Congress Agony: the Shadow of Communalised ‘Upper’ Castes on National Political Alternatives

Written by Sanjay Kumar | Published on: May 15, 2018

To remain a viable national political alternative it has to convince precisely those sections of Hindus who have turned communal, and are voting for the BJP.


Congress
 
Highlights:
There indeed are enough Indians, including Hindus, who have been voting for parties opposing the BJP. So, why is Ms. Gandhi so worried about Hindus going over to the BJP
Among all sections of the Hindu society, no section votes as overwhelmingly for the BJP, and conversely as sparingly for the Congress, as the ‘upper’ castes.
Development vote to an openly communal party and leadership is also the stamp of approval for the marginalization of minorities. If this is not Hindutva, what else is?
 
It is a tragedy of modern India that none of the national political alternatives have confronted the living ghost of caste.
A key event in Hindutva’s growth trajectory occurred when it became the common political sense of savarna castes.

In a recent media conclave UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi indicated that Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s visits to temples were meant to counter the perception of the party as a ‘Muslim party’. This perception according to her was due to the BJP propaganda that has managed to ‘convince’ people of it. “In my party, the great majority is Hindu. Yes, there are Muslims too. So I fail to understand this branding us as a Muslim party”, she is reported to have said. The argument is not new within Congress, though Ms. Gandhi may be the first major leader to admit it publicly. A K Anthony committee formed to find reasons for the 2014 debacle too had claimed public perception of proximity to minorities as one of the reasons for the drubbing Congress had received.
 
A few days after Ms. Gandhi’s statement, Harsh Mander wrote an Op-Ed in the Indian Express claiming that this was a reflection of the Muslims of the country becoming politically untouchable. According to him, cadres of even non-communal sympathetic parties now ask Muslims to come to their rallies without skull cap and burqa. The next day Ramchandra Guha wrote a counter, equating Muslim women wearing burqa to Hindu militants carrying trishuls, and criticized the absence of liberal reformist leadership within the Muslim community. The following few days saw a flurry of valuable articles, principally against Guha, but also highlighting some of the inner contradictions within the Indian Muslim community.
 
It is symptomatic of the times that even though Ms Gandhi’s claim -- the spark for Mander’s lament -- had nothing specific to say about Indian Muslims, the debate immediately got limited to them. The subtext of Ms Gandhi’s claim and Mander’s article is difficult to miss. Both refer to Indians who would recoil from too close an association with Muslims. Instead of wondering if there really are such Indians, and if so, then who they are, what ideological universe they live in, and how their bigoted public politics can be countered, the debate turned to Muslims, whose actual influence in the fate of Indian politics is minimal.
 
Congress’ Search for the Right Kind of ‘Hindu’ Votes
A core pillar of BJP’s phenomenal success under Narendra Modi is increasing communalisation of Hindu popular community life and thinking. Yet the fact is that even in 2014 the majority of Hindus actually did not vote for the BJP or its allies. In 2014, the BJP got 31% of votes. Aggregation of caste-wise voting data collected by the CSDS in its post-election surveys shows that even in this landslide, when for the first time it managed to win a majority in the parliament, it got about 38% of Hindu votes. Adding on the contribution of its allies, the figure touches 44%.  There indeed are enough Indians, including Hindus, who have been voting for parties opposing the BJP. So, why is Ms. Gandhi so worried about Hindus going over to the BJP due to the success of its propaganda in showing her party as pro-Muslim?
 
At one level Ms Gandhi’s claim is pure political opportunism, masquerading as a victim’s lament while most insidiously pinning its failure on a hapless minority. Monumental corruption of the UPA2, effete organisation and incompetent leadership were any day more significant reasons for Congress defeat, than any perception of proximity to minorities. Yet the Congress needs to actually believe in, and live with the lie. Not because of any inherent soft Hindutva, but for the sake of keeping itself relevant in Indian politics. A long-lived political animal that Congress is, it instinctively realises it has to increasingly appear more Hindu to survive, even while the majority of the Hindus may not be pro-BJP.
 
The national political alternatives in bourgeois nation states can be broadly divided around three core programmes. The centrist programme best suited for liberal politics aims for a national coalitional arrangement without disturbing existing social and economic hierarchies. In India the centrist core has largely been occupied by Congress. For many decades its programme and ideology were dominant, defining the character of India’s freedom movement and its nation state institutions. The two other national alternatives, a rightwing Hindu nationalism that aimed to develop Hindus as a political community without any internal reform, and a Left project that worked through class contradictions, were no match for the domination of Congress politics and ideology.
 
