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Shekhar Gupta: A heartland-rending tussle

Why and how the BJP and the Congress respond to the faith-versus-caste debate will still shape politics

Shekhar Gupta 

Shekhar Gupta

The interplay of caste and politics has produced scores, if not hundreds, of PhDs in India and overseas. People with lifelong scholarship on the subject have analysed it. I speak of caste in our politics, therefore, not pretending to be a scholar but as a political reporter. There can also be no better dateline for this week's edition of "National Interest" than Muzaffarpur in northern Bihar where I write this midway through a full week's election travels and reading the writings on the wall. Covering an election in Bihar, you hear the word "caste" a half dozen times in an hour. It declines a bit as you go to other states, but never really disappears from your conversations, except probably in West Bengal and Assam to an extent.

An election is the best time to learn caste politics. I was taken aback in the Lok Sabha election of 1980 when, covering the Kurukshetra constituency in Haryana, I was briefed by the district police chief, a Scheduled Caste (the word "Dalit" was not used much then) IPS officer and a Bhajan Lal loyalist. After drawing a pie chart of sorts on a note-pad, giving a break-up of castes and who each one was likely to vote for, he finally said the balance would be tilted by Scheduled Castes, two-thirds of which, he said, belonged to "our" (that is his and Babu Jagjivan Ram's) caste. Bhajan Lal was aligned with Babuji then though he later carried out his spectacular en masse defection. And who were the rest of the SCs, I asked. "Oh, the rest are of lower castes," said the police chief. I thought he was out of his mind to talk about caste so loosely.

There were two other occasions in subsequent years. Covering a long strike in the Banaras Hindu University in 1983, I was intrigued by how university politics was all being explained in caste terms: "Brahmin, Thakur, Bhumihar, eastern UP, western Bihar," as a professor tried to explain helpfully. But the significance of caste became clearer only in the late eighties as Rajiv Gandhi and the Congress declined. Kanshi Ram transformed his quasi-political DS-4 into the Bahujan Samaj Party and entered as the significant third in the election of the decade, in Allahabad where V P Singh contested to return to Parliament after resigning from Rajiv Gandhi's Cabinet on Bofors. Amitabh Bachchan having retreated, the Congress put up Lal Bahadur Shastri's son Sunil and Kanshi Ram entered with his slogan of "vote hamara, raj tumhara, nahin chalega".

Some of us still wondered what he was talking about and were surprised by the number of votes he got, finishing a respectable third.

The power of caste became evident in the next three years, with V P Singh's implementation of the Mandal Commission report, upper-caste protests and the rise of Lalu Prasad and Mulayam Singh Yadav in the vanguard of the new third front. In a way, Mandal and the new backward caste power it unleashed also contained the rising Mandir phenomenon. The heartland politics, thereafter, was understood in Mandal versus Kamandal terms. That is how Mr Prasad is positioning the fight in Bihar, and Sushil Modi counters saying that both Mandal and Kamandal are with them.

A quarter century later now, Mandal's children are the key players in this Bihar election, and their victory - and that of caste politics - lies in the fact that even their challengers, the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), have to also speak the same language. On the secular/communal issue, Narendra Modi still persists with his original "who is the enemy you want to fight, the other religion or poverty" line. But he is now repeatedly reminding voters of his humble caste origins. His partymen, including the senior-most state leader Sushil Modi, hail him as a leader from "Extremely Backward Castes", or EBCs.

Pre-eminence of caste is evident in that it has exposed contradictions between the BJP's politics and the ideology of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The latter has a fundamental acceptance of Varna, though it is willing to reassess caste as a divisive force. That is where its fundamental, and in a way principled, questioning of caste-based reservations comes from. It sees caste as a divisive force within the Hindu faith. It doesn't want the upper castes also to be left out, is uneasy with Mandalite politics unsettling the old political hierarchies, and therefore demands a review of reservations, never mind how it messes up BJP's chances in Bihar.

The RSS's objective is an old one: to unite with faith what caste divided. The children of Mandal are not atheists or iconoclasts like the DMK of the past. But they want to use caste to dismantle political hierarchies it created in the first place. That is why backward/lower-caste politics is such anathema to the RSS. But Narendra Modi and Amit Shah know their politics. That is why the alarmed switch to reservations, and raising the threat from "vote bank" politics.

I shall risk saying that caste is winning in this tussle with faith, in spite of the fact that the BJP now has power at the Centre with a full majority, rules more states than it ever has in India's history and its main rival, the Congress, lies decimated and in terminal decline. But its prime minister belongs to an EBC and finds it important to keep underlining that, with pride. Some of its most important leaders, particularly the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, are from the backward castes. In the high of 2014, it defied caste twice, anointing a Brahmin chief minister in Maharashtra and gave Haryana its first non-Jat in two decades. It is unlikely this will be repeated any place soon, least of all in Bihar if the BJP wins here. The state is guaranteed a backward or Dalit leader.

After the Mandir high 1989-onwards, the reason the BJP has risen is that it's understood caste politics and accepted the new pecking order more readily than the Congress, which, meanwhile, has failed to produce, or even package, any significant lower caste leader. In both Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the BJP has bigger OBC leaders than the Congress. In fact, in recent decades, the most important OBC leader in the Congress is Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, an import from Deve Gowda's party.

It will be fair to say, therefore, that the BJP has risen as it accepted the new reality and forced its entrenched upper-caste leaders to make way for new, backward talent, and the Congress has declined because it didn't. The Bihar campaign, however, marks some shifts. It has given us the first indication of impatience on this within the RSS. Similarly, it has seen the Congress firmly accept the distant number three place in a "secular" alliance. The ability of the BJP to deal with these internal doubts, and the degree of realism with which the Congress will be willing to accommodate other caste-based, vote-bank parties elsewhere in the heartland will determine the course of politics. The tussle will still be between the politics of empowerment and Hindutva, and on what can unite or divide better, faith or caste.



Twitter: @ShekharGupta

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First Published: Fri, October 30 2015. 22:19 IST
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