On Sunday, MK Stalin, working president of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, tweeted: “Wilful erosion of States Rights by Centre which seeks to establish a Monolith will only incite a renewed War of Independence.”

Tamil identity and states’ rights have long been the mainstay of politics in Tamil Nadu. Yet, a public statement about a “war of independence” by the leader of the opposition party is a significant escalation.

A few months ago, up north in Uttar Pradesh, the Bharatiya Janata Party appointed Adityanath as the chief minister. Again, while the BJP has always been the party of Hindutva, to appoint a saffron-clad priest who had openly led mob attacks on Muslims was a significant escalation. Indeed, over the past year, the BJP has almost completely junked its 2014 election promise of economic development and made beef and holiness of the cow its main political agenda. On May 23, the Narendra Modi government banned the sale of cattle for slaughter in open market, thereby imposing a de facto national beef ban.

Why is this happening? Why is a tidal wave of identity politics sweeping India?

A protestor blacks out Hindi signage in Tamil Nadu.

Promise not kept

The BJP fought the 2014 general election on a development plank. The idea was to attract voters beyond its core Hindutva constituency (which was going to vote for it anyway). Three years into its government, it is clear that the party has overstated the economic gains it could bring. Gross Domestic Product growth numbers for the fourth quarter of 2016-17 were dire. Even more troubling, the Modi regime has been unable to produce employment for Indians. The number of jobs added in the last three years is just half of what the previous Manmohan Singh government had delivered in its final three years. This problem is so knotty that the Modi government, over the past few months, has all but given up on policies such as skill training. Last month, BJP President Amit Shah candidly stated that it was “not possible to provide employment to everyone in a country of 125 crore people”.

Most alarming, India’s largest employer, agriculture, is imploding. The country’s abysmal crop productivity – one of the lowest in the world – and environmental stresses mean that Modi’s time in office has been characterised by bitter agrarian distress in states such as Haryana, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Madhya Pradesh.

To add to the problem, while the pie is barely growing, the number of mouths at the table is exploding. North India, which is home to the BJP’s core constituency, is seeing explosive population growth.

The Jats rioted in Haryana in 2016. Faced with agrarian distress, the powerful cultivator caste has been demanding reservation in government jobs. Photo credit: Anumeha Yadav

Hindutva to the rescue

Faced with this situation, the BJP’s turn towards hard Hindutva is almost a natural response. Hindutva nationalism helps provide legitimacy to its government. Using it, the Modi government can clamp down on Kashmir, stomp out Dalit movements in Uttar Pradesh and find a toehold in states like West Bengal. Most importantly, Hindu nationalism is a powerful political tool for the BJP electorally in the Hindi heartland. In the 2017 Assembly election in Uttar Pradesh, large numbers of Dalits and Other Backward Castes voted for the BJP, drawn in by its identity as a Hindu party – a tradition that first gained force during the movement to destroy the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya.

Yet, outside its core Hindi heartland, the BJP’s Hindutva pitch creates more complex outcomes. As the BJP expands, many states in the East and, especially, the South tend to view this as rapid centralisation of power and loss of control to New Delhi. In response, many regional parties are using state identity to push back against Hindutva, underlining their difference from the BJP, which is viewed as a North India-centric party.

Counter identity

Like in the 1960s, this push is lead by Tamil Nadu, where a highly developed Tamil language nationalism provides a potent weapon for the state’s parties to use against national formations, the Congress earlier and the BJP now. In April, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam attacked the BJP for imposing Hindi on Tamil Nadu, using devices such as road signage and movies. The DMK has also opposed the National Eligibility Cum Entrance Test for studying medicine, preferring a state entrance exam, which it claims will help rural Tamils. Tamil culture was also harnessed during the Jallikattu agitation in January this year, when Modi was frequently criticised by protestors for allegedly oppressing Tamils. The DMK’s nativist push is made shriller by the widespread impression within the state that the BJP controls the strife-ridden All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, Tamil Nadu’s ruling party.

Even Kerala, a state less excited about identity than its eastern neighbour, was roused to action by the Union government’s notification barring the sale of cattle for slaughter in open market. The notification went counter to Malayali food habits, where beef is widely consumed by all religious communities. Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan strongly opposed the ban on the grounds of protecting Malayali culture. “There is no need for Keralites to learn it from anybody in New Delhi or Nagpur,” said Vijayan, referring to the headquarters of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ideological fount of Hindutva. Using state identity to fight the BJP politically is not new to Kerala: last year, Malayalis had taken to social media to express anger over Modi’s comparison of Kerala with Somalia, perceiving it as an insult to their state.

The BJP’s constant emphasis on banning beef sparked another round of outrage on social media in May, making #DravidaNadu the top trend on Twitter. While sentiments around the holiness of the cow run deep in North India, South India finds the matter considerably less pressing. The Twitter trend used the century-old Periyarist idea of an independent Dravidian nation to try and express anger over the imposition of the North’s antipathy towards beef on the South.

A DMK spokesperson tweeting about #Dravidanadu

Eastern awakening

In the East, Odisha used the imposition of Hindi to counter the BJP’s use of Hindu identity to build a base in the state. In neighbouring West Bengal, the BJP has used Hindu identity incessantly to attack the ruling Trinamool Congress. As a counter, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has stepped up her use of Bengali identity as a political tool, otherwise rarely employed in the state’s politics. Banerjee has designed a state emblem and is composing a state song, apparently to assert Bengali culture and delineate the state as distinct from North India, according to a report in The India Express.

West Bengal BJP chief Dilip Ghosh leads an armed Ram Navmi procession. Phot credit: IANS

Speaking about the BJP’s efforts to impose a beef ban, Banerjee attacked the party for trying to “import an alien culture” into West Bengal. “People here have been worshipping Lord Shiva, Goddess Durga and Kali and others for ages. Here is a party that wants us to worship a particular God,” she said, referring to the BJP’s efforts to organise massive Ram Navami marches. While the BJP has used the symbol of Ram effectively in North India, he is a little worshipped god among Hindu Bengalis.

In May, Banerjee’s government made the study of Bengali language compulsory in all state schools, mimicking the language nationalism of South India, where such laws are already in place. SS Ahulwalia, a BJP Lok Sabha MP from the state, opposed the move, asking the Modi government to intervene on behalf of “linguistic minority communities”. Like the DMK, the Trinamool has also attacked the Union government over the National Eligibility Cum Entrance Test, describing it as a move to “deprive West Bengal at the national level”.

Big battle

All this is not exactly unprecedented: other forms of identity have done battle with Hindutva in the past. In Uttar Pradesh, after the BJP’s rapid rise on the back of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, it was caste-based parties such as the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party that kept it out of power for nearly two decades.

The rise of identity politics also means that formations that do not explicitly use it in their messaging are flailing – most notably the communists. The Congress’ soft Hindutva under Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi was out-Hindued by the BJP’s harder version. The Congress still uses Muslim identity but it attracts too few votes to be a winning formula. On caste, given that both the communists and the Congress are overwhelmingly upper caste in leadership, they cannot, with any seriousness, use Dalit or OBC identity to pull in votes. The history of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Congress as multi-state parties also makes it difficult for them to play the politics of state identity as competently as the DMK or the Trinamool.

It remains to be seen whether the use of state identity will be able to trump Hindutva but it is currently the only kind of politics that is giving the BJP a fight.