The size and diversity of India means that national level alternatives do not occupy the political space fully, and there is enough room for diverse regional and community specific political formations. The latter have often emerged from socio-political agitations around specific demands, and have become permanent political players after deepening of electoral democracy. Many of them at their regional and community level challenge Hindutva, and even in last elections got almost as many Hindu votes as the BJP with its allies. Congress dilemma is this. Most of the Hindus who do not vote for the Hindu communal party, vote for these parties. To remain a viable national political alternative it has to convince precisely those sections of Hindus who have turned communal, and are voting for the BJP.
 
Disaggregated data of caste wise voting in 2014 elections reveals some of the reasons for Congress discomfort, and its compulsion to play the soft Hindutva card. As the attached table shows, the percentage of votes received by the Congress versus the BJP is a direct reflection of the caste hierarchy of Hindu society. Congress got 19% of total votes to 31% for the BJP. This means that an average Indian who voted for either of the two parties, was 60% more likely to have voted for the BJP than Congress.
 
Among Dalits Congress received 18.5% votes, while BJP got 24% of votes, which means that a Dalit who voted for either of the parties was 30% more likely to have voted for the BJP. Hence, even while going along with the overwhelming flow towards the BJP, Dalits at an aggregate were trying to hold themselves back.  Among the so called ‘upper’ castes 54% voted for the BJP to a measly 12% for the Congress. Hence, an ‘upper’ caste voter was 450% more likely to have voted for the BJP than the Congress. The BJP got the largest share of its votes and seats from the Hindi belt states of Northern India. In these states it is reported that up to three fourths of ‘upper’ castes voted for the BJP.
 
Percentage of voters from a caste/economic class voting for a party
 
Caste/ Economic Class Upper Caste Peasant Upper OBC Lower OBC Dalit Poor Lower Middle Rich
INC 12.1% 15.1% 14.7% 16.0% 18.5% 19.6% 19.1% 20.1% 17.2%
BJP 54.1% 33.3% 30.2% 42.1% 24% 24.3% 31.2% 32.3% 38.0%
(From Eswaran Sridharan, “India’s Watershed Vote: Behind Modi’s Victory,” Journal of Democracy 25 (October 2014): 20–33)
 
Interestingly, the strong antipathy towards the Congress along the axis of Hindu caste hierarchy is not seen along the economic class hierarchy. The percentage of voters for the Congress in all four economic classes (poor, lower, middle and rich) is close to the percentage for all voters (the highest being 20.1% for the middle, and the least is 17.2% for the rich). The preference of the rich for the BJP is nearly double to the preference for the Congress (38% percent of voters for it to 17.2% for Congress), but is in no way as high as for ‘upper’ castes. Among all sections of the Hindu society, no section votes as overwhelmingly for the BJP, and conversely as sparingly for the Congress, as the ‘upper’ castes. This is the main hurdle Congress perceives to its future. 
 
Within the national political space Congress is essentially a party of the status quo, of maintaining established privileges without any radical transformation. Within this broad strategy it is essential for it to keep the so called ‘upper’ caste Hindus, who dominate the political, administrative, economic, cultural, bureaucratic and public sphere of the country in good humour. It cannot afford to get too far away from the ideological orientation of this caste group. It had briefly flirted with a social democratic alternative during the UPA1, largely under pressure from the Left Front. Consolidating that experiment would have required forming new coalitions and challenging entrenched privileges in at least some institutions. It had no stomach for that.  Once that door was closed there is nothing left for it but to follow Hindu majoritarianism, which at present dominates the social world of ‘upper’ caste Hindus.
 
A common argument is that the huge swing in favour of the BJP in 2014 was not an approval of its communal agenda, but due to the promise of ‘achhe din’ of Modi, seemingly based upon the ‘success’ of the Gujrat model of development under him. This argument misses the fact that social ideologies and political programmes come packaged, and even while individuals may have very different reasons for deciding their allegiance, such decisions do filter out alternatives and fix priorities. For instance, when someone in 2014 voted for the BJP for the sake of ‘development’, it also showed her/his priorities; that such ‘development’ is preferred over civil rights and security of minorities. Development vote to an openly communal party and leadership is also the stamp of approval for the marginalization of minorities. If this is not Hindutva, what else is?
 
