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Can BJP balance caste aspirations of voters with its core Hindutva appeal?

Christophe Jaffrelot, Prannv Dhawan write: The recent ministerial reshuffling in Union government and stance on OBC reservation show the party’s growing investment in caste politics.

The BJP, in spite of its rejection of caste politics, never fully ignored it and the Modi government, despite introducing a 10 per cent quota for the economically weaker sections, is no exception. (Illustration: C R Sasikumar)

The growing interest of the Modi government in reservations for OBCs — as evident from its defence of the 127th amendment analysed in our last op-ed — is somewhat counterintuitive. After all, the Sangh Parivar considered caste-based positive discrimination detrimental to the nation’s progress as it was implemented at the expense of merit. Its opposition to quota policies and politics was most obvious when V P Singh announced the introduction of a 27 per cent quota for OBCs, as recommended by the Mandal Commission. One editorialist even wrote in The Organiser: “The havoc the politics of reservation is playing with the social fabric is unimaginable. It provides a premium for mediocrity, encourages brain drain and sharpens caste divide.” However, by defending merit, The Organiser was also defending upper castes, to whom reservations posed a clear threat. Another columnist, for instance, wrote of “an urgent need to build up moral and spiritual forces to counter any fallout from an expected Shudra revolution”.

To counter this revolution — in other words, to orchestrate a counter-revolution — Hindutva, and more precisely the mobilisation in favour of the (re-)building of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya, was chosen as a trump card — as evident from the launch of L K Advani’s rath yatra soon after V P Singh’s announcement. This strategy was rather effective. The Hindutva repertoire helped the BJP promote religious identity (and communal polarisation) at the expense of a sense of caste belonging.

But the Ram Mandir battle has been won in the court and may, therefore, lose some of its mobilisation power. Caste plays such a pervasive role in society that the Modi government obviously cannot neglect it, especially in respect of OBCs, who represent more than 50 per cent of the voters.

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The BJP, in spite of its rejection of caste politics, never fully ignored it and the Modi government, despite introducing a 10 per cent quota for the economically weaker sections, is no exception. The party has probably never invested so much in OBC politics under Narendra Modi since K N Govindacharya’s defence of “social engineering”. Modi’s election campaigns in 2014 and 2019 are cases in point, when he emphasised his plebeian background while campaigning in Bihar and UP in particular. In Kannauj, in April 2019, he emphasised that his family belonged to a “most backward caste”.

But BJP focuses only on some OBC jatis. In UP, the party has turned mostly to non-Yadav OBCs to cash in on the resentment of these castes vis-à-vis the Yadavs, whom they often see as dominant, either because of their long association with the SP (which governed the state three times after the Mandal movement) or because of their capacity to corner reservations. Whereas 27 per cent of the SP candidates were Yadavs in 2019, according to the data set SPINPER initiated by TCPD (Ashoka University) and CERI (Sciences Po/CNRS), Yadavs represented only 1.3 per cent of the candidates of the BJP which, on the contrary, gave tickets to 7.7 per cent Kurmis and 16.7 per cent “other OBCs,” who often came from small caste groups. This strategy translated into votes, according to the Lokniti-CSDS: While 60 per cent of the Yadavs voted for the SP-BSP alliance, 72 per cent of the “other OBCs” supported the BJP, showing that the OBC milieu was now polarised along jati lines, irrespective of class. Indeed, “poor” Yadavs and “rich” Yadavs voted for the SP-BSP alliance in the same proportions — but that was not sufficient. For the first time in the history of independent India, “lower OBCs” had more MPs than “upper OBCs”, not only in UP, but in the whole of India.

The recent ministerial reshuffle of Modi’s government followed the same logic. The BJP emphasised that never before had OBCs, SCs and STs been so well represented in the country’s executive, as after 36 new faces were inducted, 47 ministers and MoS now belonged to these categories. Certainly, the overall presence of upper castes in the council has come down from 47 per cent in 2019 to 32.5 per cent, but upper castes are still in a majority among the Cabinet ministers. They occupy 16 out of the 31 cabinet berths — controlling portfolios such as home, defence, finance, external affairs, etc. There are many Brahmins (6), Rajputs (4), Vaishyas (2), Khatris (2), Bhumihar (1) and Kanait (1). Besides these, dominant intermediate castes like Marathas (2), Patels (2) and Reddys (1) have secured token representation in the Cabinet leaving only two, three and five berths respectively for SCs, STs and OBCs. Secondly, among the OBCs, there are only two Yadavs; and, among the SCs, one Jatav, a group associated with the BSP in UP. In fact, the profile of the seven leaders from UP inducted in August is very revealing: One was Brahmin, two Kurmis, one Gaderia, one Lodh, one Kori and one Pasi — no Yadavs or Jatavs.

The profile of the BJP candidates for next year’s UP election should reconfirm this strategy which shows that, in fact, the party never lost sight of caste politics, even vis-à-vis the state, where the temple issue is supposed to make the larger impact. But will it work in 2022 like in 2017? While these electorally motivated attempts at superficial inclusion can improve the BJP’s prospects, the denial of the CM post to Keshav Prasad Maurya is fresh in people’s memory. The anxiety of these communities is exacerbated by the fact that the social justice commission’s report on sub-classification has not yet been implemented, even as there are widespread protests against the improper implementation of quotas in public recruitment.

A new variable needs to be factored in: The demand for a caste census that is uniting different caste groups and parties, including the JD(U) and the RJD. This unity may be very shallow, but the Mandal moment was also very ephemeral — and still had lasting effects. BJP’s OBC MPs from the Hindi heartland like Sanghamitra Maurya and Sushil Kumar Modi have gone beyond the BJP’s official stance to demand the caste census. The latter was instrumental in taking the all-party delegation from Bihar to meet the PM.

At the same time, BJP’s upper-caste leadership appears to resent the party’s recent overtures to OBCs. After the passage of the 127th Amendment, they raised the pitch for establishing a “Savarna Aayog” to look into the grievances and complaints of the Savarna castes in BJP-ruled MP and HP.

These incipient signs of struggle within Hindutva’s social alliance alert to the fact that BJP’s key challenge, amidst the crucial battle for UP, remains this: How to adequately mollify the aspirational OBCs’ claims for political power without dismantling the social oligarchy that forms its core support base.

This column first appeared in the print edition on September 20, 2021 under the title ‘The Mandal-mandir equation’.
Jaffrelot is senior research fellow at CERI-Sciences Po/CNRS, Paris and professor of Indian Politics and Sociology at King’s India Institute, London ; Dhawan is a student of National Law School of India University, Bengaluru

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