On the evening of 23 May, as it became clear that the Bharatiya Janata Party had secured a massive lead in over 300 seats in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the incumbent prime minister Narendra Modi delivered a victory speech at the party’s headquarters in Delhi. Terming the mandate a “new narrative” of the twenty first century, Modi credited the country’s “poorest of the poor” for the BJP’s impressive tally. Modi then proceeded to describe this purported narrative. “Only two castes will remain in this country. And the country is going to be focused on only these two castes.” He continued, “The first caste in India is the poor. And the second caste is of people who contribute whatever little to free the country from poverty.” The speech was telecast live on almost all mainstream newschannels. In the following days, many of these channels—such as Republic TV and Times Now, which are known to favour the BJP and Modi —helped peddle this “new narrative.”
Modi used his speech to target “people who play games in the name of caste” and advocated the realignment of society based on economic parameters. He did not acknowledge the social backwardness and untouchability that the Hindu caste system imposes on the marginalised communities from the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes and the Other Backward Classes. He also alluded to the fact that political leaders—especially the ones who hail from marginalised communities and fight elections on the plank of social justice—would no longer be able to raise caste-centric issues, such as reservation, during campaigns. He went on to attack opposition leaders and parties for “doing caste-based politics,” and called his victory a validation of his welfare programmes which did not use caste as a determinant. In short, Modi asserted that caste will not be a factor in future elections.
To understand the election mandate and the BJP’s record on caste politics, I interviewed a dozen political leaders from different political parties of what is popularly known as the Hindi belt. A majority of them hailed from marginalised communities. All of them unanimously rejected Modi’s claim that he had dismantled caste-based politics and said that the BJP had merely realigned the various caste groups across Lok Sabha constituencies and harnessed votes from these new combinations. According to them, caste was as much a part of the BJP’s political strategy as of other parties during the general elections, and the party would not have won if not for the new caste-equations created by them. The leaders also believed that the BJP leadership viewed caste from an upper–caste lens, through which they could deny the existence of it altogether, and yet reap the benefits from it.
Dhananjay Yadav, the general secretary of the Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar’s Nalanda district, who comes from an OBC community, told me that the prime minister speech exposed a double standard and a failure to consider the politics of social justice. Yadav was referring to Modi’s election rallies across Bihar, where he canvassed votes on the policy of reservation for economically weaker sections among the upper castes, which was introduced by his government. For instance, during a campaign in the state’s Paliganj city, on 15 May, the prime minister had said, “After independence, it was the first time when the poor youth from the general category have also got 10 percent reservation.” Yadav said, “When he asked for votes on 10 percent reservation given to the upper castes by his government, he did not find any problem with it. But when we raised our voice for the representation of the oppressed, we are being called jaatibaadi”—casteist. Referring to an RJD electoral plank seeking 90 percent reservation for SCs, STs, and OBCs in jobs and education, Yadav said, “Matlab savarna kare toh jaatibaadi nahi hai, aur OBC kare toh apko dikkat hai”—If the savarna do it it’s not casteism, but if OBCs do the same, you have a problem with it.
Data collected from the post-poll research and analysis conducted by the Trivedi Center of Political Data, a department of the Ashoka University, and the research institute the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, is also telling of the BJP’s contradictory positions. The Indian Express published several analyses based on this data, studying the BJP’s victory in Uttar Pradesh and the Hindi belt states. One of these concluded, “The BJP pursued in 2019 the same strategy that helped it sweep UP in 2017: cater to all the groups that are not affiliated traditionally with either the SP or the BSP. And that means a marginalisation of Yadavs, Jatav Dalits, and Muslims.”
Gilles Verniers, the author of the article and an assistant professor of political science at Ashoka University, wrote, “While the BJP claims to look beyond caste and be an inclusive party, it clearly favours its historical support base.” In Uttar Pradesh, which comprises 80 Lok Sabha seats, the BJP fielded 15 Brahmin and 13 Rajput candidates—both are upper-caste groups considered to be historical supporters of the party. The BJP fielded only one person from the Yadav community, which is an OBC caste, and four people from the Jatav community, which a Dalit sub-caste, for the 17 reserved seats in the state while 19 tickets were distributed to ten non-Yadav OBC castes. According to the Indian Express report, “Both the BJP and the Congress distributed nearly half of their tickets to upper castes candidates”—the BJP had 45 percent candidates from upper-caste communities, while the Congress’s upper-caste representation stood at 43.3 percent.
Vandana Singh, former spokesperson of the Samajwadi Party from the Rajput caste, told me that in Uttar Pradesh, upper-caste groups mobilised for the BJP due to the government’s decision to implement 10 percent quota. “The 22 percent upper-caste communities in Uttar Pradesh have not voted a single vote to the grand alliance of SP, BSP and RLD. Maybe some would have voted for the Congress. The first politics the BJP played was to give 10 percent reservation to the upper castes,” Singh told me.
That the BJP received huge support from upper castes—Brahmin, Baniya, Rajput, Kayastha—and dominant communities, such as the Jats, in Uttar Pradesh has also been established by the data collected by CSDS. The CSDS’s post poll survey indicates that the BJP garnered the support of 82 percent voters from the Brahmin community, 89 percent from the Rajput community, 70 percent from the Vaishya community and 91 percent from the Jat community.
In an article for The Hindu, the academicians Mirza Asmer Beg, Shashikant Pandey and Sudhir Khare write that “the consolidation of upper castes, the Kurmis and Koeris (dominant communities within OBC), and the lower Other Backward classes behind the BJP was far stronger than the consolidation of Jatavs, Muslims and Yadavs (behind the grand alliance).” They contend that the BJP was successful in “consolidating the majority community yet again through its own social engineering.”
