How Narendra Modi is disrupting the well-entrenched systems of caste patronage in state after state.
Congress folklore has it that H.N. Bahuguna (former CM of Uttar Pradesh) while introducing a young Raja of Manda as a balancing factor to Raja Dinesh Singh of Kalakankar had apparently remarked to Mrs. Gandhi “do not underestimate him based on his physique, given a chance he would encounter even you”. Indira, a consummate politician that she was, never forgot that advice but her son Rajiv’s naiveté managed to unleash a monster of unprecedented political opportunism.
Rajiv was faced with a challenge to find a replacement for Pranab Mukherjee in the cabinet. For, he suspected Mukherjee to be ambitious enough to thwart his own ascendancy to the Prime Ministership after Indira’s assassination. V.P. Singh, the not-so-young-anymore Raja of Manda, still carrying that diminutive physique and stenciled mustache was hence unwittingly chosen to head the Union Finance Ministry.
Rajiv’s decision backfired immediately as Singh, a born-again socialist, led a crackdown on various industrial houses using the draconian license-permit Raj powers and gave Rajiv another opportunity to commit another blunder. The then Prime Minister promptly moved Singh to the Defence Ministry where he openly started to talk about arms procurement frauds including the very infamous Bofors scandal.
The greatest contribution of V.P. Singh in demolishing Congress came about a couple of years later when he unleashed the Mandal forces on a hapless Indian polity. Mandalization has ensured that Congress party would never again find a foothold in the Hindi heartland which in turn has meant that no Gandhi after Rajiv could ever occupy the highest political office of the land.
Mandalization not only demolished Congress party’s hold in north India but also created an inflection point in the nascent history of Hindu awakening of an ancient civilization. Indeed, many political thought leaders widely believed that the Ram Mandir revolution propelled rise of the BJP was checked by an equally strong countercurrent of backward caste awakening.
It took a couple of decades more for BJP to discover a development icon in the form of a leader belonging to an extremely backward caste. One, who extracted Mandal assertion as a smaller subtext of the larger Hindu identity. The primary feature of Narendra Modi’s rise has been the dissolution of caste identities even while religious assertion has gained currency. It is in this context that we have widely analyzed and understood the phenomenon of United Spectrum of Hindu Votes over the last two years. Now is probably the right time to critically scrutinize our demographic stance.
After the unprecedented Lok Sabha victory in 2014, BJP had also managed to emerge victorious in all the state elections barring the exception of the city-state of Delhi. After winning these state elections, the party seems to have made a conscious decision to avoid catering to the demands of the dominant caste of that particular state and instead concentrate on the larger Hindu unity.
For instance, in Maharashtra, not only did BJP not bow to the local demands of Shiv Sena, but also refused to be cowered by the dominant Maratha caste and instead chose Devendra Fadnavis, a Brahmin, as the chief minister of the state. Similarly, in Haryana, for the first time in 18 years, a non-Jat has been nominated as the first saffron CM.
History tells us that dominant middle and upper castes tend to remain restless outside the power matrix. Understanding the power wielded by dominant castes is a fascinating study of patronage across India; the tools may vary but methodology remains the same. For instance, in Maharashtra, the Marathas control various agrarian cooperative bodies which have kept them at the top of the power matrix for a long time. Similarly, in Karnataka, Lingayats run a whole host of prestigious educational institutions through which they wield their patronage system. In Haryana, the Jats control the agrarian labour market to exert control over society. In Gujarat, Patels hawk over the trade networks to derive power.
To a large extent, Modi’s rise has also come about in the form of a disruption to these patronage networks. What is often labelled as “young new India” by various political commentators is uncomfortable to conform to such societal norms as symbolized by these patronage networks and consequently have found expression in their support to Modi. That contract between young India and Modi has remained more-or-less intact as recent electoral data shows.
Despite widespread negative narrative by the media, a combative Congress party and the combined onslaught of various opposition groups, BJP has still remained the first choice of voters across India from Madhya Pradesh to Rajasthan to Karnataka. It is indeed fascinating to note that BJP’s United Spectrum of Hindu Votes, including dominating middle castes, has also remained structurally intact.
Two simple examples of this continuing support of powerful middle castes can be seen in Rajasthan and Karnataka. In Rajasthan, BJP’s victory in the civic polls was mainly because of Rajput votes while in the BBMP polls of Bangalore, the dominant Vokkaligas broke free from the patronage system of the ruling party to support the BJP. In fact, such a rebellion by a dominant caste against a ruling dispensation hasn’t happened in nearly 35 years in Karnataka.
An even more fascinating result has come from the very unlikely state of Kerala. In the Aruvikkara assembly by-poll, BJP managed to increase its vote share by a whopping 343% while Congress and CPM increased votes by merely 0.6% and 0.4% respectively. In fact, in comparison to 2011 election, 26,000 young new voters were added to the rolls in this assembly segment which exactly corresponds to the 26000 extra votes that BJP secured in the by-polls. This confirms our analysis about young new India breaking the patronage systems to support Modi in his endeavor to rediscover India.
One common feature of all these recent electoral achievements of BJP in the last few weeks is the transmission of the Modi electoral current to the local BJP leaders – from an established face like Shivraj Singh to a neo-political entity like R. Ashoka. It is in this backdrop that the Patel agitation in Gujarat comes as a jarring note. What is even more intriguing is the fact that Gujarat has a Patel Chief Minister for the first time since 2002.
The Patidar community makes up for some 17% of Gujarati population and has a strong political presence in Saurashtra. It is a well-known fact that a powerful section of elite Leuva Patels have never forgiven Narendra Modi for dislodging Keshubhai Patel. Fact also is that despite BJP’s stupendous electoral performance in the state for more than two decades, Congress has still managed to secure some 40% of the vote share throughout this period. A small sub-section of anti-BJP Patels have been part of that 40% vote-share. Thus there are two possible questions that arise out of this Patel agitational approach.
The first question is of local nature. Has Hardik Patel (and his backers) only amalgamated anti-BJP forces or has he broken new ground in Gujarat? Unfortunately the answer to this question will not come out of the media noise which has its own agenda to try and belittle Modi at every available opportunity. Instead, we will have to wait for a few more months when local body polls will give us a greater indication of any demographic trend.
The second question has larger implications for Modi and BJP. Is this Patel agitation a part of the larger systemic reaction from the patronage networks which have been disrupted by the Modi juggernaut? Fortunately for the BJP, very recent electoral snapshots do not suggest such a trend.
Whatever the current status and future implications of the nascent Patel agitation in Gujarat, Modi must never forget that H.N. Bahuguna advice to Indira Gandhi – do not underestimate the ambition of an opportunist based on his physique or age.