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Pieces of a campaign

To win Gujarat, parties play the same game. The line between caste interest, pride and jingoism is thin

Written by Ghanshyam Shah |
Updated: December 9, 2017 12:05:24 am
Gujarat elections, Dahod, Congress candidate list, Gujarat second phase of polling, indian express For the first time, in 1967, the Gujarat Congress acknowledged the rising aspirations of leaders of various social groups, and distributed party tickets in the elections accordingly.

For political expedience, the Congress has supported Hardik Patel, the leader of the Patidar agitation. It has now promised to meet his demands by creating a “special category” of those communities which were not getting the benefit of reservations. Granting the genuineness of grievances of the Patidar youth, the proposed solution is illusory at best and retrogressive at worst. It will strengthen the dominance and hegemony of the upper castes.

Caste sentiments have been invoked in Gujarat since the early 1960s in all elections. During the 1950s, it was almost taboo in the Gujarat public sphere to talk about caste in politics. Besides idealism, it was primarily because the upper castes controlled the Congress as well as other parties. The pressure from lower caste elites for their share in power was then insignificant. For the first time, the Swatantra Party dominated by the Patidars of central Gujarat, opposing land reform, made an alliance with the leaders of the Kshatriya caste organisation for the sharing of seats in the assembly elections. The organisation was dominated by Rajputs with the support of lower caste Kshatriyas (now OBC).

The Swatantra leaders called their party Paksha, deriving from Patidar and Kshatriya. A few Kshatriya leaders succeeded in mobilising their caste brethren, arousing Kshatriya pride. But the truce between Patidars and Kshatriyas broke down as the economic interests of communities, particularly of the Kshatriyas, were conflicting at ground level. By that time, the pressure from the OBCs against the upper castes was mounting everywhere in the country. For the first time, in 1967, the Gujarat Congress acknowledged the rising aspirations of leaders of various social groups, and distributed party tickets in the elections accordingly.

Since then, the pressure from below increased within and outside the party for divisible and indivisible benefits. Jinabhai Darji (artisan caste), then a leading Congress leader, was championing the cause of the deprived communities within and outside the party. He highlighted social injustice and the rights of the poor. He became the Gujarat Congress president in 1972. The upper caste elite accused him of creating “class struggle”. They manoeuvered and ousted him from the position. Later, in order to mobilise the deprived communities, he and some like-minded Congress leaders evolved the KHAM formula, an alliance of the Kshatriyas, Harijans, Adivasis and Muslims.

In electoral politics, the alliance primarily worked in the distribution of party tickets. Very little effort had gone to build their alliance at the grass-root level. Darji and his fellow-travelers created a consciousness among the deprived groups of their rights around the issues of land, forest, employment and dignity. Neither he nor his colleagues aroused caste/community pride of any social group. In fact, they strongly opposed attempts to evolve symbols around caste pride. Like Devraj Urs of Karnataka and several others in different parts of the country, Darji contributed in building a pro-poor image of the Congress. But in the 1980s, he was gradually sidetracked from the party. Though the party still carries a pro-poor image (in the last several elections in Gujarat, a majority of the poor continue, though in declining numbers, to vote for the Congress), it has no face like Darji to win back the confidence of the have-nots. The party is falling in the trap of the BJP, as some local Congress leaders call their present formula PODA — Patidar, OBC, Dalit and Adivasis; excluding Muslims.

For its agenda of Hindu unity and winning elections, the BJP has followed the Congress strategy since the mid-1980s, in the distribution of party tickets and positions accommodating lower castes. However, while doing so, it not only excluded Muslims but also depicted them as the adversary. Both the parties, more or less, give an equal number of tickets to the aspirants of these castes. Hence, members of the same caste fight against each other at a constituency level. Party functionaries use caste-based inter-personal contacts and organise group meetings of caste members during the election campaign. Often, some of them talk in the idiom of “caste pride” and others talk about “caste interest”. Since 2000, the former prevails over the latter. Unlike in the past, caste identity has been now legitimised.

The BJP frequently preached to the people of the deprived communities that they were all one and there was nothing like discrimination, low or high, in Hindu society. At the same time, the ambivalence of BJP leaders in their caste ideology reflects in their everyday interpersonal relationships in social and political spheres. In everyday politics, they invoke the particularistic pride of a caste in the name of tradition. Brahmins were hailed as the guardians of Indian culture, “keeping alive the shastras”, hence “superior”. Traditional caste-based occupation, particularly of the Valmikis, was justified as “spiritual activity”. OBCs were told that it was “time for the Shudra to rule, and the time of Brahmin, Kshatriya and Vaishya rule is over”.

Only a few days ago, in the election campaign, PM Narendra Modi reinvented a conflict in Saurashtra between Rajputs and Patidars that happened in the early 1980s. (As the wounds have healed, leaders of both communities criticised Modi for reminding them of the incident). He advised some of the OBC castes to follow the Patidar community as their model for social development. In a bid to revive tradition, caste-specific legends, gods, attire, rituals etc are recreated to elevate caste pride. Political programmes have been organised by reinventing legendary figures of one or another community as saviour of tradition and religion. Political parties are now facing contradictions of their making.

In a similar trajectory, after the 2002 communal riots, the then chief minister frequently invoked Gujarati pride in different forms. Ever since the NDA lost the 2004 elections, he invented the bogey of “injustice” to Gujarat. In this election, this invocation dominates his campaign strategy. The line between pride and jingoism is thin. I wonder whether he realises the ramifications of his strategy for his idea of “Akhand Bharat”.

The writer is former national fellow, Indian Council of Social Science Research, affiliated to the Centre for Social Studies, Surat

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