New Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi has often said that ‘Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas’ (togetherness and development for everyone) is not just a slogan, but a commitment for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). And at first glance it would seem that the party is doing just that, placing people from backward castes in positions of power.
A closer look at the power structure of the BJP-led central government, or that of the states governed by it, however, suggests that the representation of leaders from the lower castes in the government is mere tokenism.
An analysis of seven BJP-ruled states and one where the party is a partner in the government — all states where caste plays a crucial role in politics — reveals that despite its much-hyped inclusivity, those calling the shots belong to the upper castes. Or they belong to a dominant caste or community — which could be an Other Backward Class (OBC), but which wields economic and political power in the region. Sociologist M.N. Srinivas, who is often credited with introducing the term, defined a dominant caste as one which “preponderates numerically over the other castes, and when it also wields preponderant economic and political power”. He added: “A large and powerful caste group can be more easily dominant if its position in the local caste hierarchy is not too low.”
ThePrint analysed caste profiles of over 123 state ministers across the eight states of Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, Karnataka, Gujarat, Goa, and Maharashtra (where BJP is a partner in the government). The northeastern states have been left out of the analysis because caste is not the predominant electoral factor in the region.
Most BJP state cabinets give representation to backward caste leaders, but powerful portfolios are with upper or dominant castes.
In a cabinet, after the CM’s post, the home portfolio is considered most important because it controls the police — a powerful instrument in administration. The finance ministry decides the outlay for every ministry and so is much sought after. Likewise, the Public Works Department (PWD) is considered an important portfolio because all road and expressway constructions, which are visible symbols of development, are under its jurisdiction. Revenue is another important department as it deals with all land-related affairs and land is one of the most important resources in any state. Another important portfolio is health, since it has control of the medical colleges and primary and secondary healthcare systems, which traditionally receive huge budget allocations.
Of 123 cabinet ministers in the eight states analysed, including chief ministers, 82 are from upper or dominant castes and the remaining 41 are from the lower castes, scheduled castes (SC), Dalit, OBC or scheduled tribe (ST).
Karnataka Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai is an OBC because Lingayats are categorised in the state as a backward class. But Lingayats, in terms of their socio-economic-political clout, are a dominant group in the state.
Likewise, in the Union Cabinet, apart from the PM’s post, all the big portfolios are with upper caste members.
While some political analysts say “the process of empowerment takes time”, others believe that “backward castes have yet not reached the stage where they can negotiate… and that it will take time for the Brahminical order to share power.”
“It is a transition of social engineering politics. The process of empowerment takes time. Gradually, power will shift and will be distributed democratically. It can not be done overnight. When reservation was institutionalised, backward communities slowly got empowered through social justice. In politics, a lot of churning has happened and it will continue in the coming times,” noted social scientist Badrinarayan of G.B. Pant University told ThePrint.
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Of the eight chief ministers, six are from upper or dominant castes. Only Madhya Pradesh’s Shivraj Singh Chouhan belongs to OBC. Karnataka’s Basavraj Bommai, is a Lingayat (OBC) — a dominant group in the state as mentioned above.
In Maharashtra, while Chief Minister Eknath Shinde (leader of the Balasahebanchi Shiv Sena party, a BJP partner in the government) is a Maratha (a community considered to be upper caste), Deputy Chief Minister and BJP leader Devendra Fadnavis, is a Brahmin.
UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath is a Thakur, Uttarakhand’s Pushkar Singh Dhami is Rajput, Haryana’s Manohar Lal Khattar is Khatri, Gujarat’s Bhupendra Patel a Patidar, and Goa’s Pramod Sawant is a Maratha.
A look at those holding the most sought-after portfolios in the cabinet doesn’t throw up any surprises either. Again, across the states, home ministry is held by dominant or upper castes. In UP, Uttarakhand, Gujarat, and Goa, the home ministry is with the respective CMs. Araga Jnanendra holds the portfolio in Karnataka. He is a Vokkaliga, part of the OBC in Karnataka, but also a dominant community in the state. Haryana’s Anil Vij is a Punjabi Khatri, while MP’s Narottam Mishra is a Brahmin.
It is similar for other plum portfolios like finance, PWD, revenue, energy, and health. Only in Madhya Pradesh, Dalit leader Prabhuram Choudhary received the public health and family welfare portfolio, believed to be because of his association with Union minister Jyotiraditya Scindia.
