Hindutva has done more for upper-caste politics than what was thought possible: Satish Deshpande

Rishi Kochhar For The Caravan
26 July, 2019

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s victory in the 2019 general election has largely been interpreted as the triumph of nationalism over the politics of caste. The basis of this interpretation is the perception created by the BJP that the party stridently represents the ideology of nationalism, which has enabled it to build a massive social base comprising a medley of castes with conflicting interests. In 2019, the BJP is said to have mustered even greater support from these castes than before because of the nationalistic fervour generated by India’s air strikes within Balakot in Pakistan. The strikes were conducted in retaliation to a militant attack on a Central Reserve Police Force convoy in Kashmir’s Pulwama district in February.

The BJP is traditionally considered to represent the interests of the upper castes. Yet, the party’s strong showing in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar suggests it succeeded in weaning away a large segment of the lower and middle castes, which have constituted the mainstay of prominent parties in these states—the Bahujan Samaj Party, the Samajwadi Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal. This success has led some to celebrate the death of caste in Indian politics.

Is their celebration premature? To what extent was the backward caste identity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi a factor in the BJP’s victory? In July, Ajaz Ashraf, an independent journalist, interviewed Satish Deshpande, a professor of sociology in the University of Delhi who has written extensively on caste. They discussed the evolution of the BJP’s brand of caste politics and why it is not considered casteist and divisive, in contrast to that of parties which primarily draw their support from subaltern groups. “At the popular level, the kind of people who say they want an end to caste politics, actually want the end of lower-caste politics and a return to upper-caste politics,” Deshpande said. “Hindutva has done more for upper-caste politics than what was thought possible.”

Ajaz Ashraf: What are the implications of the 2019 Lok Sabha verdict on the politics of caste, particularly in large parts of the Hindi heartland?
Satish Deshpande: Academic wisdom tends to be retrospective. In that sense, we will be able to better understand the 2019 Lok Sabha elections a little later. That said, I would say the 2019 elections show that the political role of caste is maturing, becoming more fine-grained.

AA: Contrary to the media narrative, do you think caste is very much alive and working in politics?
SD: Yes, it certainly is. It would be very surprising if it were not so because caste continues to shape our society. What matters in society will surely matter in politics. But there has always been a systematic misrecognition of the caste question in modern India, especially in politics. The media narrative reflects and amplifies this misrecognition.

AA: What exactly do you mean by misrecognition?
SD: In most political discussions, “caste” actually means lower caste. It is as if the upper castes are somehow “casteless”—even though they don’t stop enjoying the privileges of their caste status. In independent India, one part of the caste spectrum is hyper-visible; the other part is mostly invisible. The upper castes have largely been able to control their own visibility as castes, whereas the lower castes have been forced into hyper-visibility. This misrecognition, or distorted view, has been systematically reproduced.

AA: What is the origin of this misrecognition of caste?
SD: Its origin is in the fact that Indian independence was a transfer of power from the British elites to the Indian elites—it was not the revolution that it once promised to be. We gained political independence but without any significant change in the social or economic structure. Since the freedom movement was led almost exclusively by the upper castes, they were able to claim power in a seamless way.

Caste discrimination was abolished in principle and in the law, but not in practice. Caste was not just a “social evil,” as it was often called—it was, and is, an entrenched social system, a way of life. But it is impossible to abolish a way of life unless its underpinnings are abolished. A way of life doesn’t just exist in our mind. It has a solid material base. That is why it persists and struggles to live, as though it is a living being. We could not abolish caste as a way of life. We could partially abolish it only as a form of appearance.

AA: Didn’t the attempt to abolish caste as a form of appearance begin in the Nehruvian era?
SD: Yes, in the Nehruvian era, the formal abolition of caste was taken literally. Anyone who talked of caste was thought to be regressive. This didn’t mean that caste stopped working. It continued to produce its effects, namely systematic structural inequality. The evidence of these inequalities and exclusions, especially in the sphere of politics, became undeniable after a few decades. And so we had the Mandal explosion of the 1990s. The Nehruvian silence on caste was already being breached in the 1970s by the Dalit Panthers [an anti-caste movement started in 1972] and by the discovery of caste atrocities or massacres of Dalits across rural India. This is not to say that caste atrocities were not happening previously. These were earlier reported as disturbances, but now acquired the nomenclature of caste atrocity.

But the dominant caste-class coalition continued to cultivate the illusion that the evil of caste was always somewhere else—far away, in villages, for instance. It is because of this that even the so-called “thinking Indian,” who mostly tended to be from the upper castes at that time, was unable to see caste, particularly his or her own.

AA: Was this true of politics as well?
SD: Yes, certainly. If you look at the Nehruvian era, a vast majority of chief ministers were Brahmins. At that point, it was said that these chief ministers just happened to be Brahmins. Yet, it was also an empirical fact that the leadership of all political parties, from the Left to the Right, was mostly Brahmin. Caste was always present in politics.

In fact, the term “dominant caste” is very revealing of the mindset I am talking about. It was not as if castes were not dominant before. But earlier, the castes that were dominant—Rajputs, Brahmins and so on—were supposed to be dominant, and so their dominance did not need to be named. It is only when the “wrong people” acquired power that the need was felt to name them as dominant castes.

AA: Is “wrong people” a reference to the backward castes which began to emerge as a political factor in the wake of the Green Revolution in the 1960s?
SD: Yes. The process of our politics began to mature because of the realisation that the people rule, or at least that they are supposed to decide who rules. And the vast majority of our people have always been lower castes—the upper castes are actually a minority of roughly 15–18 percent of the population. The success of the Nehruvian era was in continuing with the tradition of the minority upper-caste ruling over the mass of lower castes, although this was done in the garb of a modern democracy. At the state level, people started asking why only a few upper castes are occupying the seats of power. They began to ask: Whose government is it? Who are the people? Whose country is it?

These questions were raised in the late 1960s and 1970s, by very astute, hard-working and capable politicians such as Karpoori Thakur in Bihar, Devaraj Urs in Karnataka, and Madhavsinh Solanki in Gujarat. It was, broadly speaking, the long-delayedsocial revolution that could not happen at the time of Independence. However, this form of politics needed two more decades before it was able to arrive on the national stage in 1990, when 27 percent reservation was introduced for the Other Backward Classes, or OBCs.

When we hear talk about “caste politics ruining politics,” this refers to the Mandal phase when the OBCs were seen as running the country for two-three decades. The Mandal phase was the wholesale face, so to speak, of caste politics. When castes comprising the OBCs came into power, they began to face pressure. The already existing differences [in terms of acquisition of economic, social and political power] between them widened. This is what the process of maturing is all about—it is no longer possible to mobilise in the name of “Dalits” or “backwards castes” or similar large groupings. It has to be now more retail.

AA: What do you mean by retail?
SD: In every large caste, there will be divisions, not just because of sub-castes, but also because of class or region or sources of livelihood and so on. This is where political energy comes from. Politics is essentially about fusion and fission. The category of Maha Dalit comes out from Dalits. Or the Most Backward communities come out from the OBