Ferment in the heartland

Congress leaders Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra meet the family members of the Hathras gang rape victim in Uttar Pradesh’s Hathras district on October 3, 2020.

Congress leaders Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra meet the family members of the Hathras gang rape victim in Uttar Pradesh’s Hathras district on October 3, 2020.

In 2019, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won 62 of the 80 Lok Sabha seats in Uttar Pradesh, and in 2014, 71. U.P. elects 15% of the Lok Sabha members, but it contributed 20% of the BJP members in 2019 and 25% in 2014. The concentrated support in regions above the Vindhyas, the Hindutva heartland, enabled the BJP to win 56% of the Lok Sabha seats with 38% votes in 2019. In U.P., the Congress won two seats in 2014 and one in 2019. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi lost his own heartland seat of Amethi in 2019; to enter the Lok Sabha, he chose a seat in the geographical and social periphery of Hindu nationalism — the minority-majority Wayanad seat in Kerala.

Mr. Gandhi has now sought to bring the battle back to the heartland, in Hathras in U.P., by rallying public opinion against caste violence, and in Punjab and Haryana, by spearheading farmer protests. He managed to put the spotlight on oppressive caste violence often invisibilised by slogans of Hindu unity as well as on the political self-quarantine of two champions of social justice, former Chief Ministers Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati. Further turns in U.P. will depend on whether Mr. Gandhi remains consistent and whether the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) intervenes to enforce order in its tent. Threatening the BJP’s pre-eminence in U.P. is not so much the upper caste violence against Dalits as the intensifying rivalry between two upper caste groups that form the social core of Hindutva in its geographical core — the Thakurs and the Brahmins.

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The Yogi model

Affinity, privilege and dispossession linked to caste are not uncommon anywhere, but in U.P. politics, they are all uniquely intense. Caste has been a major obstacle to Hindu unity. Rejection, at least in theory, of untouchability, remained a common thread across all attempts of Hindu unification in history, but the question of inequality was rarely confronted. In the 1980s, when the Sangh Parivar ramped up its efforts to reach out to the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and Dalits, it consciously chose the word samrasta (harmony) over the word samata (equality). Harmony does not reject or preclude hierarchy.

Narendra Modi’s rise marked Hindutva 2.0 — political Hinduism contoured to demands of the market and Mandal aspirations — which created a national Hindu majority, concentrated in the heartland. The Vishva Hindu Parishad captured the ongoing process in a statement following the  acquittal of Parivar leaders in the Babri Masjid demolition case thus: “We call upon the society to now look forward to the urgent tasks at hand, the completion of a Grand Temple at Shri Ramjanmabhoomi, the eradication of social inequalities and establishment of samrasta , to bring about social, educational and economic upliftment of the Scheduled Castes, Tribes and other economically backward sections of the society as also to build a strong and stable Bharat; capable of fighting the attacks and challenges from within and at the borders” (emphasis added).

The BJP has been far more open and successful in accommodating marginalised castes than the Congress in the heartland. The Parivar also overlooked, sidelined, or confronted autonomous intermediary and Dalit groups, as has been the case with the Marathas in Maharashtra, the Patels in Gujarat, the Yadavs in Bihar, and the Yadavs and Jatavs in U.P. It chose upper caste leaders only in non-threatening environs for the rest — a Thakur in Chhattisgarh or a Brahmin in Maharashtra. The appointment of Yogi Adityanath as Chief Minister of U.P. in 2017 marked a change in this pattern. It also coincided with an upper caste impatience to reclaim their marginal losses during the Mandal surge. Mr. Adityanath’s strident commitment to Hindutva was a factor that endeared him to the Parivar. If his Thakur background was deliberately overlooked, it may have been motivated by a belief — which now stands challenged — that being a priest in saffron, his identity was solely Hindu.

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The Parivar’s preferred instrument for Hindu unity is hegemony as opposed to domination. Domination is used occasionally, for instance, against Ambedkarites. The disproportionate association of negative attributes such as inefficiency, corruption, nepotism and policy paralysis with OBCs, Dalit and minority leaders in public debates is not accidental but often an outcome of curated hegemonic discourses. The 2007 slogan that heralded the Jatav-Brahmin social coalition that catapulted Ms. Mayawati to power in U.P. creatively linked the emergence of any fresh political narrative to caste hierarchy — ‘Brahmin Shankh Bajayaenge Tho Haathi Badta Jaayega (If the Brahmin keeps blowing the conch, the elephant will keep moving forward)’ . The Brahmins, estimated to be above 10% of the U.P. voters, are the most impactful swing voters anywhere in India at the moment. In 2007, their support brought Ms. Mayawati to power; in 2012, they moved en masse to Akhilesh Yadav who became the Chief Minister; and in 2017, they moved en masse to the BJP that won.

Though Brahmins remain loyal to the BJP generally speaking, they feel sidelined and threatened in U.P. The social media chatter following the killing of gangster Vikas Dubey in July was instructive of how the community perceives its ties with the Yogi administration. If the Thakur-Brahmin rivalry is settled amicably by the RSS leadership, the current turmoil in the State could recede and its memory will fade.

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Rahul’s second coming?

Mr. Gandhi is one leader who is beyond caste and even religion. While this could be his biggest advantage in a society reeling from sectarianisms of various types, this could be his biggest disadvantage too. He belongs to a cohort that is ‘truly Indian,’ in the sense Ashis Nandy describes as one who “cannot be easily identified with any specific regional culture in India.” “You cannot fit them into anything local. They can only be called Indians... They are partly deracinated.” These ‘true Indians’ are hence also disconnected from the rural, communitarian milieu. In an overwhelmingly Hinduised political climate, being disconnected from particularities is a double-edged sword. Mr. Gandhi’s grandmother and father had to assert their Hindu identity. He is evidently conflicted over the question — he is unsure of his tilak and rudraksh . The disconnect from the local and the sectarian is also the reason why the Congress remains insular to the aspirations of backward and Dalit politics. To be fair, it has been responsive in policy — the expansion of Mandal to higher education during the United Progressive Alliance regime is instructive. The challenge is in representation. The Congress has no Dalit or OBC leader in the heartland who is identified as such. Mr. Gandhi and his sister Priyanka Gandhi forced a rethink among their critics through their tenacious intervention in Hathras, but the exclusion of U.P. Congress chief Ajay Kumar Lallu, himself an OBC, from the scene was inexplicable. What Mr. Gandhi lacks is not courage or conviction, but attention to detail and consistency, which are more important.

The caste rivalries in U.P. at the moment are a strictly regional housekeeping challenge for Hindutva, with no immediate implications for Mr. Modi’s politics. However, their inherent contradictions have resurfaced more violently than any time in at least a decade and this potentially opens a fresh opportunity for Mr. Gandhi in the heartland.

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Printable version | Aug 13, 2022 9:17:37 am |