The failure of the BJP-RSS dispensation in Gujarat to read caste correctly and understand its dynamic political character has led to this present predicament.
After years of BJP-style social mobilisation, caste identities are reasserting themselves ahead of the Gujarat elections.
For the first time since the 1985 assembly elections, which were dominated by the Congress’s KHAM (Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi, Muslim) politics, caste appears to be one of the foremost drivers of political preferences ahead of next month’s Gujarat polls.
This re-emergence of caste has triggered a set of puzzling political questions for the serious observers of Hindutva and Indian politics. Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief Mohan Bhagwat stated a few days ago at the ‘Samarasata Sangam’ held in Jalna, Maharashtra, that caste was not the original identity of Hindus and, therefore, all Hindus must ultimately grow into a casteless society. He was, of course, being true to the ideological script drafted by Hindutva’s troika — V.D. Savarkar, K.B. Hedgewar, and M.S. Golwalkar.
Now, the unabashed appeal to exclusive caste-based demands by the three mavericks — Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakor and Jignesh Mevani — signifies a breakdown in the RSS-BJP project of constructing a unitary and monolithic Hindu nationalist consciousness in Gujarat.
Why didn’t the BJP’s Hindu vote-share rise more than seven per cent during the past 20 years? What has compelled the BJP to stow away its core Hindutva agenda this time, and woo voters on the basis of its development record and marketing Narendra Modi as its super brand?
The answers to these questions are bound to be complex. One finding, however, is unmistakable — Gujarat’s voters appear to be saying that they cannot act as ‘Hindus’ all the time and in all the elections. They will now assert their identities as Kadva or Leuva Patels, savarna or backward Kshatriyas, Rohit or Vankar Dalits.
A large number of Patidars who have been politically loyal to the BJP for decades are ready to gravitate towards the Congress if it promises to satisfy their demands, no matter what its record might have been on issues of minorities and secularism.
Patidars, backward Kshatriya communities and Dalits, who had earlier clashed during the anti-reservation stirs of 1981 and 1985, have now formed a rainbow coalition to achieve their interests in a peaceful manner, through sensitising their communities about their real or imagined deprivation, and mobilising them for demanding concessions.
Gujarat offered the BJP and the RSS-mentored Sangh Parivar groups conducive conditions possible for the advancement of Hindutva under India’s parliamentary democracy: a deeply religious society, passive opposition parties, compliant intellectual class and civil society, a capitalist economic ethos, polarising sentiments created by major communal riots in 1992 and 2002, and a strong organisational network of the RSS. And then the state had the towering persona of Narendra Modi lead the ideological and political offensive against the assumed forces of pseudo-secularism, casteism, and minority appeasement.
Then, why has the intended samarasata (harmony and assimilation) among Gujarat’s many caste divisions eluded the BJP-RSS combine, even after two decades of experimentation with cultural nationalism in the proverbial ‘laboratory of Hindutva’?
It is as much a product of political mishandling, as of ideological inadequacy to recognise and address sentiments of deprivation, injustice, and discrimination experienced by different sections of the society. The Sangh Parivar’s ambivalence on issues of distributive justice has constrained its efforts to consolidate Hindu votes.
The present caste-based agitations in Gujarat also point the symbolic co-option of Dalit and backward caste leadership into government and party structures without substantive partnership and insufficient access to public education and health benefits has a limited scope.
The history of caste in Gujarat, and the rest of India, indicates that rigid caste structures become dynamic entities when they connect to the political domain. Caste in a political role rarely falls back on pure ascriptive identity. It acts as an interest group that bargains with parties recurrently for access to public resources and goods on the basis of its numerical strength. Caste, thus, acquires economic and ‘class’ dimensions.
Just as ‘Hindu’-ness is not monolithic, static, or homogeneous, caste consciousness too is heterogeneous and dynamic. The failure of the BJP-RSS dispensation in Gujarat to read caste correctly and understand its dynamic political character has led to this present predicament, wherein it is forced to sidestep its core agenda of Hindu amalgamation and appease caste groups with sops and power-sharing formulas.
Social engineering aimed at creating a unitary, all-encompassing Hindu identity, no matter how alluring it may seem to its ideological adherents, is unlikely to succeed on the ground in the foreseeable future. Unless its agenda of cultural nationalism combines with policies of social reform, inclusiveness, and economic welfare, the existing tensions between caste and Hindu religious identity would persist in Gujarat and elsewhere.
American political theorist Harold Lasswell’s classic definition of politics as an activity concerned with ‘who gets what, when, and how’ has been substantiated one more time in the run up to the Gujarat elections now.
The author is professor of political science, Maharaja Sayajirao University, Vadodara.