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The caste of the Modi effect May 30, 2014

Posted by southasiamasala in : India, Kumar, Vikas , trackback

Vikas Kumar

Before this year’s parliamentary election, it was a truism that the national parties of India were led by English/Hindi-speaking upper castes. Even Chaudhary Charan Singh, the Jat leader from western Uttar Pradesh who was the prime minister during 1979-80, did not lead a national party in a parliamentary 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 national leadership of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), 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 prime ministerial 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 Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) founded by lower castes were inducting Brahmins as advisors. This was also the time when the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which began its career by fielding a very diverse group of candidates in the 2013 Delhi Assembly elections, was overwhelmed by newcomers from upper castes and middle/upper class, who grabbed tickets for most of the prestigious parliamentary seats.

While Modi was carving a niche for himself, the BJP’s old guard and the upper-caste-dominated media desperately tried to recast BJP patriarch L. K. Advani, who had overseen the demolition of the Babri Mosque in 1992, as a moderate to block the path of Modi, whose belated response to the post-Godhra riots in 2002 cost hundreds of lives. But Advani, whom the party’s traditional supporters as well as the party’s parent organization the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) had abandoned in 2005 after he praised Pakistan’s founder Jinnah, failed to rally the party around himself.

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, in states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, 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 the former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee withdrew from active politics in 2005. 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 caste background through others soon after the Janata Dal (United) left the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (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 offered a scholarship to Ambedkar to pursue higher studies. In Varanasi, he garlanded Ambedkar’s statue before filing his nomination. (We must not forget Modi’s longer-term engagement with Sardar Patel, which can also be analyzed from a caste perspective.) The repackaging 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 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 the elephant god Ganesh and for the Hindu trinity of Brahma-Vishnu-Mahesh), suddenly declared that Dalits are not Hindus. A similar shift favouring the BJP took place among the non-Yadav Other Backward Classes (OBC) of Uttar Pradesh 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 the BJP 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. The party also tried to break the lower caste-Muslim alliance by trying to present Ambedkar as anti-Muslim, which the BSP contested belatedly. Moreover, Muslims were invited to rethink their usual political loyalties by painting the SP as a riot-happy party and presenting the BJP as a developmentalist party whose secular economic policies will benefit Hindus and Muslims alike. 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 the 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 Uttar Pradesh. About fifteen years ago, Kalyan Singh, who as Uttar Pradesh’s chief minister facilitated the demolition of the Babri Mosque, had to leave the party because of his feud with 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 handling of reservation in government jobs as well as higher education and welfare schemes for lower castes and religious minorities will, among other things, attract scrutiny from political rivals, especially, in Uttar Pradesh 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, by his supporters in Varanasi. This slogan imitates the religious chant Har Har Mahadev, addressed to the deity of the Kashi Vishwanath Temple of Varanasi, which was also used as battle cry during the medieval period. 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 he went on the back foot. As long as he depends on direct or even indirect appeals to religion for legitimacy, he will be vulnerable to strictures of upper castes, who continue to see themselves as custodians of the faith.

An earlier version of this article appeared here in the Deccan Herald.

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

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