In the recent Assembly elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won four States (Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Goa and Manipur) and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) won one (Punjab). There was a premise that this time, particularly in U.P., there was a strong resistance to the BJP’s Kamandal or religious nationalist politics from the Samajwadi Party (SP)’s social justice politics or Mandal politics. What actually won the day for the BJP and what, therefore, happens to the idea that Hindu religious politics can be or should be countered by caste identity politics? Radhika Ramaseshan and Indrajit Roy discuss this question in a conversation moderated by Varghese K. George. Edited excerpts:
What do you think of the notion that an Other Backward Classes (OBC) consolidation can counter the rise of Hindutva considering that this has failed in four elections in U.P.?
Radhika Ramaseshan: Caste and religion are mutually compatible in U.P. This was proven in 1991, when the Assembly and Lok Sabha elections took place simultaneously. That was when OBC consolidation segued into religion because the BJP used a heavy dose of religion in its campaign. It fought on the back of the Ram Mandir movement. The anti-minority component underpinned the rhetoric. Yet, large sections of the backward castes and Dalits were attracted to the BJP, which finally won a simple majority.
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Heartland politics is dynamic. A certain section may vote for one party in one election and abandon it in the next. But there are some constants: the upper castes have largely voted for the BJP since 1989, and as a reaction to the Mandal Commission’s recommendations.
I think it is nothing short of genius that the BJP has been able to wed Mandal and Kamandal well. What did it do? In 1991, Kalyan Singh, a backward caste Lodh, was made the Chief Minister to undercut the impact of Mandal. Subsequently, the BJP expanded its social engineering experiment to include large sections of OBCs. In 2014, the BJP succeeded after a long hiatus. It even got large sections of the Yadav votes. One thought that the others were committed to one form or the other of the Socialist Party, in this case, the SP. But Narendra Modi’s larger-than-life persona dominated the election, there was development, but everything was underpinned by Hindutva. The Yadavs wanted to be in the mainstream of politics and decided to vote for the BJP. That was a major tipping point for the BJP’s success in 2014, 2017 and 2019.
In 2022, things changed a little. The BJP’s tight social engineering fabric began to fray on the edges — I would say in 2019 when Om Prakash Rajbhar quit the BJP.
As segments of the backward castes which were with the BJP moved away, it led to speculation that the BJP’s ability to hold together various caste groups under its umbrella had diminished over time and therefore, the time was ripe for a new way of Mandal politics. Do the 2022 results show that this isn’t the case and might never be?
RR: I will not reach that conclusion since everything is in a state of flux in U.P. But this election proved that what we took for granted — namely, the strong social engineering fabric that the BJP had put together, can sort of give way under pressure. The SP tried hard, couldn’t succeed entirely, but it didn’t do too badly.
Indrajit, do you think that the BJP’s ability to be a catch-all party, at least in terms of Hindu caste groups, is now being challenged? Or does this election prove that the BJP’s stability is pretty formidable?
Indrajit Roy: We often assume Hindutva to be a monolith, to be unchanging, to be a fixed entity. But we can speak of varieties of Hindutva. I would like to point to two broad varieties of Hindutva. One is a more Brahmanical version. But what you see increasingly is a Bahujanisation of Hindutva — what some people refer to as subaltern Hindutva. This is in tension with Brahmanical Hindutva. Radhika pointed to this tension when she referred to the deliberations in 1991 on who should become Chief Minister. So, caste politics has posed a challenge to Hindutva politics and continues to do so. The SP has been able to mount a challenge. In Bihar, in 2020, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) was able to hold the fort against the BJP. The BJP succeeded eventually in both U.P. and Bihar, but the premise of caste politics does lead practitioners to challenge Hindutva and that is because of the inability within Hindutva to resolve this tension between Brahmanical Hindutva and the Bahujan Hindutva.
Hindutva is premised on the ground that all Hindus are equal or at least there should be unity among the Hindus. And of course, that appeals to people who have been marginalised within a caste-based hierarchy for centuries. But if you look at things like vote shares, you will find that some of these appeals don’t always translate into votes. We have got used to talking about the growing attraction of the OBCs, Dalits, etc. towards the BJP. But see the massive support that the BJP enjoys among the privileged castes (some 90%) and contrast that with other castes, even other OBC castes, and the numbers don’t reach 70%. So, we exaggerate the extent to which other castes, OBCs, Dalits have floated towards the BJP.
Radhika, there was resentment among underprivileged caste and class groups vis-à-vis the BJP and a noticeable streak of anti-incumbency as well. But either it wasn’t to the extent that would have threatened the BJP or a larger number of people chose to stay with the BJP. What does this indicate?