Finance ministry, one of the most sought-after portfolios, is hardly held by a backward castes’ leader in any of these states — Karnataka’s Bommai holds it, but as mentioned earlier the Lingayats are a dominant group in the state. Haryana and Goa CMs hold the portfolio in their respective states. UP Finance Minister Suresh Khanna is a Khatri. Brahmin Kanubhai Mohanlal Desai holds the portfolio in Gujarat and Uttarakhand Finance Minister Prem Chand Aggrawal is a Vaishya. Only Madhya Pradesh Finance Minister Jagdish Devda is from the Dalit community.
As far as PWD is concerned, MP and UP both have Brahmins at the helm — in Gopal Bhargava and Jitin Prasada, respectively. Satpal Maharaj, a Rajput is serving as the PWD minister in Uttrakhand, while the Gujarat CM is holding the portfolio in that state. Haryana Home Minister Anil Vij holds the PWD portfolio as well. In Karnataka, C.C. Patil, a Lingayat, which is a dominant group, heads the ministry, while Nilesh Cabral, a Christian holds it in Goa.
In UP, Uttarakhand, and Gujarat, the respective CMs hold the revenue ministry. In MP, Govind Rajput, a Rajput handles revenue, while in Karnataka, it is R. Ashoka, a Vokkaliga, who holds the portfolio. Goa’s revenue minister Atanasio Monserrate is a Christian. Dushyant Chautala of BJP ally Jannayak Janta Party (JJP) holds the portfolio in Haryana. He is a Jat, a dominant group demanding OBC status in Haryana.
In Maharashtra Fadnavis holds a total of nine portfolios including home, finance, energy and water resources. Shinde, meanwhile holds urban development, PWD, and 11 other ministries. Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil, another Maratha, handles revenue, while former BJP state chief Chandrakant Patil — also a Maratha — holds the higher education and parliamentary affairs portfolios. Girish Mahajan is the only OBC in the cabinet and holds the portfolios of medical education and rural development.
What Dalits, tribals have
According to ThePrint’s analysis, it would seem Dalits and backward caste ministers end up with smaller portfolios.
In UP, the largest state in the country which sends 80 lawmakers to the Lok Sabha, the 18-member cabinet has only one Dalit minister and she, Baby Rani Maurya, holds the portfolio of woman & child development. Sanjay Nishad, an OBC leader, has the charge of fisheries, Rakesh Sachan, a Kurmi (OBC), holds micro small medium enterprise (MSME), and Anil Rajbhar (OBC) is labour and employment minister. Dharmpal Singh, from the Lodh caste (OBC), has animal husbandry, while Laxmi Narayan Chaudhary, a Jat (OBC in UP) holds the sugar industry & cane development department. Deputy CM Keshav Prasad Maurya, another OBC minister, holds rural development.
Uttrakhand has two Dalit cabinet ministers — Rekha Arya, who holds women & child welfare, and food supplies, and Chandan Ram Das who holds transport, social welfare, and MSME.
Haryana has one Dalit cabinet minister, Banwari Lal, who holds the charge of welfare of scheduled castes and backward classes. Gujarat has one tribal cabinet minister, Kuberbhai Mansukhbhai Dindor, who holds the charge of tribal development, and primary, secondary, and old-age education.
Madhya Pradesh has two Dalit ministers and three tribal ministers. Tulsi Silawat has water resources, fisheries and fisheries development and Prabhunam Chaudhary heads public health and family welfare. Bisahulal Singh and Meena Singh, both ST, hold food supplies and SC/ST welfare respectively, while Kunwar Vijay Shah, also ST, handles forest department.
In Goa, ST minister Govind Gaudae handles sports, art and culture, and rural development.
In Karnataka, of 30 cabinet ministers, three are Dalits or from the scheduled castes. While Govind Karjol handles major and medium irrigation, Angara S. handles fisheries, port and inland transport and Prabhu Chauhan heads animal husbandry. B. Sriramulu, an ST leader, heads transport and ST Welfare.
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In all the states analysed, the power seems to rest with upper or dominant castes.
In Uttar Pradesh politics, caste factor is particularly crucial. According to a CSDS-Lokniti post-poll survey, the BJP in 2022, not only consolidated its traditional upper caste votes, but also held on to the non-Yadav OBC vote bank. Defection of senior leaders from the backward classes, such as Swami Prasad Maurya and Dara Singh Chauhan, or the Samajwadi Party’s (SP) alliance with smaller caste-based parties, could not stop the OBC vote from coming to the BJP. From non-Yadav OBCs, the BJP managed to get more than 60 per cent of the votes, which was much more than the Samajwadi Party’s 20-23 per cent share.
