The dominant caste dilemma

The BJP forces dominant castes to moderate their posture to aggregate weaker sections; the Congress is still learning

Updated - October 18, 2019 01:28 am IST

Published - October 18, 2019 12:02 am IST

The Assembly elections in Maharashtra and Haryana appear to be of limited interest elsewhere, and commentaries focus on personalities. The advantageous position the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) finds itself in is credited to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah and Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis; the decline of the Congress is blamed on Rahul Gandhi. Underlying the BJP’s rise, however, is its success in enforcing new terms of engagement between the dominant castes and the rest. Religious polarisation significantly explains the BJP’s success, but equally noteworthy is caste polarisation. The BJP’s strides in Haryana and Maharashtra are built by mobilising resentment against two traditional dominant castes, the Jats and the Marathas, respectively.

New alignments

Organised caste groups tend to corner a disproportionate share of power for themselves and hinder the Hindutva project of creating a Hindu vote bank, even when they are within the fold. Mr. Modi’s innovation to Sangh politics, Hindutva 2.0, harvested the discontent against dominant castes into a sustained, universal force that continues to propel his rise. His Gujarat model of politics, among other things, also involved the decimation of the Patel network that had controlled the BJP when he took over as Chief Minister in 2001. The Patels rebelled several times but are gradually reconciling to the new reality of their reduced role in the larger Hindu vote bank. A similar process is under way in Maharashtra and Haryana.

Dominant castes in this context are not to be confused with the upper castes, early converts in BJP strongholds, and now vanguards of the Hindutva revolution across the country. Yadavs in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh and Jatavs in U.P. expanded their share of power rapidly through the 1990s and established dominance within their respective spectrum of the Backward Castes and Dalits. The Marathas, Jats and Patels are not upper castes and their dominance preceded the Mandal-era but liberalisation in the 1990s multiplied their power as they were quick to seize new opportunities.

In Haryana, besides controlling the Indian National Lok Dal, the Jats took over the Congress also by early 2000; all Maharashtra parties were dominated by Marathas. Weaker caste groups resented the situation but could do little individually, and then Hindutva 2.0 aggregated them and offered them an ideology. Leaders from non-intimidating social backgrounds became the faces of such alliances — Manohar Lal Khattar, the Haryana Chief Minister, is a Khatri, and Mr. Fadnavis is a Brahmin, both minuscule communities. The pattern is the same in other States that the BJP dominates, with rare exceptions.

Olive branch to loyalists

Tightening the leash on dominant castes, the BJP expanded its base among the backward castes and Dalits, and remains focused on that project. Home Minister Shah, who is also the BJP president, in his first speech in Maharashtra said Mr. Modi was working to address the issues of deprived and backward classes “by setting up an OBC commission, which the previous governments failed to do in the last 70 years”. The BJP and Jan Sangh, which used to be labelled the party of traders, zamindars and princes, has come full circle, caring little for these groups. The implementation of the Goods and Services Tax and the relentless tax activism are instructive. Dominant communities reacted to their relative political marginalisation in multiple ways, but most pointedly in demands for reservations by the Marathas, Jats and Patels.

Autonomous caste-family fiefdoms of Patels, Marathas, Jats, Yadavs and Jatavs are being dismantled by popular politics and the State machinery, but the BJP also offers an olive branch to them. Appearing sympathetic to their demands and accommodating them in positions, the BJP is engaging with the dominant castes on terms that it sets. Hindutva 2.0 shrank the role of dominant castes in the making of a majority but Opposition parties cannot turn their back on them as they are the most forceful opponents of the BJP.

The other resistance to the BJP comes from sub-national identity politics, such as Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee’s politics in West Bengal and religious minorities, that become effective only in areas where they are concentrated as in Kerala and Punjab. Assertion of linguistic and regional identities alone cannot sustain an opposition to Hindutva as the situation in Gujarat and Maharashtra demonstrates. Getting the right coalition of caste is hence critical, and that is dependent on rationalising the role of the dominant castes. There can be no meaningful opposition to the BJP in U.P. or Bihar without Yadavs or Jatavs.

The Chhattisgarh model

Congress politics in Chhattisgarh offers some pointers. Since the State’s formation, Congress politics was dominated by the Satnamis led by the Jogi family, combined with 32% tribal voters. That was a formidable base for the party but it continuously fell short by 1-3%, as the BJP aggregated the rest. When the Jogis broke away, the Congress lost Satnami votes but it also opened the doors for a considerable section of Other Backward Classes, effecting a net gain — a winnable one, though only at the State level. Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel is a BC leader, and his politics promoted Chhattisgarhi identity, which had been relegated during 15 years of BJP rule earlier. Mr. Baghel turns local festivals such as Haryiali Teej into a spectacle; he walked on bamboo stilts during one.

The name of a local religious festival (Punni Mela) has been restored, reversing a decision by the BJP to propagate it as the Rajim Kumbh. The Baghel government also raised the OBC quota from 14% to 27% and for the SCs, from 12-13%. The Chhattisgarh model is a combination of regional pride, recruitment of backward castes and Dalits, pro-farmer, pro-poor policy and a genial backward face in leadership.

Dominant castes resent their relative loss of power but they need new models of power sharing. The crude extractive models monopolised by single families cannot be revived; in this the Congress has an opportunity. Local politics often pitch the BCs against the Dalits. Contradictions on the question of reservation and any upper caste stridency could expose the fissures of the current social coalition of the BJP. Moderating the role of the dominant castes and aggregating the middle of the spectrum is the key to the BJP’s success. The same could be the route for the Congress too, like in Chhattisgarh.

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