Much of the ire of Indian elites and those left of the Indian political center simply boils down to one thing – the poor and lower-castes aren’t voting the way they want them to. Over decades, an assorted motley crew of political parties has taken the votes of India’s subalterns for granted. Through sops and social engineering, a steady support was built over the years. If you are of X caste, you must vote for Y party. And don’t ask why.
Yet, a party that venerates the idols of old has now become an iconoclast breaking the idea of voting one’s caste rather than casting one’s vote. The BJP, for years known as a “Brahmin-Baniya” party reserved for the privileged and so-called upper-castes, has shattered traditional caste calculus and come up with a new formula making established Indian political equations void. Today’s BJP is one that has been given a brute mandate by India’s Bahujans (the so-called lower-castes of India) along with its old upper-caste base. A united Hindu vote is beginning to coalesce, something that is sending shivers along the spines of the BJP’s political opponents.
But to truly understand the magnitude of these ramifications, we must peer into the past and understand the tradition of caste to grasp the revolution we are witnessing today.
Cast in Stone
For many, caste is a defining feature of Indian society, if not the defining feature. But it obviously is a bit more complex than common stereotypes. First, let’s break down what caste is – varna and jāti. Varna finds its roots in the Vedas describing society as a combination of Brahmins (priests), Kshatriyas (rulers), Vaishyas (merchants), and Shudras (peasants and artisans). Varna possibly had a large degree of fluidity to it early on as ancient scriptural verses point to action and character (guna) as determining factors of one’s varna. This is still debated even today, but we know of Shudra groups becoming ‘Kshatriya’ dynasties across Indian history with the most recent in the reconquistador Shivaji and his Maratha empire.
Jāti functions in a much more horizontal direction. Localized clans seem to have coalesced into castes over time that in function were ethnic groups of the land. Endogamy was calcified 1500 years ago with both varna and jāti being pegged to ancestry as cross-marriage became discouraged. Keep in mind though, that varna and jāti were experienced differently depending on time as well as regional variation. Culture is rarely simple, instead forming as layers of sedimental lore reacting to the ebb and flow of the environment.
Now some may pin caste solely to Hinduism, but this isn’t totally accurate. Caste has penetrated all Indian religions and has even seen some of its staunchest opponents within Hinduism itself. Revisionists point out Buddhism as an early social justice movement, yet this again is not necessarily true. Lord Buddha observed and even endorsed some of the endogamous practices within varnas during the time though did push an emphasis on action with an almost Bhagavad Gita-like emphasis. Bodhisattvas as well as Buddha himself were said to only incarnate in Brahmin and Kshatriya lineages. In the Dhammapada, a wonderful stream of the Shakyamuni’s mind, an entire chapter is dedicated to extolling the virtues of a true Brahmin (though it is sharply mentioned that action decides Brahminhood). Caste is still a reality amongst Jains and Sikhs today. More whimsically, caste features amongst many Muslims and Christians in the subcontinent with supposed foreign descent being the marker for high caste and continued discrimination against lower-caste Hindus who’ve converted into those faiths.
Of course, nothing lasts forever and reforms seeking to erode caste’s importance would arise within Hinduism and without. The Bhakti movement flowing from Tamil Nadu would be a centerpiece in the erosion of caste discrimination. Pointing to the central and simple Vedic notion of the Ātman or the eternal soul that exists in all living beings, scholars and reformists would cast aside caste as less relevant in spiritual pursuits and devotion towards God. The logic that all souls were of the same essence, the compassion of God to look past caste, and the idea of reincarnation made one’s caste a temporary piece of clothing on the eternal spiritual body. Sounds logical if you ask me.
The horrid abuse of caste discrimination seems to have been amplified by the British, though it was present prior. Ajay Verghese, a political science professor from the University of California, found that former British provinces experience significantly more caste and tribal violence in contemporary India versus areas that had a vassal rule. Verghese and his co-author Emmanuel Teitelbaum posit that British rule exacerbated the conditions of lower castes and tribals through 3 main mechanisms paraphrased below:
- Firstly, the British heightened land inequality in rural areas by granting land ownership rights to zamindars (landlords) and seizing forest lands upon which tribal populations rely for sustenance.
