In the name of caste

Caste narratives expose inner fault-lines in our hierarchical society and can easily spark off controversy. Last week, when Jai Ram Thakur was selected as the BJP's Himachal Pradesh chief ministerial candidate, I tweeted about how nine of the eleven BJP chief ministers (excluding the north-east) now belong to upper castes. Predictably, the tweet raised an avalanche of protest. Since 280 characters on twitter aren’t enough to make a nuanced argument on the divisive issue of caste, I deleted the tweet. Thakur, a five time MLA and the son of a mason and a farmer maybe a deserving choice, but is also a beneficiary of Himachal’s ‘Thakur-waad’ dominance with nearly half the ruling party MLAs belonging to the community. Indeed, my central argument is unshaken: seventy years after independence, despite the push for a more ‘inclusive’ politics, we remain an upper caste- led polity.

When Narendra Modi became the country's prime minister, it was seen as a watershed moment, one that would genuinely effect a change in the power pyramid. Until then, the highest executive post in the country was controlled by upper castes (the one exception was Deve Gowda, a Vokkaliga from Karnataka, whose brief tenure must be seen as an aberration). Modi skilfully played up his OBC credentials during the 2014 campaign, especially in the caste cauldron of north India. Mani Shankar Aiyar's sneeringly snobbish 'chaiwallah' comment only gave Mr Modi the space to affirm his credentials as someone who had risen from a low caste, low income background to challenge the Brahminical elite.

Three years later, that elite is still very much in power. Just take a look at the senior ministers in the union cabinet: the all powerful Cabinet Committee on Security, for example, is monopolised by Brahmins and Thakurs. The senior bureaucracy is also dominated by the upper castes. The opposition is led by a Janeu-Dhari Hindu, as we were firmly reminded by the Congress during the Gujarat campaign, lest anyone dare suggest that the Nehru-Gandhis weren't 'high caste' Hindus. Yes, the president of India is a Dalit, but does one seriously believe that Ram Nath Kovind’s appointment is little else but political tokenism? His tenure in Rashtrapati Bhavan is unlikely to lead to greater Dalit empowerment, just as a Pratibha Patil as president hardly promoted women's emancipation.

Truth is, the 'Bahujan-isation' of Indian politics has been an experiment fraught with risk and is now being challenged on different fronts. The rise of the Dravida parties in south India and the Dalit-Bahujan assertion in Maharashtra was preceded by a reformist social revolution that ensured a relatively smooth transition of political power. By contrast, the Mandal revolution of the late 1980s in north India did lead to greater Dalit-OBC representation in electoral politics but also witnessed a fierce upper caste backlash. Statistics now show that OBC representation in parliament has declined in the past decade to pre Mandal levels of around twenty per cent even as upper caste numbers have sharply risen to 44 per cent.

The manner in which the BJP's Hindutva wave swept aside the narrow caste- based loyalties of the Samajwadi party and Bahujan Samaj party in Uttar Pradesh in 2017 could be a pointer to the future. Even after courting the non Yadav OBCs and non- Dalit Jatavs during the elections, the BJP chose a saffron-robed upper caste Thakur as its Hindutva mascot to lead the government. With the Yadavs of UP, the BSP’s Mayawati and Lalu and sons in Bihar typecast as corrupt, self aggrandising, family raj parties, the BJP has tried to co-opt the disenchanted Mandal foot-soldiers – many of them from smaller, poorer
communities -- within a broader Hindu religious umbrella to create a cross-class, cross-caste alliance. The Congress too, is attempting to build a rival political coalition by aligning with a new generation of aggressive and articulate Dalit-Bahujan leaders like Jignesh Mevani from Gujarat even while opting to fight the Karnataka elections under the leadership of its backward caste strongman Siddaramiah.

Neither the co-option nor the alignment may be smooth in every instance with dominant caste interests often clashing with the rest. The violent attack this week by right wing Brahminical forces on Dalits in Maharashtra who were celebrating the 200th anniversary of a victory in a battle over the Peshwas reflects how old animosities are finding new expressions (the battle of Koregaon-Bhima in 1818 had seen a contingent of Mahars, a Dalit sub-caste, join forces with the British East India Company to defeat the Peshwa army, a seminal event in Dalit imagination of overcoming upper caste supremacy). Indeed, the fact that the BJP government in Maharashtra today is headed by a Brahmin, Devendra Fadnavis, has only given more ammunition to Dalit protestors to suggest that there is an unwillingness on the part of the state to act firmly against those responsible for the attack in a village near Pune because of an upper caste bias.

Moreover, amidst growing rural distress and economic inequities, influential agrarian caste protest movements have also surfaced amongst the traditional land-owning groups. The recent elections in Gujarat saw the emergence of a strident new Patidar leadership under the control of a 23 year old Hardik Patel, whose demand for reservations for Patels in jobs and education appeared to catch the imagination of younger Patels. Like the Patidars, the influential Marathas in Maharashtra and the Jats in Haryana, have also hit the streets to push for a share in the reservation pie.

Accommodating these powerful groups without alienating large Dalit-Bahujan interests is now a big challenge for any major political force, one that could shape the future of post-Mandal politics. In the interim, expect a period of flux and friction, one in which caste will continue to play a key role in the battle for political control.

Post-script: To those turned off by caste arithmetic in politics, how about a review of the matrimonial columns in newspapers that so glaringly mirror social prejudice? As for us journalists, we too maybe need to look inwards and ask the inconvenient question: how many Dalit, OBC, Adivasi editors in Indian newsrooms?

(This column first appeared in Hindustan Times)

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