RR: During my travel, the younger people in subaltern castes, backward sub-castes or Dalit sub-castes, who are disenchanted with the government of the day, raised issues like unemployment, the threat of privatisation of the public sector, and the threat of privatisation of education. They were dying to get out of the village. They found that agriculture was no longer an attractive proposition; indeed, it was becoming increasingly unprofitable. When they think of a job, they still think of the government sector. And they find that jobs in the government sector are shrinking. They think that privatisation of public sector units will phase out or even end reservation. They feel that privatisation of education will simply make the colleges and higher institutions inaccessible to them. There was a definite shift of the younger population towards the SP, but obviously it was not enough.
The older lot preferred to be conservative and vote for the BJP because they were not sure whether the SP was strong enough to answer the challenges that were raised by the younger people. There was also the lingering fear that the return of the SP would mean the ascendancy of the Yadavs and possibly the Muslims. And that would hit them hard. This was already evident in certain villages. The Yadavs were not exactly on the rampage, but they were shouting and saying wait for the 10th of March and you will see what we can do. That injected a certain element of fear in primarily the OBCs and sections of the Dalits.
Ex-government employees also tilted towards the SP because Akhilesh Yadav had promised to restore the old pension scheme, which is not linked to market fluctuations.
Indrajit, do you think the BJP’s success is largely due to its own strengths, but also equally a failure of Bahujan politics?
IR:I would caution against the narrative of failure of Bahujan politics. It’s a measure of the success of Bahujan politics that the privileged castes have felt so worried that they’ve had to consolidate behind one party. But that aside, one area where Bahujan parties could do better is to build cross-caste alliances. The SP and BSP are both too closely associated with one caste. So, where these parties have failed is to build cross-caste alliances within the OBCs. We talk of the OBS and Dalits as if they are single homogenous categories; they’re not. To build a genuine subaltern block requires much more work than getting up a few months before the elections and campaigning. It requires social mobilisation at the grassroots level, which comes from hard work. I wouldn’t say that Bahujan politics has failed because I think it’s a measure of its success that we are using categories like OBCs and Dalits in our political narratives. It is a measure of its success that the higher castes feel threatened enough to consolidate behind certain communities. But you could say that Mandal politics has been very successfully reduced to the perception that SP is only Yadav politics or BSP politics is only Jatav politics.
Whether the BJP is able to win on its own merits... Let’s face it, the idea of Hindu unity has appeal. That’s something that the BJP has built on successfully. It has reached out to different castes and communities, especially those historically marginalised and oppressed. These are groups that also found that the Yadavs, when they were in power, were behaving just as the previous oppressors, if not worse, sometimes. So, as far as these communities are concerned, it makes rational sense to latch up to a party that promises Hindu unity. So it’s not a case of false consciousness; it’s a case of making a genuine attempt to look at what political calculations matter. But, as I said, the extent to which these subaltern communities support the BJP has been exaggerated.
Is the BJP more successful than almost all the other parties in terms of giving more representative character and optics to its own party organisation and government?
RR: Certainly. This is a trend which was noticeable post-2014 when Amit Shah reorganised the U.P. unit, which was traditionally dominated by the upper castes with other groups getting token representation. The BJP restructured the organisation right from the block level onwards. It sought to give representation to every sub-caste among the OBCs and Dalits, including the Jatavs. The Yadavs are the only caste that the BJP is wary of. The Yadavs probably don’t get the kind of representation they would expect to in the BJP, but every other sub-caste is represented. More importantly, there is an attempt to relate to them at a symbolic level. For instance, when the BJP started wooing the Rajbhars, it resurrected a 11th century warrior, Suhel Dev, who was worshipped by the community.
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When the BJP accuses the SP of being a Yadav party, is that accusation based on reality or is it an allegation that the BJP has conjured up?
IR: To an extent the SP couldn’t have got away with being a purely Yadav party. It does have support among other OBC communities. So, I think it is an unfair allegation. But the SP has not done enough to rebut those allegations. And it has been quite happy to be considered a party based on Muslims and Yadavs. I wouldn’t say that the SP is purely a Yadav party. But the fact that it has been dominated by one family for decades has not helped it at all.
What could be a viable opposition to the BJP?
RR: A viable opposition has to emerge from the present spectrum. I do not see anything outside the political circumference which can mount a challenge to the BJP. It has to be a coalition of the Opposition parties. It has to be based on a narrative, a counterpoint to whatever the BJP has been peddling.
IR: I think that coalition politics should not be written off. In terms of issues, the one issue which I feel may have some traction is the question of the caste census. If the caste census emerges in importance, you can see caste politics, and parties that espouse the politics of caste emancipation will continue to be important.
- There was a premise that this time, particularly in U.P., there was a strong resistance to the BJP’s Kamandal or religious nationalist politics from the Samajwadi Party (SP)’s social justice politics or Mandal politics.
- OBC consolidation segued into religion in 1991 when the Assembly and Lok Sabha elections took place simultaneously because the BJP used a heavy dose of religion in its campaign.
- Heartland politics is dynamic. A certain section may vote for one party in one election and abandon it in the next.