Whether it is media or academia, social sciences or journalism, objectivity is always desirable, and should therefore be a valued trait. Sections of our intelligentsia, media and academia, however, revel in perpetuating biases, prejudices and stereotypes. Indeed, this pathological hatred for an idea comes to the fore strongly when they make an argument on BJP / RSS etc.
A typical example of this stereotyping is when they would like the world to believe that “BJP poses a threat to Constitutionalism”.
Another typical stereotyping is the argument that “BJP is an upper caste party”. In a recently-released book, “The New BJP: Modi and the Making of the World’s Largest Political Party” social scientist-journalist Nalin Mehta demolishes this argument.
It is well-known how in the last Cabinet expansion at the Centre, the Narendra Modi government saw the inclusion of several of those marginalized and those on fringes, with Diversity and Inclusion as key themes.
In his book, Mehta makes interesting points that give one a better understanding of how BJP has changed, and brought about a greater degree of democratization, inclusion and integration. It would be useful to quote some interesting points from the chapter “The Caste Game”.
“The findings of the Mehta-Singh Social Index shed new light on the BJP’s social engineering experiments with caste in UP. They offer a radically different picture from what most conventional scholarship has been telling us about the party’s power structures. They force a major rethink of traditional assumptions about the BJP”.
Mehta then lists several trends that show how BJP has led in democratization and inclusion while expanding. He argues that “BJP systematically increased OBC representation in very significant numbers at every level of its political organization in UP”, “OBCs became by far the single most represented case category in the BJP at every organizational level”; “BJP systematically increased SC representation, though to a lesser extent than OBCs”; “This social engineering by the BJP was done without losing the support of the upper castes”.
For students of Politics, Society, and India these trends are significant, for they capture what has been one of the most significant eras of post-Independence India.
As Mehta cites the example of Christophe Jaffrelot who “declared that the 2019 poll marked the revenge of the upper caste elite aligned with the BJP against the Dalits’ and OBCs’ assertiveness”.
That BJP’s rise has led to a greater degree of democratization, inclusion and integration is a theme that should be discussed more. Those who have followed the party’s rise in the last seven to eight years would have discerned the trend of democratization often. Prime Minister Modi has often set examples. And, it’s not just about honouring the workers engaged in the Kashi Vishwanath Corridor or washing the feet of safai karmacharis.
In the book “Social Harmony”, a compilation of articles written by Modi before assuming Gujarat Chief Minister’s office, and his lectures thereafter, editor Kishor Makwana makes an interesting point: “Narendra Modi took charge as Chief Minister of Gujarat on October 7, 2001, after which he was about to enter his official residence, for which the auspicious day of Dhanteras was chosen… Shri Narendra Modi decided that the ceremonial ‘Kalash’ would be placed in his new residence by a Dalit girl. What other than this could be a message of social harmony?”
Indeed, Social Harmony has been key as BJP has expanded far and wide. This has been seen in UP, too, which goes to polls in the next few months. And here, in PM Modi’s leadership, Amit Shah’s role has been pivotal.
As Mehta observes in his book: “After 2013, Modi and Shah ensured that the changes at various levels of the organization reflected caste realities on the ground… They made a big bet on OBCs in UP, inducting members of the caste group at every level of the party as never before”.
UP Deputy Chief Minister is quoted in the chapter as saying: “The person who gave the organization a new character as the creator was Amit Shah”.
In another instance, Mehta observes: “Starting from 2013, Amit Shah moved to Lucknow in early 2014 and took up residence on Rana Pratap Marg.. Shah’s decision not to stay in a hotel and to take up a house signaled a new intent to the party’s rank and file that the new leader wanted to stay here for the long haul”.
Shah’s role in strengthening the organization and also democratizing the party structure has also been captured by Badri Narayan, in his book “Republic of Hindutva”. Notes Narayan: “Amit Shah also held many caste-based rallies in UP before the elections. He addressed the rallies of Maurya and Patel castes at Andawa in Prayagraj on 22 June 2016. Another rally was organized at the time of the BJP national executive meeting at Prayagraj, in which Prime Minister Narendra Modi mentioned Nishad Raj at least three times…”
Mehta highlights another interesting factoid. He says: “While one of the dominant media narratives around his (Yogi Adityanath’s) government has been of a renewed Thakur dominance, the fact is that OBCs again constituted the single highest (class) category in his council”.
