Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first reaction on the Bharatiya Janata Party’s victory in the 2022 Uttar Pradesh assembly election sought to create a new understanding about the state’s politics. In his address to BJP workers at the party headquarters in New Delhi, Modi said that the election results demonstrate people’s preference for a pro-poor and pro-governance agenda, and, significantly, a rejection of casteism and caste politics.
According to Modi, the electoral defeat and political ‘marginalisation’ of Akhilesh Yadav-led Samajwadi Party (SP) and Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) has ushered in a new era of casteless politics. But is it so? Apparently not.
Here are three arguments that contradict Modi’s claims.
1. The defeat of SP and the BSP does not mean the end of road for lower and middle class assertions and certainly not the defeat of the politics of social justice.
2. What Modi is branding as casteism and caste politics are in reality political assertion of the ‘lower’ and middle castes, which is good because it broadens the scope of Indian democracy.
3. The politics of ‘lower’ caste assertion and development/governance are not contradictory ideas and can go hand-in-hand.
Is social justice out as Modi claims?
In the recent electoral battle in UP, social justice was not on the table. No political party made it their central or even tertiary theme during the campaign. The SP and the BSP fought the election mainly on two planks.
First, both parties claimed that they are in a better position to fight the communal politics of the BJP, so the Muslims should vote for them. Their rally speeches and social media content was dominated by the idea that if they can woo the state’s 20 per cent Muslim population, then the road to victory will become significantly easier.
Second, both parties claimed that Uttar Pradesh had done exceedingly well under their respective governments, which will be replicated if they are voted back to power. The SP highlighted its so-called achievements in building infrastructure like roads and metros during the 2012-2017 period. The BSP claimed that Mayawati is a no-nonsense administrator and her rule was known for its better law and order situation in the state. Clearly, these promises failed to resonate with the UP electorate.
Since neither party made social justice an election issue, the BJP’s communal idea and agenda got a free pass. In fact, the ideological battle was lost or rather abandoned long ago. Both SP and BSP started wooing the oppressor castes, and especially the Brahmins, in the early 21st century. The BSP would organise Brahmin Bhaichara Sammelans, whereas the SP found an icon in former Lok Sabha MP Janeshwar Mishra and also declared Parashuram Jayanti a public holiday. These gimmicks worked only until the choices before the state’s ‘upper’ caste electorate were SP and BSP. Once the BJP became powerful, they abandoned the two parties and shifted to the BJP. According to the CSDS-Lokniti survey, in the 2022 UP assembly election, 89% of the Brahmin, 87% of the Thakur and 83% of the Vaishya voters voted for the BJP.
Perhaps the final nail in the coffin of both SP and BSP’s politics of social justice was their support for the EWS quota bill (for ‘economically weaker’ general castes) in Parliament. With this, they lost their remaining ideological sheen and a key factor that separated them from the BJP. After all, this bill added a person/household’s economic status as a new marker of backwardness, which is antithesis to the premise of social justice and Bahujan movement that emphasise on birth-based, generationally accumulated backwardness. Before this amendment, the Constitution envisaged untouchability, tribal identity, and social and educational laggardness as markers of backwardness.
Modi’s fallacious idea of caste politics
Modi’s second assertion that the 2022 UP results indicate an ‘end of caste politics’ perpetuates the false notion that caste politics is what the lower and middle class groups practice. The ‘upper’ caste domination in a party or in the assembly/government is regarded as normal, whereas the efforts of the underclass to break such hegemony are treated as casteism and caste-based politics, often because such politics is hyper visible. As sociologist Satish Deshpande says, soon after Independence, “A new kind of common sense (evolved) where the very definition of caste was truncated and equated with the lower castes.”
The castelessness of the so-called ‘upper’ castes and their domination and hegemony in the political and other arenas are rarely challenged, simply because theirs is the dominant idea and part of the common sense that dominates the Indian society. Even the term ‘upper’ caste is relatively new, having taken shape only after the emergence of the OBC and backward caste categories. Prior to that, the ‘upper’ caste domination and hegemony lived under the veil of ‘General caste’.
The assertiveness of the OBCs in north Indian politics was a long overdue process and the Silent Revolution of ‘lower’ caste emergence during 1960-1990 strengthened the Indian democracy. Political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot rightly says that this trend constitutes a genuine “democratisation” of India.
Caste politics aka social justice is pro-development
The third point raised by Modi that caste politics (or social justice) and development/governance cannot go hand in hand is a notion devoid of any facts. India’s southern states, considered to be the hotbed of ‘lower’ caste assertion since the early 20th century, are better off in almost all economic and human development indices than most north Indian states.
It will be too simplistic to say that states like Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh prospered only because of the caste assertion of the subaltern, but it is safe to say that the assertion of the ’lower’ castes did not hinder these states’ march to comparative prosperity and better performance in health and education. Without unleashing the capacity and potentials of the large masses, no society can perform well.
The BJP has been victorious in Uttar Pradesh since 2014. But this is certainly not the defeat of the politics of social justice or, as Modi says, ‘caste politics’. We are yet to witness the grand battle of the BJP’s communal agenda and the social justice forces. To announce the defeat of social justice even before the battle has begun is short-sighted. As poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz once said:
Tum ye kehte ho vo jang ho bhi chuki
Jismen rakha nahin hai kisi ne kadam
Koi utraa na maidan mein dushman na hum
(You claim that the war is long over
In which none has yet stepped over,
None strode into the field —
Neither the enemy moved nor did we stir!)
Translation by Naqsh e Faryadi)
Dilip Mandal is the former managing editor of India Today Hindi Magazine, and has written books on media and sociology. He tweets @Profdilipmandal. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)