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The Seeds of Hindutva’s Failure Lie In Its Embrace Of The Caste System

The only animating factor for the Hindutva project is * Hindu khatre mein hain.

After a period of time where the re-election of Narendra Modi was a fait accompli, India is staring at a far more competitive election than anyone had anticipated even six months back. Despite the occasional stumbles, Rahul Gandhi is newly energized. The Congress party has a distinct edge in Karnataka, and is on a comeback trail in Rajasthan. BJP has lost two Lok Sabha by polls in UP—-a state which it must dominate if it has to win the 2019 elections. The growing Dalit angst where even Dalit BJP MPs and important allies like Ram Vilas Paswan appear exasperated doesn’t portend well for the party’s prospects in 2019. And then there is the endless implosion of NDA with allies restive in face of a assertive BJP which appears to function in a singular mode: total dominance.

A few caveats are in order here. First, a year is a long time in politics and anticipating the India of April 2019 based upon the India of April 2018 would be exceedingly foolish. Second, Narendra Modi remains personally popular—-it may not matter as Vajpayee discovered in 2004—but in an increasingly presidential general elections, the power of his appeal can not be overlooked. Third, the Congress has constantly lost state elections in the last few years and a loss in Karnataka would certainly cripple its ability to emerge as the fulcrum of a anti BJP coalition. Fourth, even the restive BJP Dalit MPs are all imported leaders seeped in bahujan politics and who share little ideological comport with the party and the larger Hindutva project. Finally, careful political observers should avoid the temptation of giving into the social media echo chamber or the latest newspaper headlines: they may share little with the ground situation. Narendra Modi certainly appears to believe so as he is far more sanguine than the immediate would suggest.

Nevertheless, a few pointers are important here.

First, the hegemonic expansion of the BJP which poses an existential threat to the regional parties has naturally lead to a counter-reaction. The long-term stability of the SP-BSP alliance may be questionable but even a limited Jadav-Dalit-Muslim alliance would substantially challenge the BJP. The BSP leader Mayawati has already demonstrated her unparalleled ability to transfer her core vote bank to the party of her choice; will SP be able to reciprocate? There have already been some missteps: Akhilesh Yadav demonstrated his political immaturity by privileging a political gadfly like Jaya Bachchan over BSP’s candidate in the recently held Rajya Sabha election. However, the BJP’s insistence on winning every election—-howsoever minor—may only have further reinforced Mayawati’s belief that an alliance with SP is essential for her immediate political survival.

Second, the utter lack of job creation in the last four years has belied Narendra Modi’s promise of “acche din.” Its tone-deaf dismissal of any criticism on the job front by privileging Pakoda-economics has only further exacerbated the sense of despondency. The reasons for India’s failure on the job front may be complex but it is indubitably true that it is this singular promise which had helped BJP attract the youth vote—-across caste divisions—-which was so crucial to its prospects in 2014. The Congress party may not do significantly better in creating jobs but that hardly matters: elections are fought and won on the prospects of a better future, and not aggravating policy arguments. Who can understand this better than Narendra Modi!

Third, and the most important, the Dalit angst is real. But it is important to examine its causes in more detail than the superficial analyses which have largely dominated the media discourse.

Beyond the academic debates which animate the Op-Ed pages of English language papers, the political discourse in the heartland can be summarized thusly: when Hindutva rules; BJP triumphs; when caste wins; it loses. And for a party which relies almost exclusively on Hindu votes, there is little margin for error in a state like UP where Muslims form a formidable 20 percent of the population.

Modi-Shah clearly understood that in 2014. They constructed what can be described as the United spectrum of Hindu voters (USHV) as one BJP-sympathetic pollster describes it. The old Brahmin leadership which had long dominated UP BJP politics was dumped; the promise of vikas served as a nice garnishing on the cake largely baked in the oven of Hindu unity. This alliance held till the 2017 assembly elections where the party won a famous victory; the Hindu caste divisions had seemingly been permanently papered over.

And yet, what did the BJP do after 2017?  Paralleling States like Haryana and Maharashtra, the power was returned to the upper castes. Despite the fact that non-Yadav OBCs and non-Jatav Dalits had voted in large numbers for the party in two successive elections, their claims to power were almost completely ignored. Just take a look at the top BJP leadership in UP: out of four top positions, three are held by upper caste Hindus. The party had bet that the coronation of a militant Hindu monk with zero administrative experience was enough to solidify the Hindu vote.

