The Bharatiya Janata Party would have you believe that all the gains the Congress made in Gujarat, supported by Patidar leader Hardik Patel, were the fruits of a casteist campaign. The party’s primary argument against Patel himself was to insist that he was dredging up old caste differences that the state had otherwise managed to put behind it. Having been in power for more than two decades in Gujarat, the BJP claimed that it had managed to build a political base that had succeeded in rising above a common tactic that plays to a social evil, the division of people on the basis of caste. This line of argument insists that the Congress can only remain relevant by resurrecting caste differences and, in the BJP’s words, attempting to divide India. Is there any truth to it?

The accusations that flew back and forth during the Gujarat campaign seemed somewhat counter to the conventional tags attached to India’s two major national parties. The Congress is typically accused of being dynastic and corrupt – but also a big tent that welcomes everyone precisely because its only ideology is the accumulation of power. The BJP, however, is seen as the party that constantly attempts to polarise and divide. Yet here was the BJP insisting that the Congress was the one exploiting faultlines and deepening divisions. And the saffron party was not simply dredging up its familiar accusation of the Congress seeking to appease minorities. Instead, it argued, the Congress posed a divisive threat to Indian society itself.

“The people of Gujarat know what the Congress is up to,” Modi said at one campaign rally. “It changes colour time and again, creates a wall between brothers…They keep you busy in fighting with each other. You may die but the Congress will eat malai [cream].”

(Photo credit: AFP).

Who is Indian?

To understand how the BJP, the party whose leaders were dog-whistling about Muslims throughout the campaign, could credibly make this claim, one must remember what the saffron party’s idea of Indian society means: Hindus, and no one else. It does not bother the leaders of the BJP if there are growing divisions between Hindus and other communities, particularly Muslims or Christians. Indeed, for the BJP and the broader Sangh Parivar, that is a positive development.

But any attempts to promote identities within the Hindu fold counts as being divisive. The foundation of this worldview is the belief within the Sangh Parivar that India ought to be a Hindu nation, one where majoritarian impulses should hold sway rather than be checked by the state. The more specific manifestation of this has been the BJP’s success, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party president Amit Shah, at building a broad coalition among Hindus, often regardless of caste or class.

As journalist and author Prashant Jha has argued, this approach has in some ways been inclusive, allowing Hindus to go beyond caste at least in their voting preferences, permitting the BJP to go from being a Brahmin-Bania party to one that any Hindu can embrace. That this entire project is built on animosity towards Muslims and Christians is not a flaw but a feature, as far as Hindutva groups are concerned.

Common enemy

One might compare it to the anti-Brahmin movement of Tamil Nadu, which managed to subsume, to some extent, caste differences in that highly unequal society into a broad coalition that was united in anger against one small section of the populace. In that case, however, Brahmins were extremely privileged and had benefited at a level completely disproportionate to their numbers in society. Here, instead, the Hindu coalition is designed to punch down, making villains out of minority communities that are already discriminated against and often have worse human development indicators than the average Indian.

This tactic is not new, and it worked to some extent in the Lok Sabha elections in 2014, where it was assisted by the stain of corruption and atmosphere of policy paralysis that tainted the outgoing Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government. But it was perfected in Uttar Pradesh, where the BJP ran a campaign entirely aimed at demonising Muslims and ended up winning a comfortable majority. As if to underline what they had managed to accomplish, Shah and Modi installed Adityanath, a riot-accused Hindu religious leader, as the chief minister of India’s most populous state. As journalist Sankarshan Thakur wrote on the 25th anniversary of the Babri Masjid demolition in 2017, this was no longer a Hindutva afraid to show its face. Instead, this was a right-wing government proud of its bigotry.

That project, however, is challenged when it has to manage competing interests within the Hindu fold. As long as Hindus are being encouraged to come together against the joint danger posed by Muslims, the BJP’s prospects are bright. But in places where caste and community identities may be stronger, such as Bihar, or in regions where the BJP has been in power so long that the Muslim bogey is not a compelling villain, like in Gujarat, the narrative carries less sway.

Amit Shah, Adityanath and Narendra Modi. (Photo credit: Reuters).

