Populism and caste calculus

Populism and caste calculus


The question that should really interest us in the outcome of the Uttar Pradesh elections is how the open-ended, universal and ‘empty categories’ intrinsic to populism are being wedded to a clinical, constituency-wise, sub-caste calculations.

On the one hand, the BJP grounded its campaign on slogans such as ‘sab ka saath, sab ka vikas’ signalling a new kind of politics that rises above caste and religion; on the other, it was an open fact that its president Amit Shah was inviting new leaders into the party fold based on caste calculations. He invited former chief minister Kalyan Singh to include the Lodhs, Union minister Anupriya Patel to attract the Kurmis, Rajbhars, Nishads and Kushwahas, and UP BJP Keshav Prasad Maurya to woo the OBCs.

In spite of this kind of a micro-calculation of including various kinds of smaller OBC and Dalit sub-castes, the BJP maintained a steadfast campaign that was based on more universal appeal such as demonetisation, which was supposed to mobilise the poor against the rich, cutting across castes. In an inverted logic, the party claimed to be above sectoral appeal by not offering a single ticket to the Muslims, in order to consolidate a more generic Hindu vote.

The BJP would like to work with a system of representation where power sharing and participation will be judged in terms of citizens as recipients of policies, not participants in the decision making. The most significant fact of BJP’s strategy was to combine the more universal ‘us versus them’ kind of divisions to create a new type of political language that operationalises the old constituency-based identity politics infused with a new meaning. Through demonetisation, it created poor versus rich kind of binary, and while not offering tickets to Muslims, it created the old Hindu versus Muslim type of a polarisation.

Further, with its rhetoric against the Congress, it created the `past versus future’ kind of separation, with Narendra Modi projected as a decisive leader. In this context, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, after the results, asserted that his party is positioning itself on all the sites being vacated by the Congress and named nation and poverty in this regard. Within these broad rubrics, the BJP played the hard ball with minute caste calculations including the leaders of various non-Yadav OBCs and non-Jatav Dalits.

This new kind of combination acknowledges the inclusion of smaller castes beyond the old kind of patron-client relation. The smaller sub-castes were in a patron-client relation and dependent on the more powerful sub-castes within both the Dalits and the OBCs. The BJP’s inclusion of smaller Dalit and OBC castes articulated the already existing discontent among the lesser privileged castes.

This certainly is a more inclusive politics, deepening the process of representation without acknowledging it, and thereby projecting it as if it was not based on mere caste calculations. But, in fact, it was providing new opportunities to those who were denied this previously. They were deepening the representation even as they denied this logic when it came to the Muslims, which allowed them to tone the caste-calculations in the Hindutva kind of imageries and rhetoric. It was Hindus being included and not merely Dalits or the OBCs. It was the lesser privileged-poorer social groups being included, not merely castes.

The BJP managed to further invert the old kind of communal polarisation this time by raising the issue of triple talaq, which ostensibly meant to mobilise the cause of Muslim women. The party was attempting a double inversion: it was on the one hand ostracising the Muslims while on the other, it was mobilising the subordinate groups within the Muslims.

It should not be a surprise if the BJP appeals to the Pasmanda Muslims during the next Lok Sabha elections in UP. Its strategy was based on the limitations of the old kind of the social justice based on the larger categories of Dalit and the OBCs. It looks like both these categories would soon be of lesser relevance for active electoral mobilisation. The intra-subaltern conflicts and differences are now in the open, also reflecting the fluidity of caste-based politics.

Single-caste parties
Caste groups today are fluid and can align with any party that can offer them representation. While SP and BSP got reduced to a single-caste parties that were attempting to add other castes to their kitty, the BJP was in this sense beyond caste without being identified with any single caste. All those issues which the old kind of secular politics that became sectarian could not address, the BJP is articulating and giving them a new spin.

This precisely was the difference and the reason why the BJP lost in Bihar, in spite of following a similar strategy. Chief Minister and JD(U) president Nitish Kumar had sensed it early and in the name of second generation social justice politics, started addressing this issue of intra-subaltern discrimination by reaching out to EBC (extremely backward castes) and Maha-Dalits (Most Backward Dalits). The BJP, despite best efforts, could not put in place a working coalition of these caste groups around Modi’s leadership.

The more populist slogans of the BJP around development and projecting Modi as the strongman were subverted by equally populist binary of `Bahari versus Bihari’ by Nitish Kumar’s campaign. Also it was significant that Nitish belonged to a caste smaller in number but had greater credibility in Bihar.

It was a trade-off that was seen as a win-win situation for both Nitish and Lalu. This was not possible in UP between SP and BSP, both due to leadership issues as well as sharper conflict between the Yadavs and the Jatavs. The terrain of politics has moved to sharpening intra-subaltern conflicts that needs a political articulation.

It is an irony of Indian democracy that more inclusion is being initiated by a party that is known to be socially conservative and politically authoritarian. The Hindutva politics in India, through UP, has signalled more subalternisation of political representation.

(Gudavarthy is with Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University and Jha is with Aryabhatta College, Delhi University)