Elections 2019: Busting The Myth Of a Hindu Bloc
The BJP's stupendous victory is not an unmediated Hindutva expansion but a surge filtered through intricate caste combines
Three erroneous assumptions are doing the rounds as a definitive explanation for the second, consecutive, stupendous saffron victory in the 2019 general election. These are: the emergence of Hindus as a unified ethnic bloc across India, increasing irrelevance of Muslims as a community along with their decreasing institutional representation, and India’s shift from being a liberal democracy to a quasi-ethnic democracy. A close reading of the subtexts of the electoral processes and their outcomes shows that such conclusions are a function of lazy analysis.
First, while the cumulative vote share of 45 per cent that the BJP and its allies got this time indicates the spatial and sectional reach the ruling party has acquired under Narendra Modi, it nowhere indicates even a remote possibility of ethnicization of Hindus as a majoritarian ethnic bloc, as is being argued by many leading political scientists like Christophe Jaffrelot. The basic premise of their argument hinges on the inference that Hindutva’s OBC and Dalit outreach signifies the irrelevance of backward caste and Ambedkarite movements, as they all have accepted a Hindu identity and collectively share the Hindutva outlook of making Muslims the common other.
This line of argument misses the subtext of the BJP's social strategy for political success. While there is much talk of denial of representation to Muslims as a strategy to entrap rival parties or alliances into turning the electoral narrative into a battle between pro-Hindu and pro-Muslim agendas, the same has been used by the BJP since 2014, and more prominently in 2019, as a red herring strategy. In fact, the BJP's othering of Muslims, and the community being denied a due share of representation by the saffron party, has been a fact since its inception, even in times when the party faced electoral decline. There is nothing new in terms of a qualitative shift in the BJP’s outlook on the Muslim question.
Rather, there is another kind of othering at play wherein the party keeps on denying adequate representation to the dominant intermediary and politically assertive castes in states where these groups have had a domineering socio-political presence in the last 20 years. Such was the domiance of these groups that not just the upper castes but fellow backward castes began to despise them. More than any measure of Muslim othering, it’s the othering of these politically dominant castes that has made the BJP under the leadership of Modi the fulcrum that binds together the upper castes and the weaker lower castes.
For instance, the BJP has marginalized the Yadavs’ dominance in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar by giving them minimalist representation despite their demographic weight being otherwise. In fact, while in Uttar Pradesh the opposition alliance fielded as many as 10 Yadav candidates, the BJP fielded just one Yadav from the Azamgarh Lok Sabha seat. It, however, fielded non-Yadav OBCs in large numbers. The same was the story in Bihar.
Similarly, the party has gone against the settled trend of a dominant section occupying the prime political position in many other states. And this has paid electoral dividend to it. In Jat-dominated Haryana, the party appointed a Punjabi Chief Minister and encashed on the shared anti-Jat sentiment. Similarly, in tribal-dominated Jharkhand, the party fielded an OBC Chief Minister. In Maratha-dominated Maharashtra, a Brahmin occupied the post. Similarly, while Hardik Patel became the anchor of the Congress in Gujarat to appeal to the dominant Patidar castes, Amit Shah focused more on non-Patidar sections.
Since the 1990s in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar -- and in the 1960s in Maharashtra, Gujarat and Haryana -- the dominant intermediary castes rose to political prominence on the plank of taking along the fellow subaltern. However, that never became a reality and these new elites acquired a feudal outlook, thereby alienating other segments. It is this alienation that the BJP’s social engineering made use of meticulously, even though the party would never speak about this kind of intense othering of the dominant intermediary castes. Be that as it may, nowhere does this intra-Hindu split and othering bring the BJP anywhere close to its ultimate aim of converting Hindus into a unified ethnic bloc. The fracture is too big to be ignored or dismissed.
Similarly, the Dalit outreach of the BJP is a partial trend. Even now, the majority of Jatav-Chamar Dalits in UP are consolidated behind the BSP and field experience reveals that they were transferring their votes to the alliance. In the case of Bihar, numerically significant Dusadh Dalits have the tendency to vote for any alliance their leader Ram Vilas Paswan joins. There is no ideological reason behind their voting pattern, something that indicates the fractured nature of Dalit political behavior: a fact that flies in the face of attempts to argue that India is becoming an illiberal ethnic democracy like Isreal.
Finally, Muslim representation hasn’t declined only in Parliament but even in other elite institutions of the state, like the civil services. It has never been more than 5 per cent there. In the army, the same is said to be less than 2 percent. Analysts miss the crucial point of the community’s internal social stratification wherein around 15 percent high-caste Ashraf Muslims have been getting a fair representation in these institution and have been, until recently, thickly represented in the Upper House of Parliament and on the post of President of the Republic and Governors of states. This declined since 2014 but may rise if opposition parties make a comeback in future. Therefore, the dearth of institutionalized Muslim representation applies more to backward caste Muslims than to the community as a whole. Any attempt to see the average representation as symptomatic of the entire community would be sharing the Hindutva outlook of considering the minority community a homogeneous bloc.
The 2019 verdict is more about the precarity and failures of the opposition rather than about a marked Modi imprint. The very concept of majority in India is fluid. Its parameters keep shifting. At present, it may appear that Hindus are one bloc -- something that has been a Hindutva agenda -- but the ground realities as seen in the mandate conceal the deep ruptures within them. The India story is more complex than what meets the eye.
(Sajjan Kumar is co-author of 'Everyday Communalism' published in 2018 by Oxford University Press)