‘To counter BJP, Oppn will have to choose their audience, their story, and their star narrator’https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/elections-bjp-congress-hindutva-narendra-modi-rahul-gandhi-castes-lok-sabha-rss-5855147/

‘To counter BJP, Oppn will have to choose their audience, their story, and their star narrator’

"There is a lot of debate whether the verdict means the end of caste politics in India, whether it means an end to Mandal politics. However, I would hesitate to agree to this, despite caste politics having mellowed down a bit," says Suhas Palshikar.

‘To counter BJP, Oppn will have to choose their audience, their story, and their star narrator’
Sanjay Kumar in conversation with Ravish Tiwari and Vandita Mishra. (Express Photo)

What role did the ‘Modi magic’ play in the 2019 election? Will OBC politics that emerged in the post-Mandal era survive the ascendant Hindutva project? What should regional parties be doing now to remain relevant in the national arena? In these Explained Conversations held after the Lok Sabha polls, Vandita Mishra and Ravish Tiwari spoke to political analysts Sanjay Kumar and Suhas Palshikar in New Delhi and Mumbai.

On the fate of caste identity politics after the 2019 verdict:

SANJAY KUMAR: There is a lot of debate whether the verdict means the end of caste politics in India, whether it means an end to Mandal politics. However, I would hesitate to agree to this, despite caste politics having mellowed down a bit.

Looking at the voting at either the state or nationally, while there has been caste-based support, the base of political parties has softened a little bit. We have witnessed that there is a shift from different caste communities towards the BJP more than what happened in 2014.

In the case of Yadavs, we do not see them moving away from the Samajwadi Party, RJD, or other parties in a big way. What has happened is that their hold over that particular caste has diminished a little bit. If we look at the OBC votes, except for the Yadavs and upper dominant crust of OBCs, there is a movement in favour of the BJP. However, looking at Dalits, we can say that Mayawati or BSP is no longer a party of Dalits, since they do not command support among all the Dalits in UP. While a large number of Jatavs do vote for Mayawati’s BSP, there has been a big movement of non-Jatav Dalits in favour of BJP. As regards the upper caste vote, 40% to 50% of upper castes used to vote for BJP over the last several elections. In this election, this share has gone up to 61%.

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Sanjay Kumar and Suhas Palshikar.

SUHAS PALSHIKAR: No, [the verdict] does not mark the end of identity politics, but it does mark the accommodation of those identities into the Hindu identity. Both this and the 2014 election signifies this new accommodation and creation of a larger mega identity which is not an antagonist relationship as many of its critics believed it to be with these other identities.

So, in a sense, this new politics of identity emerging now that they are in power has subsumed these various identities in it and it has shown this flexibility and capacity to consume these identities without being antagonistic.

On the transition from Mandal to Kamandal, and the resurgence of the upper castes:

KUMAR:Yes, when we look at the composition of various state Assembly elections in different states or even Parliament, there was a time when Lalu Yadav in Bihar and Mulayam Singh Yadav in UP were among the people who were commanding the politics in their states. Hence, the profile of elected representatives in the Lok Sabha was very different, and we were able to see people from marginalised communities including the OBCs.

Looking at the 2019 elections, if one looks at the caste profile, there are more MPs from an upper-caste background. Even if you look at the BJP’s leadership, barring a few, the important leaders of BJP with their caste composition were able to get votes of various caste and communities, including a large number of votes from Dalits and Adivasis.

‘To counter BJP, Oppn will have to choose their audience, their story, and their star narrator’
Suhas Palshikar (Express Photo)

PALSHIKAR: This is quite a complicated process that is happening both ways: the way that observers look at the project of Hindutva and how the Hindutva project has redefined itself constantly. Both are happening simultaneously. While we have been saying that Hindutva is a Brahmanical force, in pop sociological terms it means that most leaders of the BJP are from upper castes.

The question is who are BJP’s endorsers, who are their voters? Today around 40% of OBCs vote for the BJP, if we go by national election studies. More than 35% Adivasis vote for the BJP. Therefore, this assumption that because the BJP’s Hindutva project was started by certain Brahmanical intentions, it will always remain so, is a wrong assumption.

Those who have [even] a cursory introduction to the BJP’s politics, know that this began changing officially with RSS Sarsanghchalak Balasaheb Deoras around the 1970s making the first move. Of the two moves that he made, first was that in sociological and ideological terms the [RSS] needed to reach out and incorporate more sections from the Hindu society. Secondly, that there was a need to step out and become political, and not contain itself within the cultural realm.

By the 1980s and 1990s, not only in Maharashtra but also in Madhya Pradesh and UP, a large number of leaders of the BJP were actually coming from what we call the OBCs today, something on which Christophe Jaffrelot has done a lot of work. This is the period of transition through which the Hindutva project changes, as far as its followers are concerned.

As a result of this, the Hindutva project then begins conflating the idea of being a religious Hindu and what it means to be a religious Hindu, and the idea of Hindutva-based politics.

‘To counter BJP, Oppn will have to choose their audience, their story, and their star narrator’
At the Explained event in Mumbai (Express Photo)

We keep making the distinction between Hinduism as a religion and Hindutva as a political ideology, which is correct. However, the Hindutva project has tried to bridge that distinction. As a result, they have become broad-based and their political project has also become much broader than what it was earlier.

This has facilitated the support of various non-upper caste communities for the BJP and their politics since 1992. There is a sense of déjà vu there because whatever we’re saying today started happening in the Vajpayee, Advani and Pramod Mahajan era. It was in the late 1990s that one could observe the OBCs moving towards the BJP. They could do so because various sections of the society then realised that the Hindutva project wasn’t necessarily against their symbolic cultural or material interests.

On the impact of Narendra Modi’s image on the election:

KUMAR: Modi’s image is made of a bharosa or trust that people had in him, it has appeared from our survey.

The trust in his ability to deliver, about his honesty — that this is a man who may make some mistakes, but his intentions are right. That he does not want anything for himself, and that he is not corrupt.

If there are a hundred people who say we trust Modi for whatsoever reasons, the biggest proportion among them would be those who believe that he is an honest man.

PALSHIKAR: India’s politics has traditionally been structured around strong leaders. Post Indira Gandhi, while there was no strong leader at the top, it is no coincidence that precisely at that point (1984), you have regional leaders emerging and becoming regionally so strong that they were revered, such as N T Rama Rao. Then you have Lalu Prasad, and the rise of Bal Thackeray as the leader in Maharashtra also happens around the same time. While Thackeray had definitely been a popular and dominant leader of the Mumbai-Thane belt, his leadership spread its appeal by the end of the 1990s decade. So, if you look at this period, you will find that this craving for leadership was in a sense satisfied by these leaders at the local level.

Apart from this, the other reasons from the past 25 years have to be looked at taking into cognizance the issues that arose, and the way society was structured post-liberalisation.

Among large sections of the society, there is a sense that they are either victims or failures, and this feeling has to be compensated. This compensation can come only through the image of a strong leader. Probably, this is how Modi’s appeal, his opposition and caricaturing of Manmohan Singh, brought out that element. Suddenly, people realized that there is now a strong leader who we need.

As I have argued, more than 40% today, or four out of every 10 persons, say that India needs a strong leader who doesn’t have to bother about elections, competition, etc. There is this deep tension between our democratic aspirations on one hand and the aspiration that India needs a strong leader. This tension is being represented over the past five years.

On how regional parties may have to recalibrate vis-à-vis the national elections to counter the BJP:

KUMAR: While there has been a big setback for regional parties, we must also remember that whatever resistance the BJP has faced, it is from the regional parties. Look at what has happened in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Odisha, West Bengal — the resistance is because of a regional party. In Tamil Nadu, both DMK and AIADMK are regional parties. Where there was a direct contest between the Congress and BJP, the BJP won handsomely.

I believe that regional parties need to have a different narrative when they contest the 2024 election. They must come out of family-based politics.

These parties have become synonymous with family-based politics. Irrespective of whether they have been successful or not, most of the regional parties are in the hands of one dominant family. They now need to think of a new narrative and allow others to take the mantle of the party and take it forward. The message for regional parties is that they cannot keep the party as a hostage for one family.

PALSHIKAR: I do not see the regional parties presenting a counter to the BJP even in the near future, including the DMK. I have always been somewhat sceptical about the mantle of protecting diversity and secularism in this country being placed on regional parties, notwithstanding the important role played by them historically.

This, therefore, means that the responsibility of countering the BJP falls on the shoulders of the Congress — which does not want to shoulder this responsibility. So we are in this very awkward situation where the Congress would probably want the other parties to take the lead, although it would be necessary that such a counter has to come nationally.

‘To counter BJP, Oppn will have to choose their audience, their story, and their star narrator’
The engaged audience at the Express Explained Conversation in New Delhi. (Express Photo)

Any opposition, any counter that emerges will have to address three issues.

One, which social section is your initial important vehicle? Whether it is going to be the backward classes, whether it is going to be the urban poor, whether it is going to be the farmers — there seems to be a kind of vacillation on this among the opposition.

The second would be the question of diversity, and for far too long, politicians have been prisoners of a wrong vocabulary of observers and commentators, namely communalism and secularism. They should be talking of diversity, because in the Indian context, diversity is democracy. Now, how do you politically theorize this and strategize it is what would require political acumen, and political parties would have to grapple with that.

And the third, which is the case with the BJP, and where the BJP has been the game-changer: you not only have to be the listeners of the story, but you will also have to be the storyteller.

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The opposition, to pose a counter, will need to think of who is going to be their audience, what story they are going to tell them, and who is going to be the star narrator. And the sooner they do this, I believe that competitive politics would bounce back. If the process is delayed, competitive politics will become much more intrigued, shallow, and probably more prolonged with this dominance of one-party system.

(Transcribed by Om Marathe. Edited excerpts)