almost a decade (1991-2002) to double its social base (12.5 to 25.4 per cent) whereas the BSP more than doubled its base (9.3 to 23.2 per cent) during the same period. As is well known, the process of osmosis stops when the concentration level on both sides of the semi-permeable membrane becomes equal. As can be seen from Table 1 both the SP and the BSP reached their optimum caste bases as is evident from their share in the total population of the state. The osmotic pressure would no more attract the OBCs and the dalits to the SP and the BSP respectively as some sort of an equilibrium was reached between the party and the respective caste groups. That was referred to as the “completion of the processes” of the second democratic upsurge [Yadav 2004]. However, the optimisation of the vote share of the SP and the BSP through social osmosis did not enable them to reach anywhere near the majority required to form the government on their own. Whenever they had to form a government, they had to resort to some “political engineering” which ultimately led to bad political blood. Hence, the SP and the BSP had no option but to disturb the equilibrium reached by the social osmosis process and thereby open a small window in the supposedly completed democratic upsurge.

New Political Strategy

This they tried to do by (a) renouncing the exclusionary mode of politics based on a “cleavage framework”; (b) adopting the inclusionary mode of politics based on the “assimilation framework”; and (c) resorting to the “reverse social osmosis” process. Both the SP and the BSP understood that it was high time to give up operating on the basis of caste for that had its inherent limitations in terms of government formation. It was necessary to reach out to other castes too and thereby become inclusionary. The reverse social osmosis was used as a tool to achieve that.

In reverse osmosis, the flow of liquid is in the opposite direction, i e, from the high concentration level to the low concentration level, which requires exerting pressure on the high concentration side in excess of osmotic pressure. This pressure was exerted by the BSP and the SP both on those caste groups whose concentration (presence) in their parties was very low, but high in the society. These caste groups were the brahmins, thakurs and banias. Traditionally, these caste groups had been attached to the Congress and the BJP. The game plan of the SP and the BSP was to put pressure on these castes so that they could be pushed towards the low concentration zones – the SP and the BSP (where their presence was very poor). The strategy of both the SP and the BSP was to enter into a social coalition with these upper caste groups so as to pre-empt political coalition later on (with other political parties), and avoid the hassle of forming a coalition government.

The SP did that by putting pressure on the thakurs through Raja Bhaiya, a politician with a criminal record, who had been convicted under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) when it was enforced. The SP helped secure his release and consequently, in Uttar Pradesh, thakur support for the SP increased by 15 percentage points during 1999-2004. Similarly, the party exerted pressure on the brahmins through Amarmani Tripathi as well as its policy of giving petty party offices to them in small towns and villages; with the result that brahmin support for the SP went up by 6 percentage points during 1999-2004 [Verma: 2004:5464]. But, the important catch for the SP was a segment of the dalit voters: during 1999-2004, dalit support for the SP increased by 7 percentage points (Table 2). Thus, via, reverse social osmosis, the SP was able to secure some nontraditional voters in the form of new support groups, viz, thakurs, brahmins and dalits. But this was not without a price. The traditional support groups seemed to have an inkling of the strategy of the party, for OBCs and Muslims have formed the traditional support group of the SP. But we find that during 1996-99, both these

Table 1: Seat and Votes of the SP and the BSP in Assembly Elections in UP (1991-2002)

Party 1991 1993 1996 (Seats/Votes in Percentage) 2002
S P / S J P B S P 34 (12.5) 12 (9.3) 109 (17.9) 67 (11.1) 109 (19.7) 67 (11.2) 143 (25.4) 98 (23.2)

Source: ECI

Economic and Political Weekly March 10, 2007

groups were estranged from the SP; the OBC support during this period declined by 20 percentage points (Table 3) whereas the Muslim support for the SP declined by a massive 42 percentage points (Table 4). The party did resort to some damage control measures to partly retrieve their support during 1999-2004, but the price had already been paid.

BSP’s Measures

Similarly, the BSP too put pressure on the upper castes; but, it mainly concentrated on the brahmins, though it was ready to welcome thakurs and banias too. For attracting brahmins, the BSP sought to become more democratic, hoping to put pressure on the entire community. It arranged several “brahmin jodo sammelans” in all parts of the state, and also formed “bhaichara committees” in every district for developing cordial relations between the brahmins and the dalits. Mayawati plainly told the brahmins that if they wished to enjoy power, then 21 per cent dalits and roughly 9 per cent brahmins could form a deadly combination for the elections. To facilitate this, she released the list of her party’s contestants in advance and predictably a large number of brahmins have been given tickets for the assembly elections due in 2007. Not only that, the BSP redefined its philosophical orientation to change from a party of the “bahujan samaj” to a party of the “sarvajan samaj”. The next target of the party were the banias. Mayawati pointedly grilled them, “You worship Lakshmi; how can you be away from Maya?” But so far there is no evidence of the banias drifting towards the BSP. However, the most unexpected catch for the BSP were the OBCs. The “reverse social osmosis” appears to have pushed the OBCs towards the BSP: 6 per cent more yadavs and 4 per cent more of the lower OBCs have drifted towards the BSP during 1999-2004 (Table 3). This has, however, generated some degree of mild resentment among the dalits towards the BSP for they fear the end of dalit monopoly within the BSP and the gradual dominance of the new breed in the party. So, like in the case of the SP (where some OBCs moved away from the party), we find that in the BSP too, some dalits have been estranged from the party and about 8 per cent dalits moved away from the party during 1996-99. However, the BSP has apparently succeeded in retrieving them all back to the party fold by 2004 (Table 2).