The BJP’s phenomenal rise in the last few years, then, is also about social engineering, accommodation and integration, diversity and inclusion. It showed that an equal India is a united India which then is also a rising India.
Does that mean that there are no challenges ahead? Three challenges, described briefly here, would probably demand policymakers’ attention.
One, on Dec 21, the Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment, in a written reply in Lok Sabha, gave a state-wise statement of Dr Ambedkar Scheme for Social Integration through Inter-caste Marriages for the years 2018-19 to 2020-21. The numbers are depressing, to say the least.
A paper by Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo, Matreesh Ghatak and Jeanne Lafortune “Marry for What? Caste and Mate Selection in Modern India” has earlier found that there is a strong preference for within-caste marriage. The latest numbers put out by the Social Justice Ministry prove this. This must change. Inter-caste marriages must be pushed and promoted.
Two, a Dalit woman was recently removed as “bhojan mata” (midday meal cook) from a government school in Uttarakhand after upper caste students allegedly refused to eat food cooked by her.
Any discrimination based on caste has no place in New India. Every instance of humiliation of a Dalit is a national shame.
The young Chief Minister of the State, Pushkar Singh Dhami, was one of the six leaders to speak on party’s political resolution moved by Yogi Adityanath at the recently held BJP National Executive in Delhi – a sign that BJP rates Dhami highly. Could a creative response, aimed at furthering integration and equality, be imagined to deal with issues like one seen in Uttarakhand?
Three, now the time has come to challenge the centrality of Caste in Indian society. Admittedly, this is not a political project alone. Social organizations, spiritual organisations, civil society and indeed individual citizens should be concerned about this.
RSS has been working to address such issues for many years now. Former top ABVP, and now top RSS functionary, Sunil Ambekar, in his book “The RSS: Roadmaps for the 21st Century” observes: “Sarsanghchalak Mohanji (Mohan Bhagwat) has given a clarion call for ending all kinds of discrimination prevalent in society. Every village should have a common temple, a common source of water, and a common cremation ground. The Sangh is trying to reach out to every village to establish this idea”.
That centrality of Caste in Indian society needs to be challenged is an idea that is catching up. Speaking at the recent Narendra Mohan memorial lecture, Union Minister and BJP leader Bhupender Yadav said that development and equal opportunities can neutralize ill-effects of Caste. He has written on making Caste irrelevant elsewhere as well.
Among our social scientists and sections of the media, those of Marxist persuasion, will always believe and argue that interests of various caste groups and communities are at conflict. Those arguing for Social Harmony as the basis of peaceful co-existence, even as democratization is deepened, and inclusion furthered, on the other hand, believe in taking everyone along. However a few even in this group, in well-meaning and scholarly interventions, like to put forward arguments like “Caste unites in businesses, but divides in politics”.
Even as the “ritual hierarchy” element associated with Caste has weakened to a great extent, we would do well to remind ourselves that the very mention of Caste reinforces the idea of “Homo Hierarchicus” – hierarchy, inequality and division, even today.
Maybe it’s time now for spiritual leaders, ranging from Sadhguru Jaggi Maharaj to Sri Sri Ravi Shankar to Amma Amritanandmayi to Swami Ramdev to Morari Bapu, to name a few, to add to the anti-Caste momentum. Maybe an appeal on a forum like “Mann ki Baat” can have a huge impact. Maybe it’s time now to highlight the vision of a Casteless India in our school curriculum.
Politics has seen democratization of castes and empowerment of the marginalized. Now even academic works are chronicling how BJP’s rise has led to mainstreaming and empowerment of those on the fringes.
Social change, however, cannot be catalyzed by the political apparatus alone. It’s here that spiritual organisations, schools and universities, and individual citizens, can play a huge role.
As UP deputy Chief Minister Dinesh Sharma is quoted in Mehta’s book, “The work that we did at the ground level sent a message at the ground level that while other parties gave caste slogans, we worked on a ‘jaati-viheen’ basis”.
Indeed, “jaati-viheen” is key. Many would like to believe today that BJP can be the vehicle to realise Babasaheb Ambedkar’s dream of a Casteless India. Indeed, a conversation of making Caste irrelevant must gain momentum as New India focusses on Vision 2047.
(The author, a JNU alumnus, is a political analyst. Views are personal)