The BJP’s caste arithmetic is collapsing under its own weight

he rise of the BJP – since the Ram Mandir movement generally, and in the Modi era particularly – has come on the back of meticulously crafted caste coalitions. These may differ from state to state, but there’s one big pattern. They have married their Brahmin-Bania upper caste core base with the lower OBCs who have felt marginalised by dominant OBC communities such as Yadavs, Jats or Marathas.

Even with the Modi wave the BJP would not have won 71 seats in Uttar Pradesh if it hadn’t brought back Lodh leader Kalyan Singh in the party, and hadn’t allied with Kurmi party Apna Dal, which won another two seats for the NDA in the state.

Yet the Modi wave also helped the party win votes despite the hurdle of caste. Narendra Modi’s 2014 campaign, which projected a prime ministerial candidate whom people can trust to deliver on development, helped the BJP win even some Dalit votes. Caste communities that dislike each other so much that they try not to vote for the same party, came together for Modi.

Class, not caste

Narendra Modi’s caste narrative peaked with demonetisation, which held out the promise of making class more important than caste. Modi went for a poor versus rich polarisation, dropping the word Mitron (friends) and replacing it with Garibon (poor).

There was concern about whether the BJP would be hurt by its neglect of upper castes through its class pitch. After all, who are the rich? They are the upper castes, the BJP’s own core base.

At the BJP’s national executive meeting in 2017, one party member complained that the government’s demonetisation move was alienating some of the party’s core supporters. Amit Shah reportedly replied: “Core chhodo, sampoorna dekho (Forget the core, look at the whole).”

Demonetisation was for a while so popular with the poor that the BJP felt it could afford to ignore the protestations of its upper caste supporters. The trader community is so small in number, and where would they go anyway? To secular Congress? Even if some desert the BJP, look at how many new voters the party is adding.

Demonetisation’s appeal among the poor also helped the BJP increase its appeal among Dalits, countering the narrative that the party was anti-Dalit. Dalit sentiment matters for the BJP over and above the votes it can bring. It matters at the overall narrative level, where the BJP wants to appear popular across the board. It also matters in the BJP-RSS’ long-term agenda of uniting Hindus regardless of caste.

The Dalit anger against the party was reflected in names such as Rohith Vemula, Jignesh Mevani and Chandrashekhar Azad. This anger, the BJP thought, was quelled through the class politics of demonetisation.

Forget the whole, save the core

But the euphoria of DeMon, as it has come to be abbreviated, didn’t last long. As an unacknowledged economic slowdown looks worse by the day, DeMon appears more and more to have been the precise moment of the Modi government’s undoing. The failure of DeMon hurt the economy, thereby making the BJP’s class narrative untenable. Modi stopped saying Garib, Garibi, Garibon in every second sentence.

The first sign of this was the induction of Naresh Agarwal into the party in March 2018. The Baniya community leader in Uttar Pradesh had long been a strong critic of the BJP and its Hindutva ideology. His induction had angered many in the party, especially in Uttar Pradesh. But the BJP needed Naresh Agarwal to improve its strength among the trader community.

The Supreme Court’s decision to allegedly dilute the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act became a millstone around the Modi government’s neck. Dalit anger was on the boil. No party can rule India if 16.6 per cent of the population is revolting against the state. The government was forced to issue an ordinance to over-rule the SC judgment.

This, in turn, became the Modi government’s Shah Bano moment. Upper castes felt the Modi government was going out of its way to appease Dalits, even overruling the Supreme Court. At the same time, the party maintains that it will wait for the Supreme Court to decide the Babri Masjid issue.

Upper caste anger against the BJP boiled over in the Madhya Pradesh elections. Upper castes across north India have been threatening to vote for NOTA (None of the above) or sit at home. Their lack of enthusiasm, even if they vote for the BJP, deals a blow to the party’s efforts in tilting public mood in its favour. How do you even attempt to create an election wave when your core supporters behave like jilted lovers?

As the BJP tries to appease upper castes with reservations, it runs the risk of ending up neither here nor there. Dalits and lower OBCs may drift away for economic reasons: unemployment and rural distress. We have seen the trailer in the three heartland states, especially Chhattisgarh where OBCs shifted away in large numbers. The party’s OBC sub-categorisation move is also backfiring, at least in the critical state of Uttar Pradesh, even before it is implemented.

In trying to appease all caste demographics, the BJP may end up disappointing everyone. Amit Shah’s words, “Core chhodo, sampoorna dekho”, may return to haunt him.

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