The RSS and the BJP are trying to package prime ministerial aspirant Narendra Modi as a development-oriented backward class leader in the crucial Hindi heartland, heightening communal tensions in the process

Buoyed by active intellectual support from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is attempting the most audacious political experiment since the formal mandalisation and the consequent fragmentation of Indian politics that came with V.P. Singh’s announcement of reservation for the Other Backward Classes (OBC) nearly 25 years ago. Even though profoundly Brahmanical in their orientation, the RSS top brass are trying to engineer a new brand image for the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi.

Somewhat like the European alchemists of the Middle Ages, an attempt is being made to create a new social chemistry by packaging Mr. Modi as an avatar embodying both the OBC and upper caste Hindutva elements in varying proportions. Mr. Modi belongs to a backward community of Ghanchis, who produce and sell edible oils. In the RSS’s imagination, he should have great appeal among the OBCs of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, constituting roughly 40 per cent of the total votes.

Of course, in this experiment the political plank of development is supposed to act as a catalyst. But like all random experiments, there is no knowing what this alchemy will produce. In a sense, this new experiment by the Sangh Parivar is trying to create what Marxists might describe as a “false consciousness.” History is witness to phases, even if somewhat short-lived, when contrived consciousness played havoc with society which went through a severe churn before returning to a new social and political equilibrium. Are we in such a phase today?

UPA anti-incumbency

Narendra Modi’s rise and the RSS’s fascination with him, in spite of its deep dislike of his personality traits, must be seen in the context of this grand social engineering being tried by an organisation that has steadfastly sought to construct an idea of India based on Hindu nationalism, but largely unsuccessfully so far. This time round, the RSS is cleverly trying to piggyback Hindutva on a severe two-term anti incumbency of the United Progressive Alliance.

In the RSS’s imagination, a major electoral success for the BJP could eventually be touted as a big achievement in terms of stitching together the upper caste Hindus and the OBCs, who fought bitterly with each other during the anti-Mandal agitation after V.P. Singh had announced the implementation of the Mandal Commission report in 1989.

The sheer paradox of what the Sangh Parivar is trying to pull off would not be lost on anyone. The BJP launched its Mandir agitation as a violent reaction to the implementation of the Mandal Commission report by V.P. Singh, which gave much higher reservation to the designated OBCs in government jobs. The BJP’s slogan then was to counter Mandal with Kamandal which represented the Ayodhya temple movement. If the BJP had then imagined it would unify all castes under the Hindutva umbrella aided by the temple movement, it was proved wrong.

Of course, the Congress party was the biggest loser following the mandalisation of politics as its support base got badly eaten into by the emergence of new backward caste politics, especially in the two hotbeds of Indian politics, U.P. and Bihar. In a sense, the rise of backward caste leaders such as Mulayam Singh Yadav, Lalu Prasad, Sharad Yadav and Nitish Kumar brought to fruition the anti-Congress politics espoused by Ram Manohar Lohia who famously said, “Caste is congealed class.”

Confrontation

Lohiaite socialism had positioned itself against both the Hindutva forces and the Congress which was seen as status quoist. However, in recent years, the anti-Congressism of the Lohia legatees has dissipated and the Sangh Parivar remains their main enemy. The current RSS experiment of projecting Mr. Modi as prime minister is partly aimed at eroding the electoral base of the OBC leaders like Nitish, Mulayam and Lalu Yadav. But this is easier said than done.

No doubt, the prospect of a backward class leader rising to the post of India’s prime minister can potentially fire the imagination of the OBCs in the electorally crucial States of U.P. and Bihar. However, the history of confrontation between the OBCs and upper caste Hindutva forces will not be forgotten so easily. Don’t forget it was Lalu Yadav who stopped L.K. Advani’s rath yatra heading for Ayodhya in 1990 when it was passing Samastipur in Bihar. Indeed, it will be the biggest irony if the BJP ends up being the eventual beneficiary of the Mandalisation of Indian politics.

Muzaffarnagar and after

One way in which the Sangh Parivar has been trying to attract backward castes into the Hindutva fold is to pit them against Muslims. It is no coincidence that Bihar has seen a spate of communal incidents immediately after Nitish Kumar split with the BJP, while there were none during the years of the BJP-Nitish alliance.

The Muzaffarnagar communal violence is seen as benefiting the BJP because the dominant community of Jats, who see themselves as OBCs for the purpose of seeking government benefits, are said to be preparing to “give Modi a chance.” Mr. Modi hasn’t said a word on the violence in Muzaffarnagar. It will be interesting to see what he says when he visits western U.P. at sometime in the near future.

Together, U.P. and Bihar have 120 Lok Sabha seats and the BJP is looking to get maximum gains from this block. The BJP president had indicated to this writer sometime ago that U.P. would provide the single biggest gain to the BJP’s Lok Sabha tally among all Hindi speaking States. At present, the BJP has just 10 seats from U.P. and it is internally projecting for itself a minimum of 40 seats out of a total of 80 in the 2014 election. Bihar has a total of 40 Lok Sabha seats, of which the JD(U) has the lion’s share of 20. The BJP has 12 seats while Lalu Yadav’s party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) won just four seats in 2009.

Survey

The poll survey conducted recently by The Hindu/CNN-IBN and the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies showed both Lalu Prasad’s RJD and the BJP gaining in vote share by five percentage points and eight percentage points respectively in Bihar. Of course, this survey was done before Mr. Modi became the prime ministerial candidate for the BJP even though there was a fair amount of certainty that he would.

Going by the substantive increase in Lalu Prasad’s vote share in Bihar, it does not seem that the OBCs are ready to junk him in favour of Mr. Modi. Even Nitish Kumar’s JD(U) adds one per cent to his vote share as per the survey, which again signals that he will retain his backward caste base among the Kurmis and Koeris.

It is also unlikely that the OBCs in U.P. will overnight switch their allegiance to the BJP’s OBC candidate for prime ministership. With all its flaws, the idea of India as imagined by the mainstream leaders of the independence movement has a great momentum which will not go away so easily, tortuous experiments by the Sangh Parivar notwithstanding.

venu.mk@thehindu.co.in

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