‘Upper’ Caste Hegemony in Modern India
A key insight of Gramsci was that ruling groups create hegemony by successfullyprojecting their particular interests as universal. ‘Upper’ caste savarna Hindus, who form less than 15% of Indians, have enjoyed this sort of hegemony for almost the entire duration of modern period in India. However, certain unique features of this hegemony need to be noted. In the era of democratic politics, this hegemony cannot rely on an explicit espousal of caste hierarchy. Nationalism of one form or another has been the preferred discourse of this hegemony. With the secularization of caste and conflict over limited resources, savarna caste privileges are justified in the name of ‘merit’.
 
The institutional modus operandi of savarna caste social power is their domination over institutions of nation state, capitalism and modern mass culture, so the subjective identity of this power does not have to be caste centered. There does not have to be any savarna caste wide solidarity for their privileges to be reproduced. Which means their politics does not have to be explicitly caste centric. Their social consciousness however carries deep imprint of their caste position. In urban professional circles it comes out most strongly as antipathy towards any programme of, or mobilization for, equal opportunity.
 
Their caste subjectivity needs to be distinguished and contrasted from that of the dominant peasant castes (Marathas, Yadavs, Jats, Patels, etc.) in many parts of the country, who have mobilized themselves explicitly around their caste identity. Also, for the reproduction of their social power, urban savarna castes do not need to practice open violence against Dalits, as many OBC groups in rural India still do.These facts are often missed by many anti-caste thinkers and activists.
 
It is a tragedy of modern India that none of the national political alternatives have confronted the living ghost of caste. While the liberalism of the Congress may display awareness about the degradation of oppressed castes, it does not notice the anti-democratic imprint of caste on the entire Hindu society. It imagines caste simply as a relic, and would rather wish it away, than confront it. Left has believed in a simplistic notion of class solidarity, without getting the truth of Ambedkar’s insight that caste is a division of labourers too. In effect, both the liberalism of Congress, and the class politics of the Left invisibilised savarna caste hegemony, and have been integrated into the workings of this hegemony. Now, when savarna castes have turned to Hindu majoritarianism, these national political alternatives are proving ineffectual against Hindutva.
 
The growth of Hindutva is the best window to the changing ideological world of savarna castes. For many decades after independence, the party of Hindu nationalism had remained confined to sections of savarnas, even while the majority from these castes was voting for the ‘national’ project of Congress. A key event in Hindutva’s growth trajectory occurred when it became the common political sense of savarna castes. This happened when the Congress formula of broad coalitions of social groupings unraveled in the absence of charismatic leadership, and it was unable to counter Mandal mobilisations by dominant rural castes.
 
Hindu Rashtra with its appeal to Hindus united as a political community was a safer bet for savarnas than contingencies and exigencies of diverse social coalitions in different parts of the country. In any conception of a great, ancient, spiritual India soaked in Hindu religiosity, savarna Hindus are more than likely to be taken as its natural leaders.  Savarna castes now overwhelmingly vote for the party of Hindutva. Even in 2009, when its vote share plummeted to 18.8% among all voters, it got more than one third of ‘upper’ caste votes. 
 
Hindutva is an attempt to create a political community of Hindus. However, given its savarna core, internal contradictions of Hindu society are also unraveling its success. Its brazen aggression is already eroding subtle forms of savarna caste hegemony. It is not uncommon to hear Adityanath government in UP being addressed as ‘Thakur Raj’ and its rule in Maharashtra as new ‘Peshwai’.  Such naked assertions of caste rule are inevitably creating counter mobilisations.  However, for these mobilisations to have a lasting success, it is essential that they fashion a national political alternative which unlike Congress is manifestly and consciously free of savarna caste ideological moorings; rather which is driven by an implicit programme of the annihilation of caste. It would also need to foreground other aspects of Indian society today; its obscene class inequalities, blatant and illegal exploitation of unorganized sector workers, virulent misogyny and violence against women, attacks on radical Dalits, and of course, the political and social marginalisation of minorities.
 
(Sanjay Kumar teaches Physics at St Stephen’s College, Delhi).