BJP is Worried About Shifting Contours of Caste
Abhijan Choudhury 19 April 2024

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is seeking a third consecutive term in power in the ongoing national elections in India. Incumbent Narendra Modi remains its choice for prime minister. Among the many things that will decide the fate of the BJP and Modi are the eventual equations of caste, class, and region, as has always been the case in India’s electoral democracy.

The centrality of caste in Indian elections can be understood by the fact that even after serving as chief minister of one of India’s richest states for over a decade, and being widely admired for implementing an “efficient development model” in the state of Gujarat, Modi had to resort to his caste identity when putting forth his national ambitions in the 2014 elections. This was despite the fact that his party had chosen “development” as its central campaign pitch. Even after a decade at the national helm since then, and all the hullabaloo about “Hindutva,” a much broader, all-encompassing identity, he and his party continue to try to mobilize numerous caste groups to win the ongoing national elections.

Although most of the opposition is not much different, and a large number of the constituents of the INDIA Alliance, such as the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), are caste-specific parties, the failure of the BJP, which had a clear agenda of “Hindutva.” to move away from caste proves the resilience of identity groups in Indian politics.


Pervasiveness of Caste Groups in Indian Politics


Caste in Indian politics is as old as Indian democracy. It was also a tool of mobilization during the national independence movement. The introduction of the enumeration of the population based on social identities by the British in the late 19th century is often seen as the origin of caste-based politics. Post-independence India provided reservations for Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs) in the national and state assemblies, setting an example of affirmative action. But with each passing election, new caste groups that had been left out of the reservation system, even in jobs and educational institutions, began to mobilize as blocs with a clear agenda of “collective advantage,” as Paul Brass describes. Christophe Jaffrelot rightly points out that “caste and community remain the primary building block of political affiliation at the micro level.”

The exact share of each caste in the population today is difficult to know. There has been no caste-based census in India since 1931. Based on the 1931 census, it is estimated that the majority of Indians belong to the Other Backward Castes (OBCs). The rest of the population is divided into Dalits or SCs (around 16 to 18 percent), Tribals (around 8 percent), and the so-called upper castes. In other words, the so-called upper castes, who enjoy both social and economic power, are a small minority.

It must be noted that the categories described above are themselves divided into smaller caste and sub-caste groups, and these caste and sub-caste groups are increasingly playing the most important role in political mobilization. The latter is a result of dynamic political aspirations, the emergence of new leaders, and shifting alignments in society.

Indian society has historically been unequal, both socially and economically. This imbalance is one of the main reasons that is used by the emerging elite to mobilize “their” people and develop affiliations. Caste groups, due to numbers, help bargain their share of power as the democratic process takes deeper roots in India. Kanshi Ram, the founder of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the first electorally successful Dalit party, coined the slogan that aptly describes the aspirations of these caste groups in Indian politics. The slogan Jiski Jitni Sankhya bhari uski utni hissedari (“Share in power should be representative to the group’s numbers”) has become central to the idea of social justice in India.

Contrary to expectations, economic prosperity has exacerbated the role of caste in politics. In the last few elections, groups such as Marathas, Patidars, Gujjars, Jats, and others have organized to demand reservation in jobs. Caste groups often use the occasion of elections to put forward their demands more assertively.


BJP’s Conundrum: Making and Breaking of Alliances


Though caste has been a reality of Indian politics since independence, the role of the Mandal Commission in shaping its dominance cannot be underestimated. The failure of the Congress, which remained the leading party in India for the first four decades after independence, to provide representation to the dominant caste leaders led to their gradual consolidation around their identity. They were creative in forming alliances with other major groups such as Muslims in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.

The BJP was different from the Congress in that it pushed smaller groups and hitherto marginalized groups to break away from the so-called politics of social justice and unite with its Hindutva agenda. It has made every effort to break the OBCs into smaller groups so that they could be brought into its own fold.

During the ongoing elections, news of Rajputs deserting the ruling party has made headlines in the national media. Rajputs are considered an upper caste that has traditionally enjoyed social and economic power in most of northern and western India. They have been considered as a traditional vote bank for the BJP. Such caste groups organizing rallies with hundreds of thousands of participants to oppose the BJP in states considered its bastions, such as Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh, can be troublesome for the BJP’s electoral prospects.