It is surprising how BJP has ignored the salience of caste in UP politics. As many BJP supporters have belatedly acknowledged, the Adityanath administration is now widely understood as thakurwad where bahujan interests have been deliberately ignored. For Thakurs and other upper castes, this is a return to the old and natural order of things where they held all the levers of power.

The issue is not solely the deeply prejudicial casteist feelings most Hindus harbor. It is certainly an important metric but the other largely ignored factor is that independent of casteist privileges, caste is also a marker of social privilege. In the zero sum game of caste politics, it is intrinsically linked with the ability to crush any socio-economic churning.

Take the case which has recently caught the headlines in major papers. A Dalit groom who merely wished to ensure that his baraat could traverse exclusive Thakur streets in his village was spurned by the local administration. Instead of explicitly batting for his rights, the upper caste interlocutors—-from the DM to the local MLA—-repeatedly asked him to compromise in the interest of social peace. The Aditynath government slept throughout the entire episode for nearly two months. The casteist Thakur privilege intermingled with socioeconomic power was far more important for a party which claims to bat for the pan-Hindu voter.

BJP supporters would indubitably claim that this was a political battle masquerading as a social assertion. Even if that is true, that is precisely the point. Of what use are the claims of a pan-Hindu party which remains deeply uncomfortable with the idea of Dalit assertion and aspiration? Imagine the difference it could have made if the allegedly caste-neutral Hindu government of Adityanath had shunted the DM and the read the riot act to its Thakur MLA.

But it can’t. The deeply held prejudices of the upper castes is exactly why the Hindu vote bank of BJP is in danger of fraying. The secular project may be cynical in its exploitation of Hindu caste divisions but BJP’s Hindutva project is equally cynical in its inability to accommodate, acknowledge and indeed celebrate subaltern expressions. And that doesn’t mean merely batting for Dalit temple entry. Even 80 years back when Gandhi agitated for that, it wasn’t enough for Dr Ambedkar who rightly dismissed it as another expression of chaturvarna. What to say of 2018!

Or just ask this: how many of the usual purveyors of alleged Hindu interests active on the social media were bothered by this outrage? How many wrote about it with one-tenth of the strength they effortlessly summon? The inability to recognize that caste is Hinduism’s original sin and not the political mobilization which followed it is breathtaking in its chutzpah.

And because of this weakness, the only animating factor for the Hindutva project is * Hindu khatre mein hain.* Lacking a positive Hindu agenda and unable to fight caste prejudices in any substantive manner, exploiting the animus against Muslims becomes its sole rallying cry. One prejudice papered over by the other!

Perhaps the easiest articulation of this dichotomy is the complicity of BJP governments across multiple states in incidences of cow thuggery. The worshipful attitudes towards cows are much more a pan-Hindu phenomenon than most liberals would concede. But the rural economy, especially in the heartland, has rested on a great lie: while caste Hindus would pretend to ignore the ultimate fate of non-remunerative cows, the Dalits and Muslims would do the dirty job.

This uneasy truce has been broken by the largely urban upper caste Hindu obsession with cow * protection.* They may not care about the cows roaming the streets of Delhi but the economically impoverished farmers in UP or Rajasthan must take care of the animals which have no economic utility. The dastardly lynchings of Muslims may not be salient in a polity deeply inimical to their interests but an incident like Una certainly is. The BJP is in a bind here: the almost exclusively upper caste leadership of its ideological fountainhead, the RSS, are a bunch of true believers. How does it reconcile their antediluvian beliefs with the natural expressions of subaltern Hindu castes?

The question is not how popular or powerful the militant Ambedkarite movement immediately is. But this: with the rise of a Dalit middle class, the demand is no longer of accommodation but of total and complete equality. And with the passage of time, that dynamic is unlikely to change. Can Hindutva politics accommodate that sui generis?

The answer to that question may well decide 2019, and in the long-term, the future of the Hindutva project.

Rohit Pradhan is a public health researcher. He writes on politics and policy. He tweets as @retributions

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