Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s latest ‘partner switch’, from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to the Congress and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), has prompted speculation of a new ‘social justice’ front against Hindutva ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha election. ‘Social justice’ stood for politics that sought better representation and empowerment for lower caste communities. The mobilisation of weaker communities challenged and defeated the Congress first, and slowed down the totalising drive of Hindutva later, in the heartland States of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.
Success in reaching out
The success of Narendra Modi has been in the remaking of Hindutva, blunting its upper caste image and reaching out to a wider spectrum of Hindu communities. The BJP today is a subaltern party that mixes cultural rhetoric, welfare and empowerment. Still, there is euphoria in the anti-BJP camp following the formation of the new coalition in Bihar because the same coalition had defeated the BJP in the 2015 Bihar Assembly election, on a social justice platform. The question, therefore, is whether a revival of social justice politics is possible, yet again, as a counter to Hindutva.
In 2015, the RJD-Janata Dal (United) alliance worked in Bihar, but it collapsed within two years. The alliance gained buoyancy, less from the promise the two Other Backward Classes parties held than the threat the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) posed for backward caste aspirations. RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat had then called for a debate on caste quotas — touching the rawest nerve in Indian politics, though he was only reiterating the long-held Sangh scepticism, encouraged by the Hindutva wave in 2014.
Mr. Modi’s Hindutva overdrive could not salvage the situation once the quota debate caught on. He had been Prime Minister for only one year then, and his promise of social justice within the Hindutva tent was untested then. “From then to now, that promise has been delivered. Now, there is a huge constituency of labharathis — recipients of various welfare schemes launched by the Prime Minister since then — that enthusiastically roots for him. The majority of them are OBCs,” a BJP strategist said.
The BJP, an upper caste dominated party, needed Mr. Kumar to mobilise the OBCs and reassure them that the eviction of the RJD would not mean a change of power from OBCs to an upper caste Chief Minister in 2005. The RJD had lost its original spirit of social justice by then. Numerous members of Lalu Prasad Yadav’s family were in positions of power, and non-Yadav OBCs moved in hordes to the National Democratic Alliance led by another OBC. By 2020, Mr. Kumar’s appeal had diminished, and his party, the JD(U), got fewer seats than the RJD and the BJP.
More space for representation
The BJP had also consolidated its grip over the OBCs, while allowing its upper caste core to flourish through a simple formula — by removing Muslims from its social coalition. Social justice parties had relied on Muslim votes — 17% in Bihar and 19% in Uttar Pradesh, and given them representation in power. By cutting Muslims out, the BJP created space for more representation to OBCs and Dalits. Subaltern representation has gone down overall with the rise of Hindutva, but the BJP managed to rope in communities neglected by the dominant castes of social justice politics, creating a claim that it is truly a platform of Hindu unity. Unlike the Congress that stood stiff and crumbled in the face of social justice storms, the BJP has shown remarkable flexibility in accommodation.
Mr. Modi’s Hindutva 2.0 has addressed upper caste antipathy towards caste quotas by introducing a 10% quota for Economically Weaker Sections (EWS). In practice, this is a quota for the upper castes, turning the whole logic of quotas as a tool to address social backwardness of centuries, on its head. The implementation of quotas itself is patchy under the BJP.
For instance, in Uttar Pradesh, Swami Prasad Maurya, an OBC leader who resigned from the BJP ahead of the Assembly elections earlier this year, had said that 19,000 reserved seats of schoolteachers were filled with candidates from the general category. Hindutva has not merely appropriated social justice within its fold but also reconfigured it. “True social justice is when development reaches villages,” Mr. Modi had said after opening the Bundelkhand expressway in Uttar Pradesh last month. This idea of ‘development as social justice’ is a clever spin to the social justice debate.
It is not that all OBCs and Dalits are sold on Hindutva. Mutinies continue, and will continue. Of particular sensitivity for the OBCs will be the prospects of an upper caste Chief Minister, but that is not a dealbreaker between lower castes and Hindutva, as the U.P. experiment shows. Yogi Adityanath is a Rajput, but managed to remain as a unifying icon for Hindutva voters and won a second consecutive term. In Bihar, the BJP currently does not have an identifiable OBC leader who may not make other communities nervous — it will have to groom one of its existing leaders into that role. The BJP is walking a tightrope of balancing caste equations and it can trip on its original mistrust of lower caste demands. But the parties that flourished as torchbearers of social justice are facing a bigger crisis, and the slogan itself has lost its potency to inspire.
Allegation versus reality
Corruption, nepotism and the shameless promotion of the families of leaders who swear by it have emptied the soul out of the social justice slogan. Mr. Maurya’s rebellion enthused urban secularists but it did little to open a new front of social justice mobilisation against the BJP in Uttar Pradesh. His daughter was already a BJP Member of Parliament and he was demanding a seat for his son too. In the end, he lost his own seat in the Assembly elections. It remains to be seen whether the new JD(U)-RJD alliance will be able to fight back the BJP charge that social justice is merely a facade for aggrandisement by its leaders and their families — or merely prove the charge right. At any rate, social justice politics is at a crossroads. Or perhaps even at a dead end.