The waning of subaltern solidarity for Hindutva

The migrant labour crisis offers fertile ground for political change but the will to execute it is missing

Updated - December 04, 2021 10:34 pm IST

Published - June 01, 2020 12:02 am IST

As the plight and precarity of migrant workers take centrestage, a pertinent question is about its political bearings. The fact that an overwhelming majority of those precariat are subalterns or Dalit-Bahujans, who, since 2014, shifted to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Hindutva in a big way, merits the question whether they would rethink their saffron link and return to the fold of non-BJP parties. Understanding this puzzle requires a brief engagement with the structure of subalterneity and its dynamic interplay with the Hindutva and Muslim question in India.

Contrasting claims

There are two contrasting claims of subalterneity — one oppositional to Hindutva and the other conciliatory towards it. There is a deep fraternity towards Muslims in the oppositional view as they are believed to be low caste Hindus who converted to Islam to escape from Brahmanical Hinduism. Pasmanda politics of the Muslim community is a reciprocal response to this claim of oppositional subalterneity.


On the other hand, the conciliatory subalterneity which is friendly to Hindutva, heralds a phenomenon which I term as subaltern Hindutva, which at present is the dominant political discourse in the western, central and northern States of India, and of late has made a remarkable entry in the east, particularly in Bengal by winning over a majority of Dalits and tribes. It takes a constructivist approach of myth building and argues that Muslim rule and a secular discourse of minority appeasement is responsible for their precariat position. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-endorsed three volume book by BJP Dalit leader Bizay Sonkar Shastri claiming Dalits to be upper castes before the advent of Islam in India is a case in point.

Back to 2014

To decipher the expected political behaviour of the subalterns in the wake of the current crisis engulfing reverse migration-bound workers, one needs to go back to 2014 to deconstruct the phenomenon of the mainstreaming of subaltern Hindutva which overwhelmed the democratic discourse of India except in the southern and northeastern States. It led to most non-dominant Other Backward Classes (OBC) and Dalits abandoning social justice-centric parties and rallying behind the BJP. Three factors explain this shifting alliance of the subalterns in 2014.

One, with the deepening identitarian turn in the democratic discourse since the mid-1980s, the numerically weaker subaltern castes, particularly in the western, central and Hindi heartland States, were aspiring to carve a niche for themselves within the discourse of subalterneity. Since, the oppositional subalterneity was vanguarded by dominant OBC and Dalit caste leaders, the weaker subaltern caste members felt relatively deprived.

Two, the BJP witnessed an electoral decline at the national level in the 2000s until 2014. However, in its six year stint during National Democratic Alliance-I, the party had effectively quelled its image as being anti-Mandal and anti-reservation.

Interview | Migrant labourers are the most disenfranchised invisible citizens: political scientist Ashwani Kumar

Three, by late 2013, when the Modi phenomenon appeared on the political horizon with a package of subalterneity, Hindutva and development, the target was two-fold: the secular and the oppositional subalterneity. Since both had an indispensable Muslim constituency, they became clubbed as one, their ideological incommensurability notwithstanding. The majority of non-dominant OBCs and Dalits nurturing a sense of relative deprivation eagerly embraced both the BJP and Hindutva. It was an active political choice by majority of the subalterns against the secular. It is in this context that since 2014 we have witnessed the emergence of a new dialectic — of ‘the secular vs the subaltern’.

A discourse of solidarity

What is at stake for the BJP and Hindutva in the wake of the ongoing migrant crisis? In other words, if subalterns came to the fold of the BJP by willing to bypass secular parties for order, certainty and opportunity packaged as Hindutva’s model of social justice, would the turmoil in the wake of the novel coronavirus pandemic change it?

The answer lies in the discourse of solidarity that lies behind the spectacular success story of Hindutva’s subaltern outreach. Subaltern Hindutva is premised on the claims of cultural and political solidarity among Hindus across the spectrum. Thus, it is the perpetual need and demonstration of solidarity across the Hindu spectrum that is indispensable for the hegemony of subaltern Hindutva.

Also read | Will migrant workers benefit from the Centre’s measures?

It must be remembered that unlike Savarkarite Hindutva which signified ideological dogmatism of upper caste Hindus, subaltern Hindutva weighs more on the instrumental side. The latter is an outcome of an active political bargain between the subalterns and traditional proponents of Hindutva. Subalterns carry a thick deal of political legitimacy and hence they are needed. Hindutva has the accommodating space which subalterns need to satiate their democratic desire for political representation. The leadership profile of the BJP as a party from the top to the rank and file, has an impressive presence of the subalterns. Other parties have had to give a substantial share of these spaces to Muslims; in the BJP’s case, it shares them with subalterns and other caste Hindus, thereby placing the party in an advantageous position to offer the best deal. Hitherto, the Prime Minister’s personal charisma, his claim to conciliatory subalterneity and the corresponding trust factor have created a sense of solidarity between him and the majority of subalterns. Therefore, much of the political attack on him became a collective attack on the subalterns. Criticism of his government and its policies from the vantage point of secularism versus communalism metamorphoses into one of secularism versus subalterneity.

Impact on States, Opposition

This throws a semantic challenge for the non-BJP parties endeavouring to employ the language of political economy to privilege material politics over the cultural one. In the past, the cultural solidarity of subalterns with Hindutva, particularly in the Hindi heartland, the prime suppliers of inter-State migrant workers depending upon cash and labour intensive informal sector, sustained the shock therapy of demonetisation.

However, equations seem to be changing now. Media reports and feedback from the ground in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal, where migrant workers have returned show that the political mood is layered. Unambiguously, they are not happy with the Prime Minister and the way in which they were treated. Hence, there is a clear sign of a waning of the sense of solidarity which they had for him in the past. There is a feeling of being abandoned by the state. Nevertheless, there is an interesting twist here. While they are not happy with the Prime Minister, they are more angry with the State governments and their leaders. Hence, in Bihar it is Nitish Kumar and in West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee. A section of subaltern section in Bengal apparently believes that Ms. Banerjee on a few occasions relaxed lockdown norms for the benefit of the Muslim community.

Also read | How will government help migrant workers when it doesn’t have basic data about them: Congress

This means, the waning of subaltern solidarity to Hindutva and the Prime Minister does not translate into a significant change of political action as there are no alternative solidarities. In fact, given that there is a greater degree of anger against the regional parties in the western and northern States along with West Bengal, it is plausible that the BJP may not suffer much therein. Economic precarity and material politics do not succeed in the absence of a powerful anchor. In the past, the Opposition was able to defeat the cultural politics of the BJP on a material plank in States such as Delhi, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh as it had State-level anchors who acted as a bridge between material crisis and its electoral translation. However, the same may not be true about the national scenario as the Prime Minister combines both, persuasion and policy. It is persuasion that holds the ground perpetually leaving policy weaknesses on the high road to nowhere. On the other hand, the prime Opposition party, the Congress, seems to be a party lacking both an effective anchor and programmatic action. True, the ongoing crisis is fertile ground for political change, but the will to execute it is missing. The crisis and political action do not seem to interact. They exist in parallel.

Sajjan Kumar is a political analyst and is associated with Peoples Pulse, a Hyderabad-based research institution

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