While we have focused on the caste factor in studying the phenomenon of reverse social osmosis, it would be interesting to examine the latter also on the basis of class and gender. The middle class and the rich have been considered traditionally opposed to the SP and the BSP. But we find that their support for the SP and the BSP has gone up recently. In the case of the SP especially, the support of the middle class and the rich has gone up by 15 to 16 percentage points during 19992004 (Tables 5-6). In respect of gender, support of women for both parties showed a massive decline during 1996-99, but there has been a remarkable u-turn thereafter, and during 1999-2004, women support for the BSP has gone up by 10 percentage points and for the SP by 12 percentage points (Table 7). Thus, the phenomenon of reverse social osmosis is on in full swing in Uttar Pradesh, and is mainly designed to expand the social base of the erstwhile sectarian and cleavage-based parties in their endeavour to attain that threshold that will enable them to form the government on their own.

The real sufferers of the reverse social osmosis have been the Congress and the BJP whose constituencies now form the present day targets of the SP and the BSP. But, the Congress and the BJP may not take things lying down and would want to take advantage of the same reverse social osmosis to counter-attract the traditional voters of the SP (OBCs/Muslims) and the BSP (dalits). The Congress appears to be in an advantageous position to do that as the so-called “traditional” voters of the SP, mainly Muslims, and the dalit voters of BSP, originally belonged to the Congress, and hence, they may see Congress as the “mother party”. It is up to the Congress to play its cards well to facilitate the reverse social osmosis process to its advantage. However, to obstruct the Congress in this move, a high concentration zone for Muslims has appeared in Uttar Pradesh in the form of the Sunni Muslim Front, the UDF (headed by Maulana Abdullah Bukhari) and the Shia Muslim Front, the PDF (headed by Maulana Kalbe Jawaad). These organisations can in turn draw in the Muslims through the social osmosis process. The two fronts made their presence felt in the recently concluded municipal elections in Uttar Pradesh, and it would be no surprise if what happened with the OBCs in respect of the SP, and the dalits in respect of the BSP during the 1990s also happens to the Muslims in respect of the UDF and PDF in the present decade. The BJP in UP is certainly battered ; the reverse social osmosis does not seem to be working to its advantage, and hence, it has no option but to take the ideological route to claim some political significance.

The thesis of social osmosis and reverse social osmosis disproves the rigidity of caste barriers in politics and also opens the possibility of the return of ideology as an

Table 2: Shift in Dalit Voters in UP

Party 1996 1998 1999 2004

INC 18 920 9 BJP 11 22 55 BSP 65 55 57 70 SP 1112 411

Source: NES Data, CSDS, Delhi.

Table 3: Shift in OBC Voters in UP

Party 1996 1998 1999 2004

INC 6 816 18 BJP 40 45 25 30 BSP 12 11 11 15 SP 38 33 1823

Source: NES Data, CSDS, Delhi.

Table 4: Shift in Muslim Voters in UP

Party 1996 1998 1999 2004

INC 910 3715 BJP 4811 3 BSP 66 49 SP 7975 3747

Source: NES Data, CSDS, Delhi.

Table 5: Shift in Middle Class Voters in UP

Party 1996 1998 1999 2004

INC 7 919 15 BJP 47 48 31 24 BSP 10 12 18 17 SP 3129 924

Source: NES Data, CSDS, Delhi.

Table 6: Shift in Rich Class Voters in UP

Party 1996 1998 1999 2004

INC 7 720 12 BJP 60 54 45 34 BSP 29 511 SP 2926 1228

Source: NES Data, CSDS, Delhi.

Table 7: Shift in Female Voters in UP

Party 1996 1998 1999 2004

INC 8 918 12 BJP 38 39 29 25 BSP 20 18 15 25 SP 3029 1426

Source: NES Data, CSDS, Delhi.

Economic and Political Weekly March 10, 2007 instrument of political mobilisation by political parties. It is imperative in the entire political thesis that advantage of such a process is taken not only by the erstwhile casteist parties operating on the cleavage framework and pursuing exclusionary politics, but by other parties too, viz, the BJP and the Congress. It depends on the political craft of a party; how fast and sincere it is in manipulating the reverse social osmosis in its favour. But, one additional possibility which opens up with the reverse social osmosis is the end of the coalitional politics and the return of the era of a single party government. Should a party succeed in manipulating the reverse social osmosis to expand its social base in the hope of securing a clear majority, the days of fractured mandates, hung assemblies, and the coalition politics that Uttar Pradesh has long seen may come to an end.




Verma, A K (2004): ‘Uttar Pradesh: Caste and Political Mobilisation’,Economic and Political Weekly, December 18-24, pp 5463-66.

Yadav, Yogendra (1996): ‘Reconfiguration in Indian Politics: State Assembly Elections, 1993-95’, Economic and Political Weekly, January 13-20, pp 95-104.

– (2004): ‘The Elusive Mandate of 2004’, Economic and Political Weekly, December 18-24, pp 5383-98.

Economic and Political Weekly March 10, 2007

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