Last week, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat told a gathering at the Bombay Stock Exchange that politicians are compelled to practise caste politics because society votes on the basis of caste, that even those politicians who would seek to change caste politics feel compelled to pander to it first. Bhagwat’s portrayal of caste politics as a sort of necessarily evil reflects the RSS-BJP world-view, which perceives caste primarily as an impediment to the forging of political unity of Hindus. A corollary is the refusal to acknowledge that caste politics has provided agency to historically disprivileged communities to fight social and political exclusion.
Bhagwat’s statement points to the nature of electoral contestations in India, where ideologies that seek to subsume caste within broad class, nationalist and religious frameworks compete with mobilisations that privilege social identities to highlight oppression and exclusion. Since caste is the predominant category of social exclusion in India, political parties, both on the right and the left, have been forced to engage with it overtly or covertly, at least for the purpose of winning elections. The BJP, for instance, flaunts the OBC identity of many of its leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in its outreach to non-upper caste Hindus.
The party has been successfully building electoral alliances with backward castes groups and accommodating their interests under the Hindutva umbrella to broad-base its vote. The communist parties too have been forced to recognise the power of caste identities. A counter-narrative has been offered by political groups that recognise caste as the primary category of social and political association. These outfits, inspired by the anti-caste mobilisations of the last century, have been successful across India in influencing the political discourse and even winning office.
However, it is also true that though these parties privilege caste identity ostensibly to destroy the unequal social order based on caste, the outcome, more often than not, has been the further entrenching of caste. While they were initially successful in pushing ideals of social justice to the forefront of politics and policy-making, over the years caste politics seems to have lost its transformative potential to become an end in itself. Be it in South India, where anti-caste politics first revealed its radical charge, or in states like UP and Bihar, caste politics has degenerated into family cults and patronage-dispensing networks.
Annihilation or destruction of caste inequalities calls for a politics that confronts caste in order to transcend it. Currently, politicians find caste a convenient currency of mobilisation to win power in the system while keeping its deep structures of power and privilege undisturbed and unchallenged. This politics, instead of loosening the hold of caste on social relations, is only reiterating its regressive imaginary.