- Secondly, the British state reified social inequalities in tribal and low-caste areas through their systematic categorization and ranking of tribal and caste communities.
- Finally, the British enacted a new bureaucratic apparatus that cemented these social inequalities through administrative practice, thereby fostering skepticism of India’s legal system among low-caste and tribal groups.
The legalization and formalization of caste would be a cutting revolution for Indians. This legal cementing of caste paved the way for new societal structures, especially for the untouchable castes as a new notion of unity emerged. And it would be Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar from the land of Shivaji who would hammer this confederation together.
B.R. Ambedkar was born in the untouchable caste, a group of Hindus who were said to have been born outside of the varna system. They were later coined as Dalits, a Sanskrit neologism for broken, by social reformer Jyotirao Phule in the 1880s. Ambedkar experienced horrible caste discrimination in his life, leading to him becoming an activist and leader uplifting the lower castes. He would go on to author the Indian Constitution as well as enshrine the reservation system into India. Originally, reservation was only supposed to be temporary, but it has been renewed and expanded to other backward castes and tribals over the decades.
Now, Indians have a tendency to deify or demonize their founding fathers. But as is cliché, the truth is closer to the median. I loathed Mahatma Gandhi at first for what I saw as cowardice and naïveté, but as I learned more about him, I was awestruck by his magnanimity, dedication to his Dharma, and how he left more people awestruck and inspired during his life than any other person in history. On the other hand, I admired Ambedkar greatly for his directness, courage to stand up against injustices, and liberating influence for the lower castes. However, as I delved into his later life, I was off-put by the sheer hatred that flowed from Ambedkar. This hatred, while understandable in its roots, would sow the seeds of failure in later Dalit politics.
Even though Dalit politicians ensured the enshrinement of reservation and other legal protections to Dalits, there never developed Ambedkar’s dream “Grand Dalit Narrative” that translated into a unitary political movement. The reason there hasn’t been a successful pan-Dalit movement across India is the same reason there hasn’t been a pan-Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, or Shudra movement. The deviant tones of jāti and regional ethnic shades would distort the colors of varna. And yet, saffron has found success in a unitary Hindu movement we see today proving that there is some appetite for unity, just on a different plate – religion.
Ambedkar’s understandable antagonism towards this religion, Hinduism, reached searing temperatures towards the end of his life. Such vitriol was aped by his most radical disciples, and this would prove a fatal mistake for Dalit political activism. For Dalits were not looking for a revolution that would smash the idols of their gods in their homes and traditions of their families; they were looking for reform to fully integrate as Hindus and Indians as well as economic and social mobility out of the morass of untouchability. They wanted hope, not hatred.
Some of this hatred came from the incoherence of Ambedkar’s ideology being hijacked by disparate nefarious groups. Ambedkar founded a disjointed sect of Buddhism (Navayāna or the “New Vehicle”) that shunned many of the original tenets of the Buddhist Dharma. He would spuriously claim that Buddhism was a primarily anti-caste social reform movement; as shown earlier, this is simply false. Navayāna also rejected integral pieces such as the 4 Noble Truths, enlightenment, samsara, monk-hood, and even meditation. Such a spurring of integral foundations obviously leads to weak pillars in a movement.
Abhinav Prakash, a scholar, writer, and Assistant Professor from Delhi University, points out how out Navayāna and Ambedkarite discourse have become a mirror of fanatical Wahabbi ideologies. A zeal of iconoclasm, attacks on “too Hindu” subaltern traditions, and a constant sense of othering are leading to a destructive Dalit discourse that only leads to dead-ends in Dalit politics.
