Political Line | The battle is in the Hindi belt. Rahul Gandhi can’t fight it in Kerala

Why Rahul Gandhi should return to Uttar Pradesh. That is where the battle for India is being fought, not in Kerala. 

December 03, 2023 07:31 am | Updated December 10, 2023 09:06 am IST

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, speaks during a press conference at AICC headquarters in New Delhi, on October 31, 2023.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, speaks during a press conference at AICC headquarters in New Delhi, on October 31, 2023. | Photo Credit: SHASHI SHEKHAR KASHYAP

(This is the latest edition of the Political Line newsletter curated by Varghese K. George. The Political Line newsletter is India’s political landscape explained every week. You can subscribe here to get the newsletter in your inbox.)

The victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in three heartland States of Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, and Madhya Pradesh in the recent Assembly elections has renewed the question of the Congress’s viability in straight contests against the BJP in the Hindi belt. The Congress party’s victory in Telangana, which follows its win in Karnataka in May this year, also brought up the suggestion that there exists a divide between the north and the south in terms of political preferences. The north and the south have behaved differently at various points, but the regional variations in the country cannot be framed merely and solely as a north-south bipolarity. The suggestion of an invidious north-south divide is baseless and dangerous, while the issue of multiple imbalances across regions is legitimate and real, our editorial argues.

The BJP is actually expanding into the south. In Telangana, it won eight Assembly seats, and more than doubled its vote share to 14% compared with the last election. It is erroneous to say that the BJP is a party of the north, or of the upper castes. It is also not correct to argue that the Congress is a party of the south, only because it is strong in the States of Kerala, Karnataka, and Telangana. In all the three States that it lost, the Congress secured more than 40% of the votes. The political battle in India is not between north and south, but in the north, above the Vindhyas. Here’s why.

Ancient scriptures refer to this region as Arya Varta, where the epics were set and wars, real and imagined, were fought. Inhabitants and incumbent rulers battled and mingled with newly arriving waves of people and invading armies in this region. The Indian national movement, and ideas and leaders that shaped it were born here. Events that shaped the identity of the country, ancient and modern, also took place in this region; in recent decades — the Partition violence and the demolition of the Babri Masjid. This is the region where the Congress was once dominant, and where the BJP is currently dominant. Therefore, the region above the Vindhyas is where the battle for shaping 21st century India is being fought, and will be fought.

The Congress has not taken lightly to a suggestion from the Left that Rahul Gandhi should leave the Wayanad constituency in Kerala, which elected him to the Lok Sabha in 2019. But that is a point that merits a discussion. The fate of India will be decided not by the declining population of Kerala, but by the growing population of the Hindi belt. Unless Mr. Gandhi can take his politics to this population, there is little future for that politics. In the south, the population is ageing and declining. A product targeted only at a declining, ageing demographic cohort cannot expect a bright future. Any politics that has no traction in the Hindi belt has no future.

Not all Hindi speakers, but Hindi-speaking Hindus decide the course of Indian politics. That is the second point to be noted. The religious minorities have a limited say in determining electoral outcomes, and no party appears to be fighting for their votes in the Hindi belt. Not even the parties that are often accused of being Muslim appeasers. Essentially, the Hindu voters decide. Then again, the Hindu voters are also not a monolith. A constellation of middle castes, the Other Backward Classes (OBCs), form more than 50% of the country’s population. But that population was not excited by Mr. Gandhi’s call for a caste census that purportedly would have benefited them. They seem to be more comfortable with the Hindutva politics of the BJP.

The centre of gravity of the politics of India, in terms of numbers, therefore is the Hindi, Hindu, OBCs, but they are not behaving as a separate political bloc antagonistic to the BJP as it used to be at one point. The very idea of OBC empowerment got entangled with allegations of corruption, dynastic politics and misrule, and monopolised by a single caste in particular regions within the Hindi belt. There are more reasons why a return of Mandal politics is impossible in the Hindi belt, but let’s stay the course on the battle in the north for now.

OBC communities may well be the swing voters, but direct appeal to caste identity appears no longer attractive for them. What are the other possibilities of social realignment in the heartland? Let’s recall the Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh in 2007, 2012, and 2017. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the Samajwadi Party (SP), and the BJP won an absolute majority in 2007, 2012, and 2017, respectively. Which was the shifting social bloc in these elections? It was the upper caste communities, particularly the Brahmins. The Brahmins endorsed the BSP in 2007, the SP in 2012, and the BJP in 2017. What lessons can this hold for Mr. Gandhi? Counter-intuitive as it is, the battle between the Congress and the BJP therefore is for the Hindi, Hindu upper caste votes - not the OBC or Dalit votes.

To fight this battle, Mr. Gandhi needs to enter the field where it is being fought. Wayanad is a waste of time as far as his politics is concerned. He could as well get elected into the Rajya Sabha from somewhere. That is the Big Picture.

Federalism Tract: Notes on Indian Diversity 

Assam: Accord and Discord

The Supreme Court of India is hearing a series of petitions by indigenous Assamese groups challenging Section 6A of the Citizenship Act, 1955, which was introduced as part of the Assam Accord that established three categories of migrants who arrived from Bangladesh. The provision establishes March 24, 1971 as the cut-off date for entry into the State. Those who came before January 1, 1966 were to get citizenship; those who came until March 25, 1971 were to be declared as “foreigners” and would have all the rights and obligations of Indian citizens, except that they would not be able to vote for 10 years; and those who came after the cut-off date were to be found and deported. For glimpses of the arguments and the SC’s responses, see here:

Basic Structure

A nearly five-minute video produced by the Supreme Court in 10 different Indian languages gives a concise history of the Kesavananda Bharati judgment, a verdict that has stood sentinel to the basic features of the Constitution such as secularism, religious freedom, and federalism for 50 long years.

Kashmir - Saffron accommodation 

Article 370 was an accommodation of Kashmiri identity, which the BJP considered divisive. It was invalidated in 2019 through a parliamentary move, and the SC is expected to deliver its judgment on Monday on the legality of that move. Meanwhile, the Lok Sabha last week passed the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation (Amendment) Bill, 2023, and the Jammu and Kashmir Reservation (Amendment) Bill, 2023. The former legislation seeks to reserve seats for “Kashmiri migrants, people displaced from Pakistan-occupied Kashmir [PoK] and Scheduled Tribes” in the yet-to-be-constituted 114-seat J&K Assembly.

The debate on the Bill also witnessed some exchanges between the BJP and the Opposition on whether regions within a country can have their own constitutions.

Dissenters and the mainstream

“Dissents emerge not from thin air but from a democratic culture of fierce debates… Abolition of slavery, annihilation of caste, emancipation of gender minorities, and religious harmony were all once dissenting opinions,” Chief Justice of India D.Y. Chandrachud said while speaking on the topic of “Democracy, Debate and Dissent”. 

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