The Caste of the Modi Effect

Before the Sixteenth Lok Sabha elections, it was a truism that our national parties were led by English/Hindi-speaking upper castes. Even Chaudhary Charan Singh, the Jat leader from western UP who was the prime minister during 1979-80, did not lead a national party in a Lok Sabha election. The other side of the glass ceiling erected by the upper castes spawned regional caste-based parties, whose founders saw no future for themselves and their communities within the national parties. Narendra Modi has broken the glass ceiling and joined the BJP’s national leadership, hitherto a bastion of upper castes. Unlike Bangaru Laxman, a Dalit leader from Andhra Pradesh who served as the BJP president during 2000-01, Modi is not a convenient façade for a party otherwise dominated by upper castes. Equally importantly, unlike his predecessors who with the exception of Deve Gowda were primarily based in Delhi, he spent most of his political career in a medium-sized non-Hindi speaking province. His spectacular rise needs to be examined from the perspective of how it reworked caste equations within his party and how caste played a subtle role in his successful campaign.

The larger context of the rise of this regional satrap is quite interesting. Modi was gradually making room for himself within the BJP, when parties like the SP and the BSP founded by lower castes were inducting Brahmins as advisors. This was also the time when the AAP, which began its career by fielding a very diverse group of candidates in the Delhi Assembly elections, was overwhelmed by newcomers from upper castes and middle/upper class, who grabbed tickets for most of the prestigious Lok Sabha seats.

While Modi was carving a niche for himself, the BJP’s old guard and the upper caste-dominated media desperately tried to recast Advani, who had overseen the demolition of the Babri Mosque, as a moderate to block the path of Modi, whose belated response to the 2002 post-Godhra riots cost hundreds of lives. Within the BJP, a rising Modi displaced the hitherto dominant upper caste leaders. But the ease with which he tossed around elderly Brahmin and Kshatriya leaders, some of them in the good books of the RSS, would have been unthinkable until a few months ago. Did this alienate the BJP’s upper caste support base? To the contrary, its upper caste supporters returned to its fold after a long time. The upper castes, who would have liked the combination of Hindu nationalism and developmentalism presented by Modi, probably had no sympathy for the “aggrieved” Joshis, Mishras, Tandons, and Singhs who contributed to the party’s steady decline after Vajpayee’s retirement. Interestingly, young upper caste leaders, who seem to have sensed the inevitability of redistribution of power within the party and probably saw an opportunity in an emerging new order, did not rebel when their elders were being humbled.

In fact, until a year ago Modi’s caste was a non-issue because neither he, nor his party referred to his caste and, possibly, because his last name is not suggestive of a specific caste to non-Gujaratis, whereas his relatively fair complexion adds to the ambiguity. This allowed him to appeal to the BJP’s upper caste and middle class supporters as a Hindu and as a champion of the identity-neutral Gujarat model of development and good governance, which was propped up by a curious combination of assorted statistics, testimonies of industrialists as well as migrant workers, and emotional appeals.

While upper caste and middle class votes would not have sufficed to secure power at the centre, initially Modi’s caste was not leveraged in the campaign. We first heard of his OBC background through others soon after JD (U) left NDA in June 2013. Much later, in February 2014, the BJP’s newfound allies began to draw attention to his caste. He himself referred to his caste when other parties tried to portray him as a threat to the continuation of reservation benefits to the lower castes and, particularly, when the Gandhis used objectionable language to attack him. Similarly, his economic background was highlighted after he came under relentless attack for allegedly favouring certain business houses and more so after a union minister asked him to sell tea rather than dream of prime ministership. Faced with twin attacks, the BJP quickly repackaged Modi as a self-made man born to a poor lower caste family of tea vendors. The poor, lower caste Modi’s proposers in Varanasi and Vadodra included a tea vendor, a weaver, and a boatman. In Vadodra, he thanked his good fortune for getting an opportunity to represent the city whose enlightened ruler supported Ambedkar’s higher studies. In Varanasi, he garlanded Ambedkar’s statue before filing his nomination. The repacking was aimed at extending the Modi-effect to sections of society that were previously beyond the reach of the party. 

Dalit leaders like Udit Raj and Ram Vilas Paswan would, indeed, have found it difficult to join a BJP bandwagon led by an upper caste leader. Interestingly, they joined in the last week of February 2014, while Anupriya Patel, a Kurmi leader, followed a month later. In fact, toward the end of the campaign, not unlike Mayawati in the 2007 elections and Nitish Kumar in the 2005 and 2010 elections, Modi succeeded in bringing together the upper and lower castes together. His success in attracting Dalits, particularly, the non-Jatav/Chamar communities, was evident when in the middle of the elections Mayawati, who until recently believed in haathi nahin ganesh hai, brahma-vishnu-mahesh hai (the BSP’s election symbol is not a mere elephant, it stands for Brahma-Vishnu-Mahesh), suddenly declared that Dalits are not Hindus. A similar shift favouring the BJP took place among the non-Yadav OBCs of UP because the SP had become too closely identified with the Yadavs.

In short, Modi’s caste identity and poor origins were effortlessly foregrounded as an “afterthought” in response to motivated criticism mounted by those allegedly trapped in the fading world of caste and privileges. This helped him to simultaneously claim the benefits of identity as well as present himself as untainted by the identity politics that his middle class and upper caste supporters dislike.

Another campaign strategy related to mobilization of lower castes, which rendered potential tactical voting among minorities less damaging, needs to be noted here. By attracting non-Yadav/Jatav lower castes to the BJP, Modi effectively reduced the BSP and the SP to single-caste parties. This attenuated their appeal among Muslims as now these parties seemed unable to pose a challenge to the BJP. Modi also tried to break the lower caste-Muslim alliance by trying to present Ambedkar as anti-Muslim and Mayawati belatedly tried to refute his claim. Moreover, the SP was painted as a riot-happy party to force Muslims to rethink their reliance on it. Once the support bases of the SP and the BSP were trimmed and Muslims were nudged to doubt their usual strategy of supporting lower caste parties, the task of consolidating Hindu votes across castes could be carried out relatively easily.

Fortunately for the BJP, Modi did not need to advertise his Hindu nationalist credentials as his opponents kept the focus on post-Godhra riots. His Hindu identity was subtly conveyed through extensive use of Vivekananda imagery and not so subtly through visits to Kashi Vishwanath Temple.

In short, his political rivals advertised his identity allowing him to use his developmentalist credentials to weave together a diverse coalition of voters.

The scale of change wrought by Modi within the BJP can be gauged from the fact that today Modi reigns supreme over the party apparatus in UP. Fifteen years ago, Kalyan Singh, who as UP’s chief minister facilitated the demolition of the Babri Mosque, had to leave the party because of his upper caste colleagues. The BJP has indeed changed.

Where is Modi likely to go from here? He might want his caste to disappear from the media as suddenly as it appeared. But the composition of his cabinet and his government’s stand on the sensitive issue of reservation will, among other things, attract scrutiny from political rivals, especially, in UP and Bihar. This in turn will not allow him to ignore questions related to identity and redistribution.

Before we end a forgotten episode of Modi’s campaign bears noting. He was cornered by criticism regarding the use of Har Har Modi slogan, which smacks of worship of man, in his campaign. When a religious leader conveyed his protest to the RSS, Modi had to beat a retreat. This was one of the rare occasions (perhaps the only occasion) when Modi went on the back foot. As long as he depends on appeals to religion for legitimacy, he will be vulnerable to strictures of upper castes, who continue to see themselves as custodians of the faith.

Vikas Kumar is Assistant Professor of Economics at Azim Premji University, Bangalore.

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