As time passed on, the notion of being “Dalit” faced headwinds when it hit the ground. Unfortunately, jātis labeled as Dalits would also practice untouchability against other Dalit castes. This impeded not only pan-Indian movements to build Dalit solidarity, but more importantly, it also hurt local missions. Dalit leaders such as Kanshi Ram, Jagjivan Ram, and Mayawati would rise but their movements would fall as splinters over ideology, ethnic variations, and caste split their voting blocs. Mayawati would prove to be the most successful becoming the first Dalit Chief Minister of India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, by deftly crafting a coalition even including a sizable chunk of Brahmins, the ideological punching bag of most Dalit politics. But Mayawati’s success would only be temporary and her reach only stayed within her territory.
An Ensemble Cast
In Vinay Sitapati’s book, Jugalbandi, he describes a central tenet of the RSS – unite or die. Drawing upon the countless examples of caste and ethnic tribalism destroying past Hindu polities and potential, the RSS manically obsesses on integrating Hindus into a united consciousness regardless of caste, ethnicity, and other identity markers. The RSS’s political offspring, the BJP, has been tasked with first gaining power and then enacting those unitary ideals on a political level.
One aspect of gaining power is playing caste calculus better than the opposition. During their rise in Gujarat, Narendra Modi and Amit Shah engineered victory in constituencies by uniting runner-up politicians and their supporters against dominant politicians and groups. Silver medals became gold via political alchemy. This blueprint of alchemy has now been scaled to much larger levels. Dominant OBC farming castes who benefited greatly from the agriculturally driven Green Revolution in the 1960s would be usurped by a united spectrum of non-dominant castes galvanized by the BJP. This extends to other castes as well. In the tectonic 2017 Uttar Pradesh elections where a surprise BJP landslide blindsided every Tom, Dick, and Harry, the BJP pitted non-Jatav Dalits versus Jatav Dalits (harken back to the mythic united Dalit identity we spoke of earlier) in addition to having Non-Yadav OBC’s band against Yadavs. This plus their old upper-caste base sealed the deal. The tactics of battle give the BJP their high post but not necessarily a high ground, yet it is through this high post that they can enact their high ground strategy of Hindu unity – by economic development and empowerment.
With a Prime Minister who wouldn’t hesitate to hammer his poor and lower caste background into the minds of voters, the BJP started their most significant outreach to the Bahujans. Narendra Modi would outflank the INC, left parties, and caste parties via effective “socialist” policies that would make Bernie Sanders blush. A slew of welfare and basic infrastructure schemes were frenetically enacted and then executed amongst the background of a rapidly digitizing India. India Stack, India’s premier FinTech effort, would accelerate the effectiveness of these initiatives as money, material, and megabytes traveled at the speed of Indra’s thunderbolt across this new digital cloud.
India’s subalterns would not only experience first-time basic comforts such as toilets, electricity, healthcare, tampons, roads, etc… but more essentially – they experienced basic human dignity for the first time. The hopeless nightmares of the past gave way to dreams of a brighter future as India’s downtrodden climbed up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. On a cultural cline, the most powerful leader of Hindu politics in the republic’s history was now a Bahujan risen from poverty. Modi donned his caste and poverty like armor on the campaign trail, and in the sheen of this armor would be the light of hope for India’s downtrodden. India’s subalterns saw themselves and their potential in Narendra Modi.
The results were stunning, and the statistics produced are damning for the BJP’s opponents and a godsend for the BJP. The party has now become the first choice of Dalits, Tribals, and other backward castes in addition to keeping its upper caste base intact.
The BJP won about 12 percent of votes among the Dalits before 2014. It ascended to capture 24% of the Dalit vote in 2014 surpassing the Congress Party. The BJP’s ambitions continued to fly high and 33 percent of Dalits matched it in 2019 according to Lokniti-CSDS data. Add on allies’ tallies, and we reach 41% of all Dalits voting for their first choice, the NDA affiliated parties.
