On September 14, a Dalit woman from Uttar Pradesh’s Hathras district was allegedly gangraped by four men from the powerful upper-caste Thakur community. The assault was so brutal, she died in hospital a fortnight later.

This set off a remarkable set of events where the Uttar Pradesh government, aiming to stop the incident from becoming the focus of protests, forcibly cremated the body of the woman even as her family was detained in their home by the police.

More astonishing events followed. Despite initial medical reports pointing to sexual assault, the Uttar Pradesh government denied a rape had taken place at all. Some Bharatiya Janata Party leaders even alleged that the victim and one of her alleged assailants were in a relationship. The Adityanath government claimed that the protests demanding justice for the woman were the result of an “international conspiracy”. It filed 21 FIRs across the state. A journalist from Kerala was arrested under a stringent anti-terror law for “going to Hathras to disrupt peace as part of larger conspiracy”.

Thakurs and Valmikis

Why did the Uttar Pradesh government react in such a draconian manner? Part of the answer lies in the very nature of the Adityanath administration, which has made it a point to attack civil liberties. The other part of the answer, however, might lie in just how important the ramifications of this case could be on the BJP’s electoral prospects in the critical playing field of Uttar Pradesh.

As has been frequently pointed out during the course of this controversy, the alleged assailant were men from the Thakur community. Like all upper-caste Hindus, Thakurs are strong BJP voters. Add to this is the fact that Adityanath is a Thakur. This has meant a highly preferential role for Thakurs in the current administration, all the way from the local government to MLAs and MPs as well as the bureaucracy. Political scientist Gilles Verniers has gone so far as to call this phenomenon “thakurvad” – a Thakurocracy.

Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath. Credit: BJP Delhi/Twitter.

In the Hathras case, however, the victim also belongs to a community that has, for some time now, regularly voted saffron. Anthropologist Badri Narayan writes that Valmikis (Balmikis) were a focus of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh as part of its emphasis on non-Jatav Dalit groups. “In Uttar Pradesh, Delhi and Punjab, the Valmiki community contributed significantly as the electoral support base for the BJP,” he explained.

Hathras, therefore, is an example of how the BJP’s greatest achievement under Modi also carries with it potential for trouble for the party: the emergence of a rainbow caste coalition that allows the BJP to become a formidable electoral force, even though it starts from a disadvantage by actively turning away Muslim votes.

Building a caste coalition

The BJP’s predecessor, Jana Sangh, had a voter base that was almost completely upper caste. The late 1980s and early 1990s saw the party expand its base with the Ayodhya movement. This was followed by what KN Govindacharya, a senior party leader, called “social engineering”: the promotion of backward caste leaders – such as, incidentally, Narendra Modi himself.

Under Modi, this caste politics has entered its second phase, with the BJP building up expansive caste coalitions, often by ranging them against local, dominant castes. This serves to both get the BJP votes and undercut traditional backward caste-based parties. In Uttar Pradesh, this means attracting non-Jatav Dalits and non-Yadav Other Backward Castes.

This Hindutva caste coalition, of course, works great till the “Other” is a designated community such as Muslims and conflict is restricted to it. This is why, for example, the BJP benefits electorally from communal riots or why BJP-led state governments – and especially Uttar Pradesh – were able to use lethal force when opposing the recent anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests.

However, the BJP’s coalition is so large that it is inevitable that there will also be conflict between two castes that are its voters. The Adityanath government’s promotion of Thakurs has, for example, angered the state’s Brahmins – also a core BJP vote bank. “The issue is not about an individual but the perception,” Pushkar Misra, a member of the BJP state executive told The Wire. “In the wake of the brazen handling of the Vikas Dubey episode and others, there is a sense of alienation, marginalisation, and oppression among the Brahmins who traditionally have not felt like they are a suppressible class and with their unsuppressable history their restlessness is increasing.”

Vikas Dubey was a gangster-turned-politician from the Brahmin community who was killed in an alleged shootout with the Uttar Pradesh police in July.

Missing loaves and fishes

To add to this is the fact that the BJP has been unable to give its large number of backward caste voters representation in positions of power – a key feature of India’s patronage-based caste voting system. A leaked call in April of a BJP MLA, Rakesh Rathore, from the backward Teli caste is indicative here. Rathore bitterly protests that he has no power and everything is controlled by the chief minister. “Dalits and backwards castes were made to line up and vote [for the BJP],” he complains. “But it is only the Brahmin that will rule.”

To make things worse for the BJP is the economic crash – which would mean even less benefits like government jobs to distribute to backward castes in return for their participation in this coalition.