This relatively new vote bank (since 2014) was instrumental in BJP’s historic second term in the assembly, allowing the party to win 255 seats in last year’s assembly polls. While eight members of the state cabinet are from the OBCs — including a Jat, a Rajbhar, a Maurya, a Lodh, a Nishad, and one from the SC category in Baby Rani Maurya – none have significant portfolios.
In Karnataka, a state going to polls later this year, caste plays an important role. A cursory glance may show that nearly a third of the ministers in the cabinet are from the OBC/SC/ST group. However, the rest of the 30-minister cabinet is from the dominant groups of Lingayats or Vokkaligas.
CM Bommai, like his predecessor B.S. Yediyurappa, is a Lingayat. Important portfolios of home, health, PWD, and revenue are held by Araga Jnanendra (Vokkaliga), K. Sudhakar (Vokkaliga), C.C. Patil (Lingayat), and R. Ashok (Vokkaliga), respectively. While a Lingayat is the CM, many important portfolios are with Vokkaligas, perhaps to strike a balance.
During the Goa assembly elections in 2022, one-third of the voters considered caste identity as an important issue while deciding their vote, according to the Lokniti-CSDS post-poll survey. The cabinet has enough representation from different religions and castes. But none of the major portfolios are held by any ‘lower caste’ minister.
BJP’s Gujarat win was historic this year, with the party scoring 156 seats. Bhupendra Patel’s nine-member cabinet has Schedule Tribe, lower caste and OBC leaders. But all important portfolios are confined to three people. Bhupendra Patel, a Patidar, holds home and revenue departments. Kanubhai Mohanlal Desai, a Brahmin, is the finance minister. Rushikesh Ganeshbhai Patel, a Patidar, holds the law, health and family welfare and medical education departments.
Union Cabinet no better
This trend is also reflected in the central leadership of the Modi government. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a Modh Gaghchi, an OBC. However, all other important portfolios, such defence, finance, home and roadways, are held by upper caste members.
There are only two Dalit ministers in the 28-member cabinet — Virendra Kumar who has the social justice ministry, and Pashupati Kumar Paras who heads the food processing ministry. Rajnath Singh (defence), Narendra Singh Tomar (agriculture), Anurag Thakur (information and broadcasting) and Gajendra Shekhawat (water resources) are all Rajputs, while Giriraj Singh (rural development) is a Bhumihar. S. Jaishankar (foreign affairs), Nirmala Sitharaman (finance), Nitin Gadkari (road and transport), Pralhad Joshi (coal, and parliamentary affairs), and Mahendra Nath Pandey (heavy industry) are all Brahmins.
“Backward castes have yet not reached the stage where they can negotiate for power. Though they have arrived, it will take time to compel the Brahminical order to share power more democratically, not merely symbolically. It is only in places where reservation is mandatory like in institutions, for jobs, that backward classes have found a foothold but where there is no reservation such as in a political party or a power structure, power remains with the upper/dominant castes,” said D.R. Sahu, professor and head of the sociology department, Lucknow University.
Party leaders, however, insist that the division of portfolios is merit-based.
“This is not a question of Brahmins leading the power structure, but of the availability of talented backward leadership. In states where the BJP has a strong backward leadership, they are sharing power and hold good portfolios… like in MP. This is a transitional phase, it takes time. But that party only decides on merit,” said former Union minister Sanjay Paswan.
His views were echoed by Ramapati Shastri, a former UP cabinet minister who handled social justice in CM Adityanath’s first government.
“Sometimes, a party does not get talented and bright leaders from the backward class or Dalits to lead important portfolios. That is the reason they don’t get a share in the power. But look at the organisation structure. The BJP systematically gives more representation to Dalits and ignored castes,” said Shastri.
A Madhya Pradesh cabinet minister, speaking on condition of anonymity, agreed, however, that “normally, tribals and Dalit MLA are considered for social justice ministry, tribal affairs ministry, fisheries, animal husbandry or cottage industries.”
“They are not considered for finance and home portfolio… it is a general perception that they might not do justice with these ministries, but upper caste MLAs can be considered for those portfolios…it’s a Brahminical mindset, but slowly, things are changing,” the minister added.
(Edited by Smriti Sinha)
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