A very material shift

“Solidarity around occupational identity has been forged by a combination of factors such as destruction of the agrarian economy, the problem of digital payments and lower-level corruption.” Farmers waiting for the Chief Minister to arrive during the Kisan Mahasammelan in Bhopal in February.A. M. Faruqui

“Solidarity around occupational identity has been forged by a combination of factors such as destruction of the agrarian economy, the problem of digital payments and lower-level corruption.” Farmers waiting for the Chief Minister to arrive during the Kisan Mahasammelan in Bhopal in February.A. M. Faruqui  

Occupational identities are competing with caste and religious identities in Madhya Pradesh

The political mood of the people in Madhya Pradesh is complex. To understand voting behaviour only through the prism of caste is an outdated method in this State. In fact, occupational identities resonate across caste and religion. Employing the categories of farmers, labourers, government employees, small businessmen, the urban service classes, and so on helps us understand voter behaviour more clearly than categories such as upper caste, Other Backward Classes (OBCs), Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs).

Shifting identities

In the wake of Mandalisation of politics in the early 1990s, when caste-based identity emerged as the dominant electoral fault line, Madhya Pradesh did not witness the replacement of traditional upper-caste political elites by OBCs as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar did, despite having the demographic logic for the same. This was seen in 1993 when Digvijaya Singh was elected as the Congress Chief Minister in the State rather than Subhash Yadav. Mr. Singh occupied that position for two terms until 2003.

It was this feeling of denial of due share to the OBCs that the BJP utilised to the hilt in 2003 by projecting Uma Bharti, an OBC, woman and a firebrand Hindutva leader, as its chief ministerial face against Mr. Singh. The OBCs overwhelmingly shifted to the BJP, and that trend continued until the 2013 Assembly elections. The upper castes, who perceived the BJP as a pro-Hindutva party, also made the same shift. In the same period, particularly from the mid-1990s to 2008, a significant section of Dalits in the areas adjoining U.P. shifted to the Bahujan Samaj Party, thereby signifying the dominance of caste-based identity over other markers.

However, now, after demonetisation and other factors, my two-phase field study in Madhya Pradesh in May-June and November this year suggests that occupational identities are now competing with caste and religious identities. A sense of solidarity around occupational identity has been forged by a combination of factors such as rampant lower-level corruption; destruction of the rural and agrarian economy and livelihoods allegedly on account of demonetisation; anger due to lower minimum support prices; anger due to schemes like the Bhavantar Bhugtan Yojana, which allegedly benefits the intermediary vyaparis; and the problem of digital payments that causes undue delays in money being credited into accounts. There is a consolidation of farmers belonging to upper castes, OBCs, SCs, and STs rather than around their respective caste identities. Though the same doesn’t necessarily translate into all of them making the same electoral choices, their articulation of these issues shows strong similarities.

Customised welfare measure

At a time when a large section of farmers in the rural areas and those in the lower and middle classes in urban areas share a sense of perceived marginalisation, the government’s political and policy responses reveal a subtle attempt to privilege socio-cultural identities over occupational ones. The consistent political success of the BJP’s OBC and Hindutva card (from Ms. Bharti to incumbent Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan) in the last 15 years has not lost its hold on BJP leaders. Customised welfare measures, particularly for those who fall in the Below Poverty Line (BPL) category, are seamlessly fused with caste-cum-religious markers. There are many policy announcements for farmers, a host of schemes for women, and there is rigorous implementation of the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (which was originally meant to cover the economically weaker sections and low-income groups but has been extended to the middle-income group as well).

However, there are also socio-cultural measures that favour socio-political identities over occupational ones. For instance, at a time when the anger of farmers was emerging as the dominant issue, the State government in coordination with the BJP organised six Pichhda Varg Mahakumbhs (OBC confluences) in this election year. The first confluence was inaugurated by the Chief Minister himself, who labelled half the population of the State as OBCs rather than as farmers. Similarly, the popular Mukhyamantri Teerth Darshan Yojna (Chief Minister’s Pilgrim Visit Scheme), which was introduced in 2012, provides a one-time assistance to those above the age of 60 years and Below the Poverty Line who want to go to various places of pilgrimage that have been chosen by the government (Badrinath, Kedarnath, Jagannath Puri, Dwarka, Haridwar, Amarnath, Vaishno Devi, Shirdi, Tirupati, Ajmer Sharif, Kashi, Amritsar, Rameshwaram, Sammed Shikhar, Shravan Belgola and Belangi Church, Nagapattinam). Also, there is another trend of initiating social identity-based customised welfare measures wherein Rs. 1,000 per month is deposited in the bank accounts of the women heads of three tribes — Sahariya, Baiga and Bharia tribes — to combat malnutrition. Those who have been left out of this scheme are naturally resentful.

Based on my field study, I found that more people seem to privilege their occupational identity over their caste and religious ones. Correspondingly, they are less likely to be swayed by the cultural politics of fusing ascriptive caste identity with a religious framework. This shifting trend was captured in multiple field responses. For instance, the majority of Gujjar farmers in Bandha village of Morena district that falls in the Chambal region are angry with the BJP government as farmers. They dismiss the demand of a Gujjar-led political body, the OBC-SC-ST Ekta Manch, for 27% reservation for OBCs instead of the existing 14%, despite them constituting around 50% of the State’s population. They are unequivocal in their articulation that their suffering lies in being farmers rather than belonging to the OBCs.

The shift towards occupational identities signifies the privileging of material politics over cultural politics. However, it is different from the class politics of the 1970s, as markedly differentiated classes are consolidating under the same occupational frameworks. Also, the same process may not be true in States like U.P. and Bihar, where caste consciousness still holds the ground.

Sajjan Kumar is a political analyst associated with Peoples Pulse, a research organisation focussing on fieldwork-based political studies

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