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Just a humble OBC: Why Narendra Modi played the caste card in Amethi

So Narendra Modi decided to re-invent himself in Amethi.

From being the serial ranter like all other politicians, in Amethi, he morphed into the challenger, the underdog, the outsider and the victim at the same time. He chose to rebuild the idea of him as the quintessential 'other' in the context of traditional Indian social paradigms. So at once, he is the poor chai-wallah's son, the 'aam aadmi' CM whose mother travelled to the poll booth in an auto, the proud older brother basking the glow of the behen's success. And now he is the fighter from the 'backward caste'.

One must note here, in his development-for-all pitch, Modi has carefully skirted past contentious issues of caste and religious unless absolutely necessary.

Like in Varanasi, he couldn't have avoided paying obeisance to Maa Ganga as the part of the keep-the-Hindus-happy ploy. While he has repeatedly mentioned BR Ambedkar while reminding people that the rights they have is thanks to his draft of the Constitution and not because of the Congress, he has sparingly mentioned him in the context of caste. Though he himself belongs to the OBC caste and the same has been discussed widely in editorials, newsroom debates and by other political leaders, Modi himself has mostly refrained from bringing out the caste card.

In states like Rajasthan, Bihar and other regions of Uttar Pradesh, where caste is an important voting issue, the calculation has been mostly left to the local leadership while selecting candidates. Modi has extensively campaigned in these states without flaunting his caste affiliation. So what prompted him to bring out the caste card in Amethi?

Why, when Priyanka accused Modi of practicing 'neech rajniti' (low-level politics), did Modi again, give it a caste spin and ask dramatically, "I was born to a neech jaati (lower caste), but is that a fault?".

'Neech' has been a word that has been used down years in India to cast aspersions on the basis of caste, though the word has other implications too. So when Priyanka used the word 'neech' to qualify his politics, it was convenient for Modi to immediately give it a caste colour.

 Just a humble OBC: Why Narendra Modi played the caste card in Amethi

Narendra Modi in Amethi. PTI.

There was very little to fault in Narendra Modi's Amethi avatar, the one we saw on Monday. From what can be easily termed as a non-religious wardrobe in scrupulous white (including the lotus paper brooch) to the part-dismissive, part-resentful rhetoric, Modi played the challenger to the hilt. The script of his performance too, was markedly different.

No mention was made of his favourite word 'shehzada', the 5F development template was not flaunted and the measurements of Gujarat's water pipelines was also not shown-off or praised. So what demanded this marked departure from the usual Modi-isms that we have seen in innumerable rallies in the past?

Obviously the fact that he was standing in Amethi, a ground considered the Gandhis' bastion, where facetious analogies, strongly-worded accusations and no amount of name-calling hold the power to dent the latter's reputation.\

This is the ground where Rahul, despite his dynastic politics, has managed to strike a chord as the favoured 'bhaiya' no less. This is the ground where Priyanka, despite the company of heavily armed security-men and a tank-topped Robert Vadra, is the 'didi' villagers struggle to catch a glimpse of and shake hands with. The problem with Modi's usual weapons was probably the fact that Amethi never seemed to have a problem with the shehzadas and suchlike.

One way of cutting ice with this electorate is positioning himself as the achiever from the most disenfranchised section of the society. So while a poor chai-wallah works, nothing works like a poor chaiwallah from a backward caste. Angst about caste is a throbbing reality in Amethi, where Rahul Gandhi has gained from pandering to the Dalit population. So Modi felt it made sense to stoke their latent anxiety about a high caste, privileged leadership.

The invective against Congress built on Sitaram Kesri did exactly that. In order to plant a seed of doubt in Amethi's electorate about the motives of their favoured leaders, Modi took the pains of narrating an incident, which would otherwise have no bearing on the country's contemporary political narratives. Had Modi not mentioned right as the outset that Kesri, like him, was from a backward caste, the story of Congress stripping Kesri off all important posts would have been something lost on his audience. However, with a caste spin, Kesri's story though not very evocative or powerful, works to suggest that behind its veneer, the Congress party harbours deep resentment for the lower caste.

By drumming up caste anxieties in the last leg of the polls, and by making Amethi its epicentre, Modi probably offered the Gadhi loyalists an alternative they'll have a hard time refusing. Instead of a caretaker that the Gandhis are, he chose to offer himself as a defender from their own brethren.

The poor boy versus rich landlord binary, staple in pre-nineties Bollywood, is not just a figment of a talented scriptwriter's imagination. And BJP is more than willing to bet on its success, beyond the silver screen.

Updated Date: May 06, 2014 19:39:33 IST