Of the numerous public appearances by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi over the last year or so, two have been strikingly inconceivable. Both happened in Kerala, often projected as a politically progressive State. In February 2014, Mr. Modi addressed a meeting of Pulayas, a Dalit community that has been for years a bedrock of support for the Communist parties. In April 2013, Mr. Modi was chief guest at the Sivagiri Mutt, founded by Kerala’s legendary social reformer, Sree Narayana Guru who led the backward Ezhava community to social awakening. The Ezhavas too have been largely supporters of the Left. At both the platforms — events separated by more than a year — Mr. Modi made a similar pitch. “Social untouchability may have ended, but political untouchability continues,” he said, referring to the continuing isolation that he faces from various quarters.
“The next decade will belong to the Dalits and the backwards,” he said, emphasising his own lower caste origins, at a rally in Muzaffarpur in Bihar on March 3. That event too was significant as he was sharing the stage with Lok Jansakti Party chief Ram Vilas Paswan, who returned to the saffron fold 12 years after he quit it over the Gujarat riots. And there is more to it. Dalit leader Udit Raj, who has been fashioning himself as the new age Ambedkar, joined the BJP. So did Mr. Ramkripal Yadav, who has for years been a shadow of Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Lalu Prasad Yadav, a champion of backward class politics in Bihar.
The BJP’s efforts to overcome caste barriers in its project to create an overarching Hindu identity are showing signs of success, though it is still far from being a pan-Indian phenomenon. “Mr. Modi has broken the stranglehold of caste. The affinity of these Dalits and backward leaders for the BJP is a clear indication of his acceptance among them,” says Mr. Dharmendra Pradhan, BJP general secretary.The issue of caste identity
Among the several factors that slowed down Hindutva politics in India, caste identity has been prominent. Politically empowered sections of the backwards and Dalits viewed the Sangh project of a unified Hindu society with suspicion, as its insistence on traditions implied sustenance of the hierarchical social structure that disadvantaged them. One of the most pronounced examples of this was Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, who concluded that Dalit emancipation would not be possible while they remained within the Hindu social order. In turn, Baba Saheb — portrayed with considerable fulmination in Arun Shourie’s book, Worshipping False Gods — has been a villain in the Sangh discourse. But in 2013, an article in the Organiser , the mouthpiece of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), portrayed the Dalit icon as someone who contributed to Hindu unity.
The Hindutva project tried a combination of aggressive integration, sometimes accommodating Sanskritising demands from below and constantly working on the fear of an “Other.” But until they hit upon the idea of replacing a mosque in Ayodhya with a temple, all of this could not gather enough strength for the BJP to win a majority in any region of India. But coinciding with the Ayodhya movement was also a great upsurge of backwards, triggered by the implementation of the Mandal Commission report. Subsequently, caste and religion alternated as the prime moving force of politics, depending on the particularities of the time and place, in parts of northern and western India. The BJP gained power in several States. But except in Gujarat, the debate has not been settled conclusively in favour of Hindutva.
The question, therefore, in this election is whether Hindutva will triumph over caste. There are at least three factors clearly nudging politics towards Hindu consolidation.Debate on Muslim reservation
Hindutva politics in Gujarat rode on violent anti-reservation agitations spearheaded by the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) in the 1980s. Though the agitation was against the reservation for backwards, the targets were Dalits. Almost immediately after the agitation, Hinduvta politics struck roots, co-opting vast sections of the lower castes into its fold, even as a rising portrayal of Muslims as the “other” unified them. But the trajectory in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar that together elect 120 members of Parliament has been different, as strong backward politics suspected the RSS on the question of reservation and found Muslims as allies. Ironic as it is, quota politics is dividing them now. The lower castes see the demand for Muslim quotas as detrimental to their interests. The case for affirmative action for Muslims is strong, no doubt, but the politics over it has played out much to the advantage of the Hindutva project. A social coalition that has been a bulwark against Hindutva in U.P. and Bihar for the last two decades is showing signs of unravelling.
The Dalit participation in the Muzaffarnagar riots in U.P., and the numerous Yadav versus Muslim skirmishes in Bihar over the last two years have strained the solidarity among the poor and the disadvantaged. Lower caste movements that challenged caste structures have also had a streak of Sanskritising aspirations that seek a better place within the Hindu hierarchy. When the image of the “other” is clearer, this streak becomes prominent.Willingness to concede leadership
The lower caste sympathy towards the Hindutva project has been matched by a willingness among the upper castes to be content under the leadership of the lower. The turning point was the 2005 Assembly election in Bihar, when the BJP-JD(U) alliance sought a mandate, with Mr. Nitish Kumar being declared as the chief ministerial candidate. Only six months prior to that, when the alliance vacillated over projecting him — because the upper caste segments were not comfortable with the idea of a backward caste CM — it could not win and there was no clear majority for any formation. In 2007, the upper castes voted for Dalit leader Ms. Mayawati in U.P. who won a clear majority, the first for any since the Ayodhya movement. In 2010, the rainbow caste coalition voted for Mr. Nitish Kumar again; in 2012, another variant of the coalition voted for backward caste leader Mr. Akhilesh Yadav in U.P.
This change in the upper caste attitude can dramatically turn round the fortunes of the BJP. The BJP has been responsive to the leadership ambitions of the backwards and Dalits, but the upper caste support to leaders such as Mr. Kalyan Singh and Ms. Uma Bharti has been tentative. “We have the so-called backwards and lower castes standing up and wanting to be counted as Hindus. Sangh has empowered them. Even the communist movements could not accommodate these sections of the society in their leadership,” says Mr. Ram Madhav, senior RSS leader. “In 1998, the BJP had 58 MPs who were SCs and STs, possibly the highest for any party ever as a proportion of its strength,” he says. With Mr. Modi at the helm and the change in upper caste attitudes, the Sangh’s efforts have got a major fillip.Media-propelled popularity
A third factor that has developed over the last decade is the dramatic popularity achieved by several lower caste gurus, aided by the visual media. To cite two examples, both Swami Ramdev, who was born a Yadav in Haryana and Mata Amritanandamayi, born in a fisherman’s community in Kerala, have attained such a huge following that their caste origins have been eclipsed. TV evangelism, as opposed to scriptural Hinduism controlled by priests, has enrolled a large section of poorer and lower caste people into thinking as Hindus. This may be a rerun of how TV serial “Ramayan” contributed to the Ayodhya movement; and lower caste Hindu gurus are not unprecedented. What makes it all extremely potent is the context of a certain level of economic prosperity among the lower castes, media penetration and the Sangh propaganda.
The terms of engagement between the state and the poor, between the upper and the lower castes, and between Hindus and Muslims could change further in the emerging scenario. “Lalu and Mulayam had managed to command backward castes support with a the promise of share in power. Mr. Modi’s politics for backwards and Dalits is not based on doles and welfare schemes, but overall development,” says Mr. Pradhan.