What’s common between India’s two newest chief ministers? Both Haryana’s Manohar Lal Khattar and Maharashtra’s Devendra Fadnavis are from the Bharatiya Janata Party. They both have the backing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. But what’s most interesting is that they both defy the caste expectations one comes to take as a given in their states.

Khattar is a Punjabi in a state that is entirely dominated by Jat politicians. It's been 18 years since a non-Jat has been the chief minister in the state. In Maharashtra, which had traditionally been controlled by Marathas, Fadnavis comes in as only the second Brahmin to hold the chief ministerial post.

The narrative that has emerged has been that the new BJP, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party president Amit Shah, are looking beyond caste and instead only rewarding those who are industrious and get the job done. Some commentators have gone so far as to ask whether this will be a way to “end caste politics”.

A careful look, however, suggests that the decisions here aren’t quite so deliberate. They represent a mix of circumstances (because of the leadership that is available to the BJP) as well as intent, based on what the party is hoping to do in those states. And in both cases, identity remain crucial to how the party operates.


“If you say that in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, you can forget about caste, you are a fool,” said Ashutosh Kumar, a professor of political science in Panjab University. “If you can say you won’t say anything about religion out there, you cannot get 73 seats. But we don’t have one democracy in India, we have 29 mini-democracies, each with their own calculations.”

Traditionally the Jat vs non-Jat distinction is crucial to how Haryana politics is approached. With Jats  forming more than 25% of the vote, the identity politics built around the group vote tends to be the shorthand used by anyone laying out a strategy in the state. Even now, Kumar insisted that the decision to pick a non-Jat in Haryana is, in an odd way, confirmation of the influence of Jats in the state.

“One of the reasons why they didn’t make a Jat the chief minister is partly because they didn’t want to annoy other powerful Jat leaders by picking just one of them,” Kumar said. “Otherwise they still ended up giving tickets to 27 Jats, giving them prominent posts in the ministries and a senior Punjabi MLA, a five-time winner, was disrespected. It even remains to be seen how powerful of a chief minister Khattar will be, with Modi so near by.”

Indeed, beyond the chief minister post, the party still relied very much on the traditional approach while attempting to build a broader profile for itself in the state. Leveraging the immense popularity that Modi commands at the moment, the BJP opened up fronts with organisations like the Dera Sacha Sauda, which influenced many Dalit voters who would have otherwise leaned towards the Congress.


In Maharashtra too, the decision to go with a Brahmin had much to do with a paucity of options on offer. The Modi and Shah approach, built on the message of development, has consistently been to pick candidates who may be compromised on other fronts but have a younger, clean image. Fadnavis fit the bill perfectly in this case, with others like Nitin Gadkari and Eknath Khadse losing out because they have had allegations of corruption levelled against them.

“I don’t think there was specific intent to change caste calculations by picking a Brahmin, with Fadnavis,” said Surendra Jondhale, the head of the political science department at the University of Mumbai. “If we look at Modi’s way of functioning, he wanted to have very clean non-controversial and young faces, particularly in Maharashtra. So for Modi, it was an obvious choice.”

Again, with Maharashtra, one look at the profile of the new BJP government beyond the chief minister confirms that not much has changed when it comes to the caste makeup. “Check and you will see that 118 candidates of their candidates are from Maratha caste. So in that way it seems that this caste equilibrium is retained. The Maratha have not been kept away from power. They may not have the chief ministerial post with them, but their dominance is not in question,” Jondhale said.

Here too, the option of candidates on offer played a big role after the BJP ended up having to deal with a last-minute break-up with the Shiv Sena and the swapping of scores of candidates from party to party within days.

“The question that remains is what will happen in the next election. Would it be possible for the BJP to contest with a Brahmin chief minister, or will Khadse come into the picture?” Jondhale said. “In the late, 1990s, the Brahmin Manohar Joshi was replaced as chief minister by Narayan Rane before the elections. The same kind of politics might happen here also.”

Hares and Hounds

Rather than an attempt to rise above caste politics, then, what is being seen is a more complex approach to picking leaders. Reacting clearly to the anti-corruption undercurrent in the polity over the last few years of the United Progressive Alliance regime, the Modi-Shah combine has privileged younger, cleaner candidates. Another key consideration is proximity to the RSS and connection to Modi himself, both of which reduce chances that the new chief ministers will stand in the way of the prime minister’s agenda.

This has allowed the party to do the same Modi himself was able to do in the Lok Sabha elections. Sell the image of development and tap into the younger generation’s desires that tend to be more class-based ‒ focusing on jobs and infrastructure over community ‒  while still tapping into caste identities where necessary.

“They are mixing it up. In some places in Haryana, which is close to Delhi, they talked about development, but in others they went to the Dera Sacha Sauda, so it’s a mixed thing,” Kumar said. “They are both running with the hares and hunting with the hounds.”

This is particularly possible as long as Modi’s own popularity remains high, so that he is able to leverage this to ask for votes directly, while his chief ministers are seen as simply the ones pick to carry out his plan. Over time, though, if caste-based strongmen start abusing or asserting their positions in power, this will not be able to last.

“It is very difficult to put the caste factor under the carpet in India," Jondhale said. "Now there is more talk about development and everyone is saying caste does not matter, but when you look at the actual figures from each constituency, you will see that really caste did matter. For now, it’s just election-time propaganda. We have to see what comes next.”