There is a saying in English: “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear almost any ‘how’.” Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants to occupy the highest position without answering any why and how. But the citizens have a right to pose whys and hows to him since he is the prime minister.
Why did Modi twist a young inexperienced “dynastic” daughter’s remark about “neech rajneeti” as “neech jati” and bring up his Other Backward Caste (OBC) background while campaigning in UP in 2014? Why does he want to avoid a debate on his caste status in 2019? How much of oppressed caste consciousness did he have during his tenure as prime minister? Is there any evidence in Modi’s many biographies that he suffered caste discrimination at any stage in his life or that he fought that discrimination with the kind of caste consciousness seen in Mahatma Phule, Periyar E V Ramasamy and Babasaheb Ambedkar? Is it that Modi used the enlistment of his caste in the central OBC list to become prime minister? Did the RSS/BJP allow him to use the OBC status to win over OBC voters?
When Mayawati, Tejashwi Yadav and Akhilesh Yadav allege that the PM’s OBC status is naqli, Modi must at least recall a few anecdotes to illustrate how he suffered discrimination and humiliation in his life because of his caste background.
Our birth, of course, is an accident, but did Modi’s birth into his caste make him feel it was a “fatal accident”, as Rohith Vemula felt, at any stage of his life? Did he ever feel that the tortuous pain an OBC person or a Dalit suffers is his own? Caste discrimination is a continuous systemic process that has affected generations. Where does the nation see the generational discrimination in Modi’s life?
Yet the oppressed castes appreciated when he said “I came from a neech jati” and I want to serve them as prime minister. The appeal of Modi even moved the OBCs in West Bengal, where caste identity had been pushed under the red-carpet.
Has he revealed any discriminated caste consciousness and caste culture when he was in power at Delhi? Are not the cattle growers who lost their right to sell and buy their hard-grown animals because of the upper-caste government in UP mostly OBCs? What did the OBC PM do about it? The discrimination structured into the being of an OBC — that too most backward — is not an issue of claims but an experiential process realised in one’s life. Dhananjay Keer’s biographies of Phule and Ambedkar recall the humiliation they faced. They fought the humiliation not for their own sake but for the sake of the entire OBC and Dalit communities, for the sake of transforming this nation.
Modi turned chaiwala and chowkidar into metaphors to establish his OBCness and claim suffering. But not all chaiwalas and chowkidars are OBCs. Manu dharma has not ordained these occupations for the Shudras, the varna to which the OBCs belong. There are upper-caste chaiwalas and upper-caste chowkidars!
Modi’s OBC background was talked about when he became chief minister of Gujarat in 2002. I wrote in December 2002: “‘Narendra Modi’s victory with a two-thirds majority in Gujarat has signalled the emergence of a strong, independent OBC (Other Backward Class) leader in the BJP.” The nation did not come to know about his caste background because he spoke about it. The nation got to know about it through media after his community was included in the central list of reservation just before he became chief minister. He did not talk about it when he was chief minister of Gujarat. And, he had not mentioned it during the 1990 Mandal struggle.
Modi has disputed the allegation made by Mayawati, Akhilesh Yadav and Tejashwi Yadav that he belongs to an unreserved upper caste. But he also ought to tell the nation how he has experienced discrimination in the society, in institutions and organisations he has worked on account of his caste. That is what all “neech jati” people do.
According to Mayawati, Modi got his caste included in the OBC list only after he became the CM. In response, Modi has claimed he actually belongs to a “most backward caste, not just backward caste”. His caste name is Modh-Ghanchi. Historically, Modh-Ghanchis are oil mongers. At no stage in history has the Modh-Ghanchi community been considered as Shudra. However, Modh Ghanchi, Teli-Sahu, Teli-Rathod, Teli-Rathore were added to the central OBC list as per the order 12011/36/99-BCC dt 04.04.2000. Hence, Modi is officially an OBC.
But what about that caste’s cultural history? Does it have Shudra links? Was Modh-Ghanchi community a part of the Shudra varna?
Modi’s caste was added to the OBC list when the BJP held office in Delhi and Modi was an influential general secretary of the party. It was Sushil Modi, now deputy chief minister of Bihar, who claimed on TV after Narendra Modi’s PM candidature was announced, that the BJP was the first national party to propose an OBC PM candidate. Many were surprised that the RSS and BJP, which do not accept a discourse centred on caste, allowed this. I, for one, thought it was a good thing.
A section of the OBCs who were outside the fold of the BJP, voted for the party in 2014. But within a short time, the forces that matter in the RSS/BJP started opposing OBC reservation. The PM did not object even once to their negation of OBC reservation. During Modi’s tenure there were no policy initiatives to uplift the OBCs.
Karl Marx left for us a principle that explains this sort of behaviour. He wrote: “It is not consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.”
This article first appeared in the print edition on May 8, 2019, under the title ‘The OBC-ness of Narendra Modi’. The writer is a political theorist and social activist.