Perhaps the leadership of the BJP should have consulted its pater familias Mohan Bhagwat before adopting their new slogan for the 2019 general election: “Ajeya Bharat, Atal BJP” (Invincible India, Steadfast BJP). In his address to the World Hindu Congress in Chicago, Mr Bhagwat urged Hindus to unite because an isolated lion could be hunted down by a pack of wild dogs. Was the leader of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) suggesting that the organisation formed to unify and empower Hindus almost a century ago was nowhere close to its goal of Hindu invincibility?
If India’s largest community, the Hindus, feels as vulnerable as a lion separated from its pride after nearly 10 years of BJP rule at the Centre – (the combined tenure of Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and the late Atal Behari Vajpayee), surely the party must share some responsibility for the corrosion of “invincibility” within its primary support base.
While “Atal BJP” reaffirms the party’s ideological commitment to a strong nation, it is also a nod to its brahmin voters. The play on the word “Atal” is a giveaway. The BJP is harking back to the legacy of its first Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, a brahmin, to gather together its upper caste voters for Mr Modi’s re-election in 2019.
Taken together, the “lion in distress” metaphor of Mr Bhagwat, the promise of an invincible (“Hindu”) nation and the dream of an “Atal BJP” present the broad contours of the 2019 election strategy of the party, centred on uniting Hindus of all shades and colours.
However, increasing acrimony around the divisions of caste makes it more and more apparent that a party and an ideology that came to power to unite the Hindus has left them more disunited than ever before. This time around the BJP will be forced to go beyond its time-tested divisive strategy of “Hindus versus Muslims”. Religious polarisation may have gone as far as it could.
Recognising the limited purchase of the communal card today, other plans are afoot therefore to ensure that Hindus of all hues coalesce behind the BJP. For this, the BJP is aware that it will have to woo every caste division of Hindu society separately.
Considered a party of upper caste Hindus, it would have been unthinkable only a few years ago that upper caste activists would throw stones or shoes at the BJP chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, Shivraj Singh Chouhan. Or that these castes would call an all-India strike against the Narendra Modi government for diluting the provisions of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, using Parliament to actively subvert a Supreme Court order.
Even a senior brahmin leader from Uttar Pradesh like Kalraj Mishra has come out into the open to warn the government that the upper castes are angry over the BJP’s measures that appear to support the “misuse” of the SC/ST Act against other castes. In addition, the upper castes are also exercised by the Narendra Modi government pitching for reservations in promotions for the SC/STs.
Upper caste anger against the party that speaks for them could be genuine. But some of these demonstrations appear orchestrated. They have come so late in the day – more than a month after the Modi government amended the SC/ST Act to nullify the Supreme Court’s verdict – that one wonders whether there is more to them than meets the eye. It is worth noting that these agitations have been largely symbolic, and that the upper caste anger has not surfaced in those parts of India where the BJP has no stake. It also stretches credulity that a senior leader like Kalraj Mishra would go public with his criticism donning his brahmin hat without a nod and wink from the powers that be. Perhaps there was little harm in a little public criticism if it helped to project the Modi government as a partisan of dalit interests.
When it comes to voting, the upper castes, the BJP seems to believe, may have no option but to support the party in 2019. That may explain the exceptional lionising of the party’s tallest brahmin leader, Atal Behari Vajpayee, after his death. The BJP wants to make sure that when the lion is in distress, the upper castes will not hunt with the hounds.
But it is not only the brahmins, vaishyas and rajputs who are “upset” with the Modi government. Other forward castes like the Marathas, Jats, Patels and Kapus have been agitating for reservations. The road to including economic criterion for reservations is being laid through the Justice V. Rohini Commission on re-categorisation of the Other Backward Classes. For the OBCs who may be drawn to their own caste-based parties, the BJP is projecting itself as their champion, having given the National Commission for Backward Classes statutory status.
The dalits are being told that the government is their best protection against atrocities by the upper castes. The overturning of the Supreme Court decision by the government, to retain the stronger provisions of the SC/ST Act, is the BJP’s best argument for its commitment to dalit empowerment.
However, it wants them to give up the term “dalit” or oppressed to refer to themselves. The term draws from the struggles of the commnunity itself. Instead, they are asked to call themselves Scheduled Castes, a category that reduces them to passive clients of a patron government.
Insistence on the patron-client nomenclature separates dalits from their own struggles of resistance that have been led by their own leaders rather than by the political parties. The dalits are effectively being told to isolate their future from agitations against the Una flogging of dalits, the treatment of the Bhim Army and the incarceration of its leader Chandrashekhar, and the Bhima-Koregaon violence. They must commit their future with the pride of lions, not join the wild dogs.
So while its own governance has increased the turbulence between castes, the “lion in distress” is trying all the tricks of the trade to get them to line up behind it and keep the hunting dogs at bay.
The writer is a journalist based in New Delhi