Dalits and dominant castes

Signs of being unwilling to participate in the BJP’s broad Hindu coalition have come from two very different sections of society, that have, as a result, begun working together in unusual ways. The possibly more predictable of these is the Dalit unhappiness with BJP rule. Despite adding a huge number of Scheduled Caste voters over the last few years, the BJP not converted that into better Dalit representation in its leadership. As a result, the party remains Brahminical in its outlook in many parts of the country, naturally leading to conflict with Dalits as was on display in Hyderabad Central University in early 2016, in Una district of Gujarat later that year, and most recently in Bhima Koregaon, in Maharashtra.

But pushback has also come from dominant castes, whether Patidars in Gujarat, Jats in Haryana or Marathas in Maharashtra. Analysts have put this down to many historical trends, including the success that reservations have had in giving backward castes a bigger share of the pie, leading to resentment among those who are not entitled to reservations. Others have added how these groups, despite their traditionally dominant stature, lag on education and employability indicators and so have not benefited from services-led economic growth.

Disaffection against these groups coincides with a BJP that has expanded in large part by adding relatively successful Other Backward Classes to its fold. Its tremendously successful growth in Uttar Pradesh, for example, is explained in large part by deft moves made by party president Amit Shah in broadening the base and adding Other Backward Classes leaders without alienating the Brahmin and Thakur supporters that traditionally ran the party in the state.

Congress approach

So then you have a picture of a BJP that is using the well-populated middle to cement its status an OBC-led party – it is no coincidence that Modi is at the top – that nevertheless seeks to represent all Hindus. The tension arises from communities at either end, Dalits and dominant castes. In some cases, despite internal contradictions between them, they have made common cause. This was the situation in Gujarat where Dalit leader Jignesh Mewani was able to support a Congress that was also getting support from Patidar leader Hardik Patel. It is also showing up in Maharashtra, where, despite the Maratha unhappiness with Dalits and the atrocities Act in particular, Maratha groups are also working with Dalit ones on an anti-Brahmin plank.

The Congress appears to have settled on courting these sections as the way forward. First, it wants to assert its image of being essentially a Hindu party, an attempt to counter the BJP’s propaganda that seeks to portray the Congress as being driven by a politics of minority appeasement. Second, it looks to rally behind leaders of these disaffected communities within the Hindu fold, even if it has to work with leaders from outside its own hierarchy, as it did in Gujarat. And third, it wants to drive home the idea that the BJP, even if it has expanded its base, is working for the benefit of just a few.

Inevitably, this approach involves pushing certain identities and communities, sometimes in a very problematic manner. In Gujarat, for example, the Congress made a deal with Hardik Patel by promising reservations for the Patidar community if it came to power – a deeply problematic promise, considering the legal challenges that would have stood in the party’s way if it had actually won. In Karnataka, where it is in power and faces re-election, the party appears to have put its weight behind Kannadiga nationalism as a counter-weight to the BJP’s Hindi-inflected Indian nationalism.

Hardik Patel at a rally in Ahmedabad in 2015. (Photo credit: AFP).

Middle-class argument

This tactic is what gives ballast to the BJP’s argument that it has managed to elide caste – to put it bluntly, by being communal – while the Congress wants to return India to its casteist past. It is a line that one can expect to hear constantly over the next year in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections in 2019. It came up at the start of this year, when the protests in Mumbai and Bhima Koregaon were derided as casteist and connected to the Congress through Mewani. And it will come up again.

It will presumably, also be an argument that curries favour with the well-off middle class that the BJP will have to keep on its side if it is to return to power. With a sluggish economy not offering enough of a platform for Modi to yet again promise acche din, or good times, he is expected to lean heavily on nationalism and religious polarisation as a plank for 2019. But those may not suffice for the more urban middle class who at least want to appear progressive – the “give-him-a-chance crowd” – and so the line delivered to them will be that the BJP’s opponents are simply trying to cobble together a caste coalition that wants to keep India firmly in the past.

India is acutely familiar with caste- and identity-based politicking. Indeed, most political analysis is based on examining how identity blocks, usually built around religion or caste, have voted. This is, in part borne out of actual experiences, where large portions of a particular community do still end up voting similarly (never mind that the political analysts make it sound as if that number is closer to 100%). Yet there are substantial sections, usually of upper-caste Hindus in urban spaces, who believe that the country has put caste behind it and anyone who brings it up is being casteist. This is the same lot that can, with a straight face, take to Twitter to ask if Dalits are still oppressed. And it will be this WhatsApp-fuelled section that one can expect to lead the way in normalising Modi, Shah and the BJP in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections next year, even if their closely held economic argument has fallen flat.