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Sanjaya Baru: Language, region and caste in politics

Bihar is today about regional pride but caste returns to Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka

Sanjaya Baru  |  New Delhi 

It is certainly comforting to imagine that the voter in Bihar has rejected caste and communal politics and opted for development. While caste was not the dominant factor in Bihar elections, with the Yadavs dumping Lalu Prasad for Nitish Kumar, “regional” pride certainly was. Just as Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi has sought to liberate himself from the “communal” tag by projecting himself as the embodiment of Gujarati pride, Mr Kumar has used Bihari pride as the ticket to ride away from caste-based politics in the state.

The Congress party has not been able to counter such “regional” sentiment in Gujarat and Bihar, and that perhaps explains its inability to make headway in both the states. National parties are normally hard put to counter regionalism but both Mr Modi, in Gujarat, and the late Y S Rajashekhar Reddy, in Andhra Pradesh, were able to turn regional pride to their advantage and showed that a national party with a strong state-level leader can overcome caste divisions by exploiting the wider sentiment of linguistic affiliation.

The late N T Rama Rao was able to break Reddy dominance in Andhra Pradesh and bring the much smaller Kamma community to power by creating a political platform based on Telugu pride. In a different context, even the communists have used regional pride as a vote-gathering platform. Consider the manner in which the CPM in Bengal taps into Bengali sentiment and in Kerala into Malayali sentiment.

Indeed, the linguistic division of India buried caste as a factor for some time, but when linguistic loyalties fade, caste has a way of resurrecting. That is what is happening in Andhra Pradesh.

In Bengaluru too, Chief Minister B S Yeddyurappa will not step down because the Bharatiya Janata Party has not been able to find a Lingayat of equal standing to replace him. Lucky Congress party! It first found a Prithviraj Chavan to replace an Ashok Chavan in Maharashtra and has now found a Nallari Kiran Kumar Reddy as counterpoise for Yeduguri Sandinti Jagan Mohan Reddy in Andhra Pradesh.

If caste can return with a vengeance to the politics of modern, “developed” states like Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Maharashtra, then one should not assume it will not come back in a Gujarat or a Bihar. Indeed, in Gujarat, the Congress party has no other platform, given that even the state’s Muslims are going soft on Mr Modi, than caste to try and recover ground.

Caste has never been a big factor in Bengal politics — though religious identity has returned to haunt state politics, but most political parties have played on regional/linguistic pride. As the state goes into elections next year, it remains to be seen if Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee can capture the Bengali pride vote away from the communists.

The Congress party’s long-standing problem in the state has been the absence of a charismatic Bengali leader in its stables after the late Siddhartha Shankar Ray, with the party never projecting Mr Pranab Mukherjee as a potential chief minister. Ironically, in Kerala, the Congress has a surfeit of leaders waiting to be chief minister!

The message for the Congress party from the crisis in Andhra Pradesh and the defeat in Bihar is that even a national party needs strong state-level leaders. Such leaders cannot be manufactured in New Delhi, nor identified by emissaries of the “high command”. They have to emerge out of the rough and tumble of state-level politics, like the late Rajashekhar Reddy did in Andhra Pradesh in the run-up to the 2004 elections.

It was on the back of Rajashekhar Reddy’s victory in Andhra Pradesh, which delivered 29 seats in the Lok Sabha to the Congress, that the first United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government was formed in 2004. Whenever the late Reddy visited New Delhi, he would be told by many central ministers that they were in office in Delhi thanks to the good work he had done in the state. By improving on the 2004 tally in 2009, delivering 33 MPs, the Rayalaseema Reddy thought he was the principal author once again of the second UPA victory. That is why his son Jagan Mohan Reddy laid claim to the father’s office on his death.

There is a second reason for the younger Reddy’s defiance. If Andhra Pradesh is indeed split into Telangana and Andhra, he would like to emerge as the undisputed leader of the Rayalaseema region. Which is why the Congress has picked a chief minister from Rayalaseema in Kiran Kumar Reddy.

More importantly, as a senior Congress party MP told me, “if the Telugu Desam is a party of the Kammas and Praja Rajyam is a party of the Kapus, the Congress has no option but to have a Reddy leader!”

In Andhra Pradesh, the Congress was always dominated by the Reddys. Whenever there was a clash among the Reddys, a non-Reddy got a chance to be the chief minister, till the NTR wave hit the state. With the Reddys having re-asserted themselves in the state, the Congress has only one chink in its armour — the absence of a senior backward class leader in government in Hyderabad and Delhi. What the Congress does for the backward classes will be the next step to watch.

In Karnataka, the Lingayat consolidation behind Mr Yeddyurappa offers an opportunity for all other castes to come together. If the Congress is able to offer a platform for such an all-in-one unity, it may yet weaken the BJP’s hold on the state — that is perhaps why Mr Yeddyurappa has pulled out a regional pride card, like Mr Modi, telling the people of Karnataka that no one in Delhi can instruct him what to do. His only problem is that the man gunning for him now is another proud son of Karnataka — a judge called Hegde!

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First Published: Mon, November 29 2010. 00:23 IST