BJP’s famed booth management will be hit if upper caste anger isn’t addressed.
A large segment of the upper caste Indians is very unhappy with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) today. The anger is palpable on social media platforms as well as on the streets where people allegedly burnt copies of the Constitution and raised anti-Modi slogans.
There is also a call for choosing the NOTA option on the EVM, instead of voting for the BJP.
Messages like “After Vishwanath Pratap Singh, Narendra Modi is the second prime minister who will be remembered for conspiring against the Savarnas” are being shared on Facebook and WhatsApp. This has forced the BJP leadership to go into a huddle to resolve the crisis before the assembly polls scheduled for later this year. In a meeting with the BJP chief ministers, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party president Amit Shah urged them to resolve the crisis before it goes out of control.
Why are the upper castes unhappy with the BJP? Can this hurt the party in the upcoming elections? And what could be the long-term implication of the current crisis for the party?
The upper castes form the core support base of the BJP. They not only have overwhelmingly voted for the party since 1990s, but are also well represented within the party organisation and receive maximum nominations to contest as party candidates. The unprecedented consolidation of upper castes behind the party in the 2014 elections was one of the primary reasons for its emphatic victory (See Figure 1).
Figure 1: Upper caste polarisation in favour of the BJP (in%)
Now a section among the upper castes feels antagonised. According to this narrative, the BJP is hurting their interests by granting constitutional status to the OBC Commission, offering tactical support for reservation in promotions, and amending the SC/ST Act.
The anger seems to be directed towards Prime Minister Modi who, according to these protesters, is working in favour of the OBCs, Dalits and tribals because he himself is an OBC.
This, however, is not the first time that a core support group of a political party has expressed unhappiness over the party’s position on an issue that is closely tied to its interests. In the past two years, the BJP has had moments of crisis with Patidars in Gujarat and Lingayats in Karnataka.
During the 2018 Karnataka assembly election, there was a popular support among the Lingayats for then-chief minister Siddaramaiah’s decision to accord religious minority status to the community. Many had suggested then that this was a masterstroke and could lead to an en masse defection of Lingayats towards the Congress. Despite favouring Siddaramaiah’s “masterstroke” – as we had suggested in a column then that the social base of a political party does not undergo a transformation overnight – the Lingayats did not shift away from the BJP.
Similarly, Patidars or Patels who laid the foundation for the BJP’s electoral dominance in Gujarat were said to be infuriated with the BJP for not acceding to their demand for reservations and mishandling the whole situation. The leader of the Patel quota agitation, Hardik Patel, had campaigned against the BJP in the 2017 Gujarat assembly election, yet in the final lap, the Patel voters stayed with the party.
Does this mean that the BJP has no reason to worry as core supporters seldom desert their parties? Evidence from public opinion polls conducted by Lokniti-CSDS do suggest that the upper castes feel that their status in the society has considerably declined in the past three decades, especially due to the rise of the middle castes in Indian politics.
When compared with others, the upper castes are more likely to oppose reservation policies and also feel that the SC/ST Act has been misused more often (See Figure 2). Thus, in our view, unlike the previous incidents, the unhappiness among the upper castes poses a short-term risk and a long-term challenge for the party.
Figure 2: Respondents who said that the SC/ST Act is often misused to settle scores (in%)
While this disenchantment among the upper caste voters may not reach an extent that they will vote against the BJP (or actually press the NOTA button as the WhatsApp groups have been urging), it may still hurt the party’s chances in the upcoming elections.
If the upper castes continue to feel that their demands are not being heard, their level of enthusiasm to support the BJP will go down. In that case, they will be less likely to engage in ground-level campaigning and coordination. This may result in lesser number of voters for the BJP because those who may have voted for the BJP (both upper castes and non-upper castes) will now simply sit at home and not turn out to vote.
The bigger challenge for the BJP is to make a choice: How much is it willing to bend to please its upper caste vote base?
The BJP leaders do know that they cannot win elections without the support of non-upper caste voters. Also, there is clear evidence that the BJP is undergoing a slow transformation. While the party’s leadership has largely remained upper caste, its support base compared to the 1990s has changed.
The OBCs now constitute the largest share of the total vote secured by the party. The share of OBC votes has surpassed the vote from the upper castes. The share of Scheduled Caste (SC) and Scheduled Tribe (ST) votes within the BJP’s social coalition too has increased.
The current drama also presents an opportunity to deal with a situation, which most political parties in their expansionist mode face. The BJP must soon find a solution that creates a balance between the two competing interests. Avoiding it for too long can become a choice between the devil and the deep sea.
The authors are PhD students in political science at the University of California at Berkeley, US.
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