There’s a tussle between Indian voters and politicians — a tussle about who will go beyond caste politics. Both voters and politicians complain about it, both indulge in it, and both want to go beyond it.
But politicians must take the lead — because those politicians who have been courageous enough to question the received wisdom of caste politics have been rewarded.
In Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, we have been witnessing a decline of parties too closely identified with one caste community: the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Samajwadi Party, both identified with Yadavs, and the Bahujan Samaj Party, identified with Jatavs, the largest Dalit community in UP.
The rise of the Aam Aadmi Party, on the one hand, and Narendra Modi’s stupendous ability to break caste barriers and get votes even from Dalits, on the other, are proof that the era of overt caste politics is over. Yes, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) builds caste coalitions — in fact, it does a lot of minute caste politics. But it is almost entirely covert, underground, and without much noise.
The parties thriving on overt caste politics tend to mobilise a very small community concentrated in a few districts — a Nishad leader here, a Kurmi party there. These small parties can at best negotiate a seat on the table with large mainstream parties, and become vehicles of a rising aspiration.
Such parties cannot hope to replicate the success of backward parties that rose with the Mandal movement in the 1990s. Today, Mandal is a tiger tamed. Today’s voter is eager to go beyond caste.
The political success of demonetisation in 2016, at least in its immediate aftermath, told us how important caste appeal is.
How about a Rozgar Chetna Parishad?
It is, therefore, disappointing to see Congress leader and former Union minister Jitin Prasada launch “Brahmin Chetna Parishad”. What he needed to launch instead was a “Rozgar Chetna Parishad” — a campaign for job creation. Even if he had launched a campaign on unemployment, Prasada would still attract a disproportionately high number of Brahmins, since he is a Brahmin himself. That is how caste politics works today, and how it interplays with governance issues.
Caste politics is ultimately a channel to air governance issues. When people don’t get jobs or are denied a hearing at the police station or their names are struck off the rolls of development registers, that’s when they begin to wonder if there’s caste discrimination at play. Often, it is the case. Hence, leaders who emphasise governance will do a lot better than those who emphasise caste.
Living the paradox
‘There is no caste discrimination here,’ people in any village will tell you. ‘All the castes are here, we all live peacefully.’ Even if there was a Dalit family massacred a month ago.
The lived reality of caste politics is a paradox. I have sat through Brahmin political gatherings in UP (of the sort that Prasada wants to organise). Speaker after speaker will emphasise the need to unite Brahmins, vote for Brahmins regardless of the political party, create a new Brahmin leadership lest ‘we poor people’ have to live ‘under’ the ‘rule’ of ‘others’ forever. For all this hand-wringing, they’ll all go and still vote for the BJP’s lower OBC candidate because of either Hindutva, or the winnability factor, or both.
We have for long heard of the animosity between Brahmins and Thakurs in Uttar Pradesh. The BJP won a state election in there in 2017 with a lower OBC pitch, then made Yogi Adityanath, a Thakur, the chief minister, and still swept state in the 2019 Lok Sabha election thanks to the widespread popularity of Narendra Modi, an OBC. For all the grumbling Brahmins do over chai or alcohol, they aren’t about to ‘waste their vote’ to prop up Brahmin leadership.
Nobody since Vajpayee
Brahmin angst in Uttar Pradesh is particularly acute these days. Despite being sizeable in number, Brahmins in UP haven’t had a single tall leader since Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The Yogi Adityanath government has a token Brahmin deputy chief minister but not many outside Lucknow will be able to tell you his name.
Jitin Prasada rightly sees an opportunity here. Yet his approach is a self-goal. Brahmin mobilisation will get him attention, save him from the political irrelevance he was lurching towards. As the Congress party in UP woos OBCs, Prasada gets to assert how important Brahmins are for the party and that he is the most prominent Brahmin now in the UP Congress. This will also likely renew the offers he has probably had in the past from the BJP.
But branding himself as a Brahmin leader can only bring him headlines, not votes. To give you their votes, people want a lot more than your caste. They want to know if you have the ability to govern. If you have the ability, also, of winning over voters from other castes.
Jitin Prasada could have done much better using his urbane appeal to project himself as the governance guy best suited to solve the myriad problems of a languishing state like UP. Sadly, he has chosen caste positioning, as if this was 1989.
The author is contributing editor, ThePrint. Views are personal.