India’s elections still revolve around caste: Opinion

But a vote in the state of Gujarat is undermining the ruling party’s reputation as the master of caste politics

INDIA’S national parliament, the Lok Sabha, sits for barely 70 days a year. The shortest of its three sessions normally starts in mid-November. This year, though, the government has given MPs an extra month’s holiday. The reason: Gujarat, a bastion of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and home state of Narendra Modi, the prime minister, will hold a staggered election on December 9th and 14th for a new state legislature.

Why should Mr Modi want to delay the business of state for a whole month, just to go campaigning in a middling state of only 66m people? Party spokesmen say this is the BJP’s style; it takes every election seriously. But opponents say the party is scared of losing on its home turf.

If opinion polls are to be believed, the BJP has reason to worry. As recently as August, according to the Center for the Study of Developing Societies, a Delhi think-tank with long polling experience, the BJP held an unassailable-looking 30-point lead over its main rival, the Congress party. By late October this had fallen to 6% and by late November to zero; in the last lap of the race, Congress and the Hindu-nationalist BJP are neck and neck.

The BJP’s sudden slump is shocking. The last time it lost a major vote in Gujarat was in 1990 (see chart). Countrywide, it has lately been on a winning streak too; together with allies it now runs 18 states, accounting for roughly 60% of the population. Mr Modi has looked like a shoo-in for a second term, starting in 2019. A loss in Gujarat would blunt this momentum and, more important, tarnish the luster of the party’s star attraction. From 2001 to 2014 Mr Modi was Gujarat’s chief minister, and turned his much-hyped “Gujarat Model” of business-friendly development into a springboard to national power.

There are multiple reasons for the BJP’s woes. Anti-incumbency always runs strong in India, and some of Mr Modi’s policies have also angered key constituents. Last year’s sudden ban on high-value currency notes hurt farmers and small businesses badly; this year’s clumsy imposition of a complex sales tax has frustrated traders and manufacturers. Farm prices are low; jobs remain scarce for the upwardly mobile young, despite much-vaunted foreign investment. “This election is a contest between those who benefit from the ‘Gujarat Model’ and those many who do not,” says Jignesh Mevani, a lawyer and an outspoken leader of Gujarat’s Dalits (formerly known as Untouchables).

The accumulation of grievances is not new; what is new is Congress’s ability to exploit it. In recent times many have dismissed the once-dominant party as a wobbly collection of has-beens, lacking any message or solid base and saddled with the increasingly lackluster hereditary leadership of the Nehru/Gandhi dynasty. Mr Modi’s BJP, in contrast, has been energetic, focused and cleverly ruthless in its exploitation of class and, especially, sectarian differences to hook voters.

Its winning formula has been to stoke Hindu fear of the Muslim minority while “uniting” Hindus by weaving a careful web of alliances with leaders of various castes, all under the general rubric of paternal rule, order and progress. The BJP in earlier times was closely associated with the higher castes, but under Mr Modi it has shed its exclusionary image. The prime minister’s own modest origins have lured in lower-ranked castes. The BJP has also tried to cultivate Dalits, greatly expanding its membership to give them a place, and honoring Dalit heroes of the past.

A tactic that has proven particularly effective in several states, notes Prashant Jha, author of a recent book on Mr Modi’s party, has been to rally both upper and lower castes against mid-ranked groups that have gained “too much” power or prestige. Earlier this year the BJP won a crushing victory in India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, partly by exploiting resentment of the Yadavs, a caste widely seen as dominating the outgoing government.

Survey: National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) and the University of Maryland, US. (2014)

Congress is learning from these tricks, however. It has been accused in former times of “appeasing” Muslims to win their votes, so in Gujarat it is simply ignoring them, knowing they are unlikely to vote for the BJP. Meanwhile it has concocted an unlikely coalition of unhappy castes, headed by a trio of charismatic local leaders. Mr Mevani is one of these, but reckons himself small fry next to Hardik Patel, a 24-year-old agitator for the rights of Patidars, a far higher caste that includes around 12% of Gujaratis. (Dalits are 7% of the population and Muslims 10%.) Alpesh Thakor, a young leader representing mid-ranked castes, has also joined, while Congress typically enjoys the support of tribal communities who account for another 15%.

Hypocritically but perhaps unsurprisingly, the BJP has lashed out at its rival for pandering to identity politics. “Congress is once again doing what it always did in the past, divide people, be it on caste lines, communal lines, between villages and cities,” stormed Mr Modi at a recent rally. “Congress has learnt divide and rule from our colonial rulers.” Meanwhile, the BJP’s supporters circulated a tweet suggesting that while Congress supporters would be voting for HAJ (an acronym made up of the first names of Mr Patel, Mr Thakor and Mr Mevani), a vote for the BJP was a vote for RAM (an acronym derived from the names of the party’s local leaders and Mr Modi). The insinuation was that the BJP stood for the Hindu majority who count Ram as an important deity, whereas Congress is the political defender of Muslims, who go on the hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca).

Such smear tactics have worked in the past, and may work again. The BJP has far bigger resources; the election commission’s figures show that the party has garnered some 82% of all big, official political donations in Gujarat in the past five years. Congress’s incongruous caste coalition is fragile, based partly on an unlikely promise of more state benefits for the better-off Patidars. “There are huge material contradictions between Dalits and Patidars, and even between Dalits,” admits Mr Mevani. “Our alliance will be short-lived.”

Amit Shah, the BJP’s campaign wizard, says it will capture 150 of the 182 seats in Gujarat’s assembly. He may be right, but it may also be that, like the $400m statue that Mr Modi has ordered built in his home state—a colossus twice the height of the Statue of Liberty representing Sardar Patel, an independence leader—the prime minister will find himself on an island, with water rushing round his feet.

This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition of The Economist under the headline “Group think”

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