In an earlier analysis of the caste composition of the BJP’s candidates in Bihar, I noted a similar pattern. In Bihar, the party contested 17 seats and fielded 11 upper-caste candidates—almost 64 percent. Among them were five Rajputs, two Brahmins, two Vaishyas, one Kayastha and one Bhumihar. All of them won from their respective constituencies. In Bihar, too, the party employed a tactic similar to their strategy for Uttar Pradesh—pulling non-Yadav OBC castes such as the Kurmis, the Koeris and the Nishads to its side. The BJP even organised a national convention, in Patna, for its OBC cadre. The agenda was to educate party workers about the Modi government’s various welfare programmes for the OBC community, to enable cadre-driven messaging to voters. The convention was called off due to the Pulwama attack, but the campaign material, such as pamphlets and information leaflets, had already been disbursed by then.
Devashish Jarariya, a Congress spokesperson for Madhya Pradesh from the Jatav community, told me that Modi was reinforcing the savarna narrative on caste, which has long existed among the upper castes, but has gained prominence over the last five years. “Upper castes have a leverage to deny the existence of caste whereas lower castes do not. Unfortunately, the former’s is now the prevailing view of caste in the country, and from that point of view, the prime minister is right.”
Another Congress leader, an upper-caste Muslim man and a district coordinator for eastern UP, told me on the condition of anonymity that the BJP had always projected a savarna view of caste, veiled by a discourse of development. “If BJP has to speak something against reservation for SC, ST and OBC, how would it say? Woh kahenge vikas desh mein peechhe chala gaya hai iss wajah se”—They will say development in the country has regressed due to caste. He added, “They will say this day and night but the truth is they themselves win elections because of caste.” According to him, the BJP convinced non-Yadav OBCs in Uttar Pradesh that “look you are neither in the police nor do you become a sub divisional magistrate. Ahirs”—Yadavs—“are on all the posts. And the same they did with non-Jatav communities to pull them away from BSP”—the Bahujan Samaj Party. “That’s how they formed their own samikaran”—caste equation.
Christophe Jaffrelot, a political scientist, and Verniers, while analysing the data collected by the Trivedi Center, confirmed this trend of savarna dominance. The data proves that over the last decade the representation of upper-caste members in the parliament has gone up, while the OBC representation has eroded. According to an article they wrote in the Indian Express, the return of savarna dominance started in 2009 but “the Modi wave of 2014 has confirmed it and the last elections have resulted in a certain consolidation of this come back to the pre-Mandal scenario.” In the 1990s, when the government led by the former prime minister VP Singh implemented 27 percent reservation for OBC communities, the percentage of OBC members of parliament doubled from 11 percent to 22 percent “at the expense of upper castes.” However, in this year’s election, according to the Trivedi Centre’s data, 232 upper caste members or 42.8 percent—a number highly disproportionate to India’s upper-caste population, which was pegged at 15 percent according to the 1931 caste census of India—were elected. Upper castes also dominate the Modi government’s cabinet. Of the 58 cabinet ministers, 32 individuals—or 55 percent—are from upper-caste communities, including nine Brahmin members.
In addition, their analysis of the results in all the Hindi belt states shows that out of the BJP’s “199 candidates, 88 were from upper castes this year … BJP has nominated 88 upper caste candidates out of 147 non-reserved seats in the Hindi belt and 80 of them have been elected.” They further note that this trajectory of the rise of upper-caste representation in the parliament correlates to the rise of the BJP—“an upper caste dominated party that has received the support of the savarna, precisely to contain the rise of OBCs.”
Yadav, the RJD general secretary challenged Modi’s narrative. “If the prime minister says his party had nothing to do with caste to win the election, then why did his cabinet minister Ram Vilas Paswan’s son Chirag Paswan fight on a reserved seat—Jamui Lok Sabha constituency—in Bihar?” Yadav said, “Woh apne SC candidate ko general seat par ladwakar dikha dein, hum maan jayenge caste khatam ho gaya hai”—Let him field an SC candidate from a general seat and win, then I will accept that caste is finished.
Of the total 545 Lok Sabha seats, only 131 seats are reserved for the SCs and the STs while 411 are general constituencies on which candidates from any community, including SCs and STs, can be fielded. According to an article published in the Economic Times, the BJP fielded only two Dalit candidates from general seats, and the Congress nominated three persons.
The Congress district coordinator laughed off Modi’s statement on caste and said, “Woh toh khud apne ko pichda, ati pichda bola hai chunav mein”—Modi himself said that he belongs to a backward, extremely backward community during the election. He was referring to Modi’s speech during a rally in Kannauj in Uttar Pradesh where he said, “Meri jati itni choti hai, itni choti hai, gaon mein ekak ghar bhi nahi hota. Aur main toh pichda nahi, ati pichde barg mein paida hua” —My caste is so small, so small that only a few from the community lived in the village. And I was born not only in a backward class, but in an extremely backward class.
The analyses by academicians, the political data and my reporting suggest that the BJP used its social engineering of caste to win the election, yet the prime minister wants the nation to believe that the BJP got votes due to his work and not caste. The district coordinator told me that the politics of caste will never go away in the country. “He became PM only five years ago lekin jo cheez paanch hazaar saal se chal raha hai, wo cheez koi khatam kar payega?”—But something that has been going on for over five thousand years, will anyone be able to end that? “Bharitye rajniti finallyjaati se hi toh hoti hai”—Indian politics is finally conducted through caste.