A simple tweet, all of 140 characters, can be hazardous to one’s health as I have discovered to my cost yet again. Last Sunday, as Narendra Modi went in for his first Cabinet expansion, I tweeted: “Big day for my Goa. Two GSBs, both talented politicians, become full cabinet ministers. Saraswat pride!” I was referring to the induction of Manohar Parrikar and Suresh Prabhu in the Union Cabinet. Rather than see my tweet as a statement of fact, I was accused of being casteist and worse. Typical of the noxious side of social media, I was barraged with abuse and hate mail.
“GSB” refers to the Gaud Saraswat Brahmins, a tiny, but highly progressive community of fish-eating Brahmins that I belong to which nestles along the Konkan coast, across Maharashtra, Goa, through to parts of Karnataka. In his valuable book Saraswats, Chandrakant Keni traces the history of the Saraswat community, of the migration from Kashmir, of how they faced oppression from the conquering Portuguese, how they zealously held onto their family traditions and village deities, and placed a premium on education as a path to upward mobility.
Despite the small numbers, the Saraswat community has contributed enormously to the country: In cricket, led by the big two Sunil Gavaskar and Sachin Tendulkar, Saraswats have scored more than a hundred Test hundreds; in cinema and the arts, we have the splendid Girish Karnad, Shyam Benegal, Guru Dutt and the latest Hindi film dream girl, Deepika Padukone; in education, the Pais of Manipal have led the way; and in business and finance, the likes of Nandan Nilekani and KV Kamath have been pioneers.
Which brings me back to my original tweet. Is expressing pride in a community’s achievements a sign of casteism as the critics suggest? Casteism is when a caste identity is used to promote hatred and separateness towards the other, when it creates social barriers based on occupation, marriage or inter-dining. My tweet was aimed at highlighting a piece of trivia which I believed was interesting: of the four Cabinet rank ministers sworn in, two belonged to a small Brahmin community with no real political base.
There is a political significance to this fact which we must not lose sight of, and which sadly the limitations of social media prevent a more detailed explanation of. Traditionally, Cabinet formation involves a certain tacit acknowledgment of caste, region and community pressures. This means that a Union Cabinet is often based on delicate negotiation and compromise with competing interest groups. You need, for example, a Ram Kripal Yadav to challenge Lalu Yadav’s claim of being the foremost Yadav leader of Bihar; Giriraj Singh is a Bhumihar upper caste leader; a Birender Singh becomes the BJP’s Jat face in Haryana; Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi becomes a “minority” face; there are Dalit and tribal MPs who need to be accommodated. Only extreme political correctness would prevent us from accepting this reality.
In this political milieu, the Brahmins have usually lost out because their numerical strength doesn’t justify greater political representation. Which is why it is significant that Parrikar and Prabhu made the cut: It suggests, importantly, that there is still space for merit within a caste-driven polity. Both Parrikar and Prabhu are highly educated, one an IITian, the other one of the youngest heads of a co-operative bank (incidentally called Saraswat co-operative bank). It is their track record as efficient technocrat-politicians that perhaps impressed the prime minister sufficiently to give them important portfolios. It didn’t matter that their caste identity wasn’t a potential vote bank: Their proven skills as administrators have rewarded them.
Indeed, in the last month, we have seen the gradual melting down of traditional caste affinities when it comes to choosing politicians for key posts. For example, in Maharashtra, the BJP preferred Devendra Fadnavis, a Chitpawan Brahmin from Nagpur over a Maratha leader like Eknath Khadse. Even a few years ago, this would have been unthinkable as the Marathas are the dominant caste in Maharashtra politics while the “three and a half per cent” Brahmins are seen to have retreated to the private sector. Fadnavis was preferred because he was seen to fit in with the image of a younger, more dynamic leader than his rival for the post.
In Haryana too, the BJP chose Manoharlal Khattar, a non-Jat leader ahead of any Jat claimant in the state because the party leadership felt he had the image of a clean, hard-working politician with strong proximity to Modi and the RSS. By disregarding Jat demands for the top post, a message was perhaps being sent out again: Capability, not caste, would be the decisive factor while choosing a chief minister.
Does this mean a permanent rupturing of the bonds between caste and political success? No. Let’s be honest: It will still be difficult for political parties to distribute tickets at election time without keeping caste considerations in mind. Caste loyalties will still shape voting preferences in several parts of the country: a Mayawati will still rely on her Jatav vote and the Samajwadi Party on a Yadav vote. There will still be battles for power between the Lingayats and Vokkaliggas in a Karnataka, between Kammas and Reddys in an Andhra.
But while these caste wars are fought, there is a creeping realisation that caste alone will not guarantee electoral victory. You need a more inclusive “caste-plus” appeal that will attract newer, younger voters based on qualifications that go beyond narrow caste identities. The prime minister himself is a good example: He belongs to the small Ghanchi OBC community of Gujarat, and yet has been able to challenge and demolish the dominant castes of Gujarat based on his political achievements. When he became prime minister, posters sprung up across Mumbai with the Ghanchi Samaj congratulating him. Is that casteism or caste pride?
This column first appeared in hindustan times.