“This is Mandal 2.0,”Lalu Prasad Yadav, addressing a rally in Bihar, pitching the forthcoming Assembly elections as a battle between forward and backward castes .
“We will bring the State to a halt if we don’t get quotas,”Hardik Patel, the leader of the Patel mobilisation for reservation in Gujarat .
“Buddhism is also part of Hinduism. The only way to escape caste oppression is to convert to Islam,”Virendra Baghoria, leader of a group of Dalits from Haryana who converted to Islam recently, in an interview recorded by film-maker Vidya Bhushan Rawat . “We don’t care if we lose our reservation rights.”
All these statements represent the assertion of caste identity in various contexts. Any emphasis on caste is a challenge to the politics of Narendra Modi whose slogan, Sabka saath, sabka vikas (Development for all), hopes to overlook social stratification and assumes that the market provides a level playing field.
The idea of a consolidated Hindu identity is essential to Mr. Modi’s politics, as much as its fragmentation into various caste identities is pivotal to the politics of Lalu Prasad Yadav, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Nitish Kumar. Therefore, while the Modi government happily >released the religion-wise break up of the census — which is being used by many of its supporters to erroneously and viciously suggest that the Hindus are being overtaken by Muslims in numbers — it is ignoring the clamour for the release of the data on the numbers and socio-economic status of various caste groups.
Classical vs. neo-Hindutva While explaining the rise of Mr. Modi, I had earlier termed the accompanying politics as Hindutva 2.0, a reinvention of its classical form. Classical Hindutva was stunted by recalcitrant caste prejudices but Hindutva 2.0 muted them to enable a Hindu consolidation. However, the Patel, Yadav, and Dalit sentiments represented in the statements above make us wonder whether caste is getting the better of Hindutva.
>The Patel rebellion in Gujarat is not unprecedented. Mr. Modi’s ascent in Gujarat after 2002 was deeply resented by the Patels, first because he booted out Keshubhai Patel, and, later, Mr. Modi’s governance style crushed their patronage network. Ahead of the 2007 Gujarat elections, they erupted in rebellion, and one of the reasons cited by a Patel leader was how the drive against electricity pilferage was taking a heavy toll on the community. “For minor violations, farmers are going to jail and most of them are Patels,” he had said.
Weeks ahead of the elections, in a huge rally in Rajkot, they not only accused Mr. Modi of “selling off Gujarat to Reliance, Adani and Essar,” but also, hold your breath, called him “Noor Mohammad Modi under the protection of Lal Mohammad Advani,” — the severest abuse they could muster up. Based on the Patel unrest, many observers wrote Mr. Modi’s politics epitaph in 2007. But history took a different course. Now the Patels are back again to challenge Mr. Modi.
The Yadavs in Bihar are also being mobilised in substantial numbers ahead of the Assembly elections. There are some common threads that unite the Patel unrest in Gujarat and the Yadav consolidation in Bihar, though there is absolutely no comparison in terms of their economic and social status. First, Patels and Yadavs both dominated the political order in the 90s. Second, both were at the receiving end of the 2000s political order — as Nitish Kumar in Bihar and Mr. Modi in Gujarat forced the Yadavs and Patels respectively to concede some space to other caste groups.
Third, with the assertion of the authority of the state, both in Gujarat and Bihar, the patronage networks of these castes came under severe stress. In Bihar, according to one account, more than half of the 90,000 convicted under a special drive by Nitish were Yadavs (there is no official caste count). Several strongmen from the Bhumihar community — another dominant caste — also faced the music, particularly in the initial years of the Nitish period.
Forcing the dominant castes to loosen their grip has been an essential component of Hindutva 2.0, along with the constant invocation of the Muslim ‘other’. The presence of oppressive dominant castes at the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s top repelled the numerous lower caste groups that are insignificant in terms of individual numbers, but add up to 50 per cent of the population in the States. The Patel-dominated BJP in Gujarat was unravelling when Mr. Modi took it over. When the Patels revolted, it only helped Mr. Modi to aggregate all other castes, with the possible exception of the tribals.
In Bihar, the Extremely Backward Classes (EBCs) had become tired of the Yadavs’ social domination, but the BJP did not stand a chance as long it was perceived as a Bhumihar-Rajput party. Ignoring stiff resistance from the upper castes, in 2005, the BJP threw its weight behind Nitish Kumar, whose backward Kurmi community formed less than three per cent of the population but could aggregate all minor castes, overturning the Yadav order.