Now we have to acknowledge a fact – the BJP still retains the highest proportion of votes amongst the upper castes. There is nothing wrong with this. But demographics show that the upper castes only form about 20% of India’s population, so while their support is important, it has been the Bahujan conversion that has pushed the BJP to stratospheric heights electorally. The BJP now has to balance inter-caste dynamics in the present but looks to integrate castes in the long term. The BJP will play the ground game of caste in the short term but looks to the shining sun of Hindu unity on the horizon as its next prize.
The Die is Cast
“Alea iacta est” or “the die is cast” were the famous words of Julius Caesar as his army crossed the Rubicon river to march on Rome taking on the Senate and the establishment elites. It signaled a point of no return and an incoming battle that would shape and shake the foundations of Rome itself. Today, we see a similar point of no return as the BJP dismantles the old and inept “idea of India” and lays a new ideological infrastructure. Integral to this infrastructure are two-way roads between castes. Integration of castes into a united Hindu consciousness is the Brahmāstra of the BJP’s arsenal.
Why, do you say? Incentives. The BJP’s driving ideology, Hindutva, has extremely large political incentives to erode caste discrimination and encourage equality amongst all castes. Mainly because, as caste erodes “Hindu” becomes an identity that will fill that void. This means that the BJP on a grand scale seeks to eliminate caste conflict. Think of it this way – every time there is a flashpoint of caste conflict or discrimination, a “Hindu” falls back into being a Brahmin, Dalit, Jat, Reddy, etc… Unity breaks down, and that unity is the most potent weapon for Hindutva when the polls arrive. It’s this unity during those polls that give power to the BJP.
Curiously, many of those who claimed to seek the “annihilation of caste” and a ceasing of caste violence are the ones who are the most terrified of this weapon that would achieve many of the goals related to the annihilation of caste. Where does their fear come from? The thing is if caste discrimination greatly diminishes and caste becomes a more periphery identity, the fissures of Hindu society that have been exploited for so long will also diminish, and a more united Hindu vote could reveal itself come election time. Parties that rely on patronizing only certain castes, missionaries who bet on caste discrimination to attract converts, and left parties who outrightly encourage caste divisions as a bulwark against Hindu consolidation will be left eating crow instead of cow.
Now this is a very long-term project. Caste will feature as an Indian aspect of elections and society for generations to come, especially as endogamy still remains strong; but compound interest coupled with demographics and a cultural push is a powerful concoction. Urbanization, education, and wealth-building also serve as the trident to combat caste discrimination, and all 3 are spreading across India.
What the BJP must do now is keep this pressure on. Its leadership is still largely upper-caste but it is now seeking to actively integrate lower castes into leadership roles such as how it has done with a backward caste Narendra Modi as Prime Minister and Dalit President in Ram Nath Kovind. Brute force must eventually be followed with balance even against Pareto forces that naturally push inequalities in non-nefarious ways. As Bahujans gain more education and prominence, they will innately ask for more rights and representation. In the same way, the BJP (and other parties) must also make sure there is no tyranny of the majority against upper castes as the abuse of the dreaded SC/ST Act has given air to.
As the BJP fires saffron arrows from a rainbow of castes, the opposition has also donned the sacred color to adjust to new realities. The RSS and the BJP’s push beyond politics and into societal integration of Dalits by interdining, intermarriage, and being inclusive to lower castes in Hindu rituals and festivals (most recently and prominently shown at the groundbreaking ceremony of Ram Mandir) has now put many parties who banked on Dalit support on the backfoot. Even the grandson of Ambedkar and prominent Dalit leader, Prakash Ambedkar, has called upon the reopening of Hindu temples during Covid lockdowns. At the same time, the BJP has also appropriated Ambedkar amongst its lexicon of ideological heroes as it now seeks deeper inroads amongst the Bahujans, with some hints of an even more massive shift to the BJP appearing in the recent West Bengal elections. While development has been essential in the BJP’s advancement amongst the Bahujans, it is through the diglossia of Ambedkar and the Omkar that has given the final push to the BJP now becoming the Bahujan Janata Party.