The BJP does not want to leave open the possibility of losing votes on a mass scale. Despite its dislike for caste-based political mobilization and attempts to create a national identity based on Hindutva, its tactics during elections are simple. Appease and ally with as many caste groups as possible.

For example, just before the elections were announced, the government conferred the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian award, to Chowdhari Charan Singh and Karpoori Thakur. Singh was a peasant leader from the numerically powerful Jat caste in Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state with the most seats in parliament. Thakur was a prominent OBC leader from Bihar, another important state in terms of parliamentary seats. Bihar has strong OBC-centered politics and was the first state in India to conduct a caste census last year, making the BJP concerned about the consolidation of OBCs behind the opposition.

The growing demand for a caste census is seen as the push by the non-upper caste political leadership in India to realize the essence of Kanshi Ram’s slogan mentioned above. Apart from Bihar, several other states like Jharkhand, Karnataka, and Odisha have either completed or are in the process of completing a caste census.

The BJP sees the caste census as a threat to its Hindutva agenda. It could also challenge the dominance of the upper castes that have been its main social constituency in northern India. Modi had called the demand for a caste census an attempt to divide the country, and the BJP had challenged the move in India’s Supreme Court in 2021. It instead adopted a strategy of social engineering. On the one hand, it appeased its core constituency of upper castes by legislating reservation in jobs for the economically weaker sections while maintaining a minimal representation of most of the other caste groups in its central and state governments.

It is trying to appease the caste groups that are hitherto considered outside of the circle of power by making them compete with other dominant castes. In states like Bihar, the BJP allied with Nitish Kumar, the leader of one of the many OBC castes, the Kurmis, who felt marginalized due to the dominance of another OBC caste, the Yadavs, to undermine the opponents.

The BJP has followed a policy of forming alliances with small parties, mostly representing specific caste groups, in other states as well. In Uttar Pradesh, it has allied with the Suheldev Bhartiya Samaj Party led by Omprakash Rajbhar, representing the Rajbhar caste, the Nishad Party led by Sanjay Nishad, and Anupriya Patel’s Apna Dal. In Bihar, it formed an alliance with the Vikassheel Insan Party (VIP), led by Mukesh Sahani, representing Mallahs, and the Hindustani Awam Morcha (HUM), representing Musahars (a Dalit community).

These alliances gave the BJP a crucial advantage over its rivals, the Samajwadi Party, which is largely seen as a party of the Yadavs, and the BSP.

Similar caste-based politics also dominate in southern India. Here, the BJP has been able to mobilize the support of one of the two major caste groups in Karnataka (Lingayats) and capture power from time to time. However, it has failed to repeat the Lingayat experiment elsewhere in the region. In Kerala, it tried to break the Ezhavas’ consolidated support for the communist parties by roping in the community’s leadership. The experiment failed because of the strong grassroots links between the community and the communist movement in the state.

At the same time, it had made serious efforts to break the broader caste categories into smaller groups. In October 2017, it set up the Justice G. Rohini Commission to formally propose the dismantling of caste-based OBC reservations in jobs and educational institutions. However, it seems to be unwilling to take this step yet, fearing a political backlash.

This also goes against the BJP’s ideological line of uniting all Hindus under Hindutva. However, the compulsions of electoral politics leave it with no other option.

In the ongoing elections, the opposition is focusing on reviving the Mandal days of the 1980s and 1990s, when all OBCs were portrayed as one against the dominant and upper castes. They want to recreate that polarity with the promise of a nationwide caste census and the promise of greater unity of all castes. As a counter to the BJP, they have tried to rope in as many smaller parties as possible in their alliance, while claiming that the BJP has failed to address their aspirations in the last 10 years in power.

The opposition has realized that the days of dominance by one caste or community in the name of social justice are over and there is an urgent need for broader representation in power. The BJP is worried that the opposition has stolen its strategy. This may be its central concern in the ongoing elections and the reason for their undoing.



Cover photo:  Photo by Idrees Mohammed / AFP.

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