Future course of Indian politics may depend on how Narendra Modi cracks caste barrier and creates new political formulation of poor
This is the crux of the debate and the most consequential question in the ongoing Lok Sabha election. Can this subsume the caste divisions and create a consolidation behind Modi quite like the way BJP had once banked on Hindutva to unite fractured Hindu votes? How confident is the BJP of cracking the tradition caste formulations in Indian politics and giving rise to a new discourse on the empowerment of the poor?
During a recent interview with News18, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee had spoken about Uttar Pradesh and her state being the inflection points in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. The situation in West Bengal has become more unpredictable since with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) mounting a strong challenge. Uttar Pradesh, however, remains the enigma as always in these elections. It has become an axiomatic truth that the road to Delhi will go via Uttar Pradesh. And it is this state that still throws a bit of uncertainty in BJP's calculations and keeps the Opposition hopes alive.
What is it about Uttar Pradesh that foxes pollsters, analysts and political parties alike? It is the importance of caste as a major factor in the political outcome. It is accepted wisdom that the BJP won 73 out 80 Lok Sabha seats in 2014 and swept the major Hindi heartland state in Assembly polls three years later because the fractured nature of caste identity politics made it easier for the saffron unit to split the anti-BJP votes and seal the seats in first-past-the-post system.
Caste identity politics is said to be co-existing with consolidation of religious identity. However, since BJP’s chief regional rivals in Uttar Pradesh were busy fighting against each other, the saffron unit romped home twice in a three-way contest (never mind the Congress which possibly pulled down ally Samajwadi Party's chances in 2017). For instance, even if Muslims had voted tactically to keep the BJP out, their votes were split between the Samajwadi Party and its arch-rival Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), allowing BJP to go through.
Let us now come to a postulation. Assuming these caste identities remain constant and solidly behind their respective regional parties (for example, Dalit vote bank stays firm with Mayawati, Yadav-Muslim votebank remains aligned with the SP and Jats with the RLD), theoretically at least a “gathbandhan” between arch-rivals SP-BSP and RLD may spell the doom for BJP. In such a scenario, minority votes won’t get split and act as a force multiplier for the “gathbandhan” candidate. The arithmetic is firmly behind the alliance. At least on paper the candidate may corner 50 per cent of the vote share and sound the death knell for BJP.
It is this possibility that has kept alive the Opposition’s hopes amid a perception that this election is for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s to lose. If the BJP’s tally comes down from 73 in 2014 to 15-20 seats in UP, the saffron unit may struggle to cobble up the numbers. Modi may remain a one-term prime minister and the Opposition is banking on this possibility.
Now, let’s flip the postulation.
What if the entire assumption — on which lies the Opposition’s calculation — is up for questioning? If caste barriers become fluid, less persistent as an interest group and a new political formulation based on economic class takes shape, then the Opposition’s game is up. To have a fighting chance in the elections, BJP’s rivals must corner a sizeable chunk of the seats in Uttar Pradesh. This is possible only if the regional parties retain ownership over their respective castes or caste groups. If that base develops cracks, then all bets are off.
This is precisely what the BJP has been trying to do and Modi has been aiming at through his social welfare schemes — distribution of gas connections, opening of bank accounts, building of toilets and pucca houses fitted with electricity connections — along with income support for marginal farmers via direct cash transfer such as PM Kisan Samman Nidhi and 10 percent quota for the economically weak in general category. The economic reservation (as against social reservation) seeks to develop cracks in the caste base and create a new political mobilization constructed on class.
Modi has sought to reinforce this narrative by repeatedly burnishing his pro-poor image. In a recent interview with News18, the prime minister emphasised his “class identity”, not “caste." To a question regarding his caste, the prime minister told Brajesh Kumar Singh and Amitabh Sinha, "I have lived in Gujarat for many years and no one knows my caste. I have never been concerned with caste myself and I believe that if someone says that my caste is of the poor, I belong to the poor caste and every poor belongs to my caste, I totally agree with that view. The condition of our poor people, even after so many years of independence pains me deeply."
In the complex rubric of Indian elections, caste politics and political formulations around it have always been an important factor. Regional satraps draw their strength from caste-identity vote banks, and their leverage for power at the Centre depends on their ability to retain the vote bank. This model would be in danger, however, if economic empowerment corrodes the caste calculation.
As this Livemint article argues, "Caste networks play an important role in ensuring access to credit, market and capital in a social and economic structure dominated by the old elite. But in the process, it has created new networks of access and patronage defined by access to the caste group which holds political power."
Modi's aim has been to break through this barrier through a combination of targeted welfare schemes, personal charisma, a muscular brand of nationalism and a high-pitched war against terrorism. It is worth noting that as the elections have progressed through six of the seven phases that have been completed, BSP chief Mayawati’s vitriol against the prime minister has touched new “heights”, indicating that the party fears a class consolidation behind Modi.
Interestingly, while answering a question on the way he has been portrayed as a dividing and polarising figure in western and some sections of Indian media in the interview quoted above, Modi stressed on the nature of the divide.
“…Is this divide horizontal or vertical? And if it is I don’t believe it is… Today, the poor have become polarised, he is directly identifying with Modi. If the poor want to benefit as well as the nation, what’s wrong with that? Why do such people get sad? If the poor think beyond race, religion, sect and caste, and comes forward for his children’s future and sees the country’ future in his children’s future, we should feel proud.”
This is the crux of the debate and the most consequential question in these elections. How confident is the BJP of cracking the tradition caste formulations in Indian politics and giving rise to a new discourse on the empowerment of the poor? Can this subsume the caste divisions and create a consolidation behind Modi quite like the way BJP had once banked on Hindutva to unite fractured Hindu votes?
This is just one part of the plan. The BJP has also pushed aggressively “Brand Modi” and a muscular brand of nationalism that seeks to pay Pakistan back in the same coin. Ground reports suggest that this is getting traction. There is a feeling among voters that Modi deserves another chance, and there is no other prime ministerial candidate who may replace him. In other words, the ‘there-is-no-alternative (TINA)’ factor is aiding Modi.
Speaking to News18's Marya Shakil, a first-time voter in Rasoolabad reserved constituency, said, "Modi said he will give me a job. I am waiting for him to deliver on his promise, and I know he will. If he can carry out an attack on Pakistan, he can do that as well."
This sentiment is the reason why Amit Shah has been going around asserting that no political party may now claim exclusive rights over a vote bank. We shall know on 23 May the truth behind this statement but if Modi indeed succeeds in breaking the caste barrier, politics in India may enter a new phase. Analysts and pollsters may need to revisit their drawing board.
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