What the Patel agitation for OBC status shows: Caste politics is back

The landslide victory of the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) in the 2014 parliamentary elections had led people to believe that religion had triumphed over caste.

Wajahat Qazi August 26, 2015 11:10:42 IST
What the Patel agitation for OBC status shows: Caste politics is back

It is a truism to assert that the politics of post Independence India revolves around the axes of caste and religion. However, with the landslide victory of the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) in the 2014 parliamentary elections, it was believed that religion had triumphed over caste. The cacophony of caste based demands and caste based politics had been dissolved by the assertion of a ‘Hindu’ India.

Hindutva, in this schema, was the solvent of caste and caste based politics. This analysis and assessment appears to be being given short shrift by the Patels of Gujarat’s demand for inclusion into the Other Backward Classes (OBC) category. The Patels of Gujarat- held to be more or less a prosperous group- have,  both in a show of strength and solidarity, demanded inclusion in the OBC category.

What the Patel agitation for OBC status shows Caste politics is back

Participants at the Patel rally on Tuesday. PTI image

Is the Patel demand an instance and reflection of the ‘deepening of democracy’- a denouement of Ashutosh Varshney’s ‘battles half won’? Is it in the nature of a prosaic assertion of group interest? Or are countervailing forces to the homogenizing nature and effect of the ideology of Hindutva kicking in?

An answer to these questions takes us necessarily into an excursion onto the nature of India. India is a country or in the words of Stephen Cohen, a civilization state, defined by staggering diversity. Its components are different ethnicities, cultures, religions and last, but not the least, caste. The gale of modernity and modernization that swept India did not dissipate and rent asunder these differences.

Instead, democratization, as Ashutosh Varshney, in his book, Battles Half Won: India’s Improbable Democracy points out, empowered groups that had hitherto been excluded from India’s polity and even socio-cultural firmament. The election of a Dalit woman, Mayawati, encapsulated this development or even trend. Varshney held that , in contrast to hypotheses trotted out by standard democratization and modernization theory, in India, it was the ‘plebeians’ that turned out to vote in large numbers than the educated middle classes.

Presumably, the ‘plebeians’ would vote  along the lines of caste. Caste based politics would complement other thematic issues in Indian politics. But then the stupendous victory of the BJP gave short shrift to this. Given all this, and grafting the Patel demand onto these themes, what inferences can be made about India’s politics?

First. Hindutva and the adulation it received across the political spectrum in India may, in the final analysis, turn out to be an aberration. The reasons mainly pertain to the nature of India’s polity and the diversity that defines it. Second, Hinduism, being essentially in the nature of a broad philosophy than a religion or a doctrine, and defined by a plethora of Gods, may not turn out to be a unifying glue of edifice that unites India under its rubric. India then will gyrate to the rhythm of diversity and its politics will reflect this. Hindutva and its ideological gloss then may be ephemeral.

But what explains the Patel demands?

One can only speculate about the reasons of the Patel demands and protests. But it would appear that the reasons pertain to political economy. Patel’s appear to want to gain a greater share of the economic and perhaps even the political pie. Their demand is then in the nature of assertion of group interest. This is a very normal development and aspiration.

But tangentially, given the articulation of their demand in group interest terms, it acquires a caste hue. Axiomatically, this means caste and caste-based politics which may spur other groups and castes to opt for collective action to demand and get their ‘share of the pie'.

So does the Patel demand and show of strength then mean that countervailing forces to Hindutva have begun to kick in?

While the sample, to use academic parlance, may be small and not indicative of a broad based trend, it is still significant given that this has happened in Gujarat that is PM Modi’s home constituency and the laboratory of the ideology of Hindutva. It may be the bellwether event that actually may be said to constitute the beginning of the re-assertion and  articulation of group interest. The plebeians then appear to have revolted and asserted themselves again. India’s politics may be corresponding and reverting to a more familiar brand.

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