The Sangh Parivar’s strategy of sidelining the dominant caste in favour of a leader from a numerically insignificant caste and aggregating minor castes continues. The party has appointed a Brahmin Chief Minister in Maharashtra, something that the former CM Prithviraj Chouhan had said during the elections, would be, “unthinkable”. The Brahmins constitute only four per cent of population in the State, where politics has been firmly in the grip of Marathas. The Parivar deployed the same approach in Haryana, where the dominance of the Jats has been upset by the elevation of a Punjabi as the Chief Minister, as is also the case in Jharkhand, where a CM whose caste is less than four per cent of the population has been appointed to the top job.
All this while, both the Parivar and Mr. Modi have maintained a certain ambiguity on the question of reservations. A resolution of the RSS Akhil Bharatiya Pratinidhi Sabha (ABPS) in 1981, recently pasted on the homepage of the RSS website, is instructive of its dilemma in dealing with caste questions.
“As one believing in the indivisible unity of the entire Hindu Society including Harijans and tribals, the RSS has consistently been endeavouring to arouse this inherent spirit of oneness. The RSS considers it necessary that reservation be continued for the present with a view to bringing all these brethren of ours who have remained backward in educational, social and economic fields over the centuries at par with the rest of society….. The A.B.P.S. agrees with the Prime Minister’s viewpoint [Indira Gandhi at that time] that the reservation cannot be a permanent arrangement, that these crutches will have to be done away with as soon as possible, and that because of this arrangement merit and efficiency should not be allowed to be adversely affected.”
Mr. Modi has skirted the issue whenever it has been raised, saying that the demand for reservation occurs only because the economy is one of scarcity, and in an economy of plenty, nobody would want reservations.
New debates around reservations But a new generation of Dalit-backward caste politics is trying to open new debates around reservations, such as on exceeding the current ceiling of 50 per cent, and on affirmative action in the private sector. They want the caste census data released, so that a new round of discussions can be initiated. The Modi government and the Parivar have obviously been feeling awkward.
Meanwhile, the Sangh Parivar has come up with an ingenious theory — caste divisions in India are an outcome of Muslim rule in the country. In September 2014, at a Sangh function, in the presence of chief Mohan Bhagwat who supported reservations along more or less the same lines as the resolution quoted above, Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) leader Ashok Singhal declared that lower castes were warriors who defended Hinduism and hence were punished by Muslim invaders.
The aggregation of lower castes is based on a promise of protection against oppression by dominant castes, and simultaneously suggesting to them that their real enemies are outside the Hindu society. Therefore, the first two statements at the beginning of this article do not pose any serious challenge to Mr. Modi’s politics, but the last one does. Here, a marginal Dalit caste feels upset. The leader goes on to say that they had hoped that the BJP government would protect them from the high-handedness of Jats in Haryana, but now, they feel betrayed.
In Bihar, this election is not going to be about which caste group will dominate the campaign scenario; rather, it will be about who would succeed in aggregating the numerous minor castes with one or two per cent of population each. Mandal 2.0 politics proposed by Lalu-Nitish alliance seeks to aggregate them by pointing out that the BJP is a Bhumihar and Rajput dominated party. Mr. Modi’s campaign talks about ‘jungle raj’, a barely concealed euphemism for Yadav social dominance.
The Parivar strategy for Bihar is to aggregate under its banner the entire spectrum of caste groups that made the victory of Nitish possible in 2005 and 2010, barring the Kurmis. Particularly significant will be the response of the Extremely Backward Classes (EBC), a group of 55 castes that add up to 35 per cent, and the Dalits.
The assertion of the Yadavs or the Patel rebellion can do little harm to his politics if Mr. Modi maintains his own ability to be the aggregator of small social groups. But by virtue of being the Prime Minister, Mr. Modi will be shorn of the rhetoric that has helped him aggregate these votes — like the subtle invocation of the religious rifts as he did in Bihar during Lok Sabha elections by raising cattle slaughter and Bangladeshi immigration. Mr. Modi without his rhetoric would be like Amitabh Bachchan acting in a silent movie.