(The Political Line newsletter is India’s political landscape explained every week by Varghese K. George, senior editor at The Hindu. You can subscribe here to get the newsletter in your inbox every Friday.)
A rainbow caste coalition
The transformation of the Bharata Janata Party’s Hindutva politics under Narendra Modi is multilayered, but one defining feature is its ability to subsume caste identities. Under Mr. Modi, the BJP has restrained dominant castes — Patels in Gujarat, Marathas in Maharashtra, and Jats in U.P. and Haryana, easing the aggregation of several minor caste groups.
Before Mr. Modi took over the reins, the BJP in Gujarat was controlled by the Patel community. The Patels challenged Mr. Modi on various occasions, but he prevailed each time. Ahead of the 2017 elections, a Patel rebellion under the leadership of Hardik Patel demanded OBC status for the community. Mr. Patel joined hands with Congress and became a working president of the party later. In 2022, he left the Congress for the BJP, and this time won as a BJP candidate.
Alpesh Thakore, an OBC leader had emerged as a leader of OBC, SC, and ST communities, mobilising these communities against Patel’s demand for reservations. He argued that reservation for Patels would make the idea of reservation itself meaningless. Thakore also joined the Congress party, but left it in 2019. He also joined the BJP and won on Thursday.
Both of them represent two conflicting positions on an issue — caste quotas. In the good old days, the Congress had the capacity to hold in its tent opposing interest groups. The BJP does that now. So much so that Hardik Patel and Alpesh Thakore both are now BJP MLAs.
How did the BJP manage to bring them together? There are several factors, and one main component is the use of state power. Both Alpesh and Hardik faced police cases, and they realised that fighting the BJP was too risky. And the Patel community which remains nostalgic about the dominance they once enjoyed in the BJP realise that they can no longer dictate terms. Trying to push a hard bargain with the BJP is one thing, and trying to separate from the BJP electorally is yet another.
It is not that Patels or other OBCs or Dalits are entirely happy with the space and power that they get in the BJP. The resentment may bubble up again, but for now, the BJP has contained them all. The situation of Patels in Gujarat is somewhat comparable to Jats in Uttar Pradesh who were up in arms against the BJP against three controversial farm bills but ended up voting for the party in large numbers in the Assembly elections. In Gujarat, the BJP’s rainbow caste coalition remains functional though discontent seethes underneath.
In U.P., Dimple Yadav romped home with a massive majority in Mainpuri, the Lok Sabha seat that fell vacant after the death of Mulayam Singh Yadav, founder of the Samajwadi Party (SP). SP’s current chief Akhilesh Yadav is the key opponent of the BJP, but his community now has split views regarding the saffron party. Yes, the by-election in the family borough, after the passing of the patriarch, erased the multitude of conflicts within the extended family, and galvanised the community. Whether the same sentiment would continue into the general elections remains an open question.
Giving clearer signals about how caste dynamics is working in the heartland was the bypoll in Kurhani Assembly constituency in north Bihar, where the BJP’s Kedar Prasad Gupta defeated the Janata Dal (United) candidate Manoj Singh Kushwaha by 3,632 votes. In the 2020 Assembly poll, the BJP candidate, who had the support of the JDU, had lost to the Rashtriya Janata Dal candidate Anil Kumar Sahani by about 700 votes. This time, the JDU and the RJD were on one side and the BJP, fighting alone, managed to defeat them. The RJD and JDU try to project themselves as the champions of OBCs, but their alliance is not working on the ground, the bypoll result indicates.
Reviving a dead script
Meetei Mayek or the Manipuri script, which was replaced by the Bengali script in the early part of the 18th century, is struggling to make a comeback. Language activism is forcing the Manipuri vernacular media to switch to Manipuri script too but the viability of the project remains dubious. “According to the Sahitya Akademi, the history of the Meetei Mayek script dates back to at least the 6th century and was in use till the 18th century. In 1709, a Hindu missionary named Shantidas Gosai came to Kangleipak — the ancient name for the independent kingdom of Manipur — to spread Vaishnavism. He mesmerised the kings and the high officials of the palace, and on royal orders, all religious and other precious books in Meetei Mayek were incinerated, and new ones written in the Bengali script.”
On the one hand, there is an attempt to assert regional identity, and on the other, there are efforts to keep the region part of Indian strategy for the Indo-Pacific, emphasising the cultural territory that extends beyond the political boundaries of India.