the stage is set for a direct contest between the politics of caste-identity wearing a ideological badge and ideology camouflaging caste-savvy politics
Nationalist, socialist, communist or opportunist, every colour of political wisdom defers to the primacy of caste. Gorakhpur and Phulpur are the latest stars of the galaxy where caste seems to be at the very centre. However, caste is not a marketable commodity beyond the boundaries of a state. The dynamic of legislative and parliamentary systems are quite different. Caste has never become able to grow into anything larger, even to the extent of a common interest caste grouping. A marketer building political momentum for the coming elections will indeed use caste as a persuasion lever. It shall serve to build affiliation. It will build distinction along lines of people like us versus them. But, what more will it deliver and how can it be countered ?
The general elections of 2019 will be decisive and historic. It will decide for more than five years of political outcomes. Political marketers will have a critical role to play. Their role will be key in decoding, and then reshaping, the public stand for or against caste. In 2019, two meta-identities shall be in mortal combat, namely caste identity wearing some ideology as a badge versus ideology camouflaging caste-savvy tactics.
Consider the history of caste-driven political formations. What sense of appeal made them emerge and get entrenched? From 1952 to 1969, the ‘Congress system’, as the eminent political scientist, professor Rajni Kothari, termed it, allowed every large identity group in India to find representation within it. Per its claim of being a movement first and a party later, the Congress allowed traditional elites to provide leadership backed by backward, dalit and minority participation and electoral support.
More and more, as the Congress degraded into a neo-feudal formation, and then, under the later Indira Gandhi regime, became confirmed in its authoritarianism, the regional leaders of backward communities found their space cramped and vassalage trampled upon. First, with Chaudhary Charan Singh’s experiment of the Sanyukt Vidhayak Dal, the marketable space for non-Congress politics expanded, but that took on very traditional forms. Though the support was entirely rural and backward-communities driven, there was no review of form or substance. New caste overlords ran the earlier system.
From UP, it spread to Bihar. These were, naturally, the most likely domains. The South had an entirely native, backward-communities, anti-Brahmin narrative, and was insulated from these developments in the Hindi-speaking region. The very phrase ‘backward community’ was first used in the Madras Presidency in 1870. It took more than a hundred years to travel to the Hindi heartland campaign-speak. When Indira Gandhi broke the Congress establishment from within and concentrated power, backward caste groups led by regional satraps felt sidelined and hence saw survival in strengthening the politics of caste identity.
Caste emerged as a political voice from the decay of the Old Congress. Can it be subsumed back into the main body of politics with the emergence of the new BJP ?
By the time of the first ‘post-Indira’ election in 1984, every major state in India had seen its amorphous opposition to the Congress crystallise .They had respectively been able to seize power once and form the state government. In each case, it was due to full support of one or two major caste groups—Vokkaligas, Lingayats, Yadavs, Jats, Patels, Kamma, Kapu, etc.
In 1977—and don’t forget that was 41 years ago—the very first non-Congress government came to power at the Centre. Backward-community ascendency had found a throne. In 1989, the earth shook in political terms, with the end of single-party majority rule and the start of the coalition ‘era’. Vishwanath Pratap Singh—in my opinion, a vastly underrated politician, political marketer and tactician, mostly neglected in our historical assessments—through an executive order of the Cabinet, gave 27% reservations to OBCs as recommended by the BP Mandal Commission. A meteorite had hit the political status-quo in North India. Almost overnight, ‘OBC’ became a political descriptor and the Congress could never, to this day, resurrect itself in the cow belt. State-level caste leaders got a chance and a readymade following, from whence came the likes of Mulayam Singh Yadav, Lalu Prasad, and Nitish Kumar.
Therefore, conversely, we establish that any politics in North India that avoids appeal to caste must be a voice of consolidation, revival and progress. It should be addressing the youth. It should equate degradation and stagnation to caste and parochial politics. Economic momentum breaks caste. Prosperity serves all. The BJP must market young and qualified backward caste candidates and then spell out the contrarian stand. It must be able to create conviction that caste never mutates to a pan-India identity. Even a Lalu and Mulayam can’t cross into UP and Bihar, respectively, despite their Yadav constituency being abundant. Who gets represented best when SP address its prospective voters? Akhilesh-followers, believers in Lohiaite socialist programmes, Yadavs pursuing caste clout? Anti-BJP forces? What is the terra firma for the landing of these calls to action? Does caste repair erosion caused by poor governance?
Therefore, if caste cannot pole-vault across state boundaries, and caste icons can aspire legitimately to only the CM’s position, surely a Charan Singh and Deve Gowda couldn’t claim backward leadership to be the cause of their reaching the very highest office. We then arrive at a fundamental marketing truism—variants dilute a mother-brand and weaken it. Yet, standalone brands must extend and build a range or repertoire. Will the BJP have the marketing finesse and boldness of execution to bring these contradictions to light ?
Caste politics of the SP, BSP, RLD, RJD, JD(S), etc, will become less defined by known gridlines and appeal to larger common class interests. The BJP will likely accommodate and showcase more castes—Yadav, Maratha, Gurjar, Jat, Koeri, Kurmi, Patel, Vokkaligga, Kapu, etc—in its leadership, with an appeal to unison and national progress. Somewhere, the two battle formations will cross over, and India will change forever with the vote of 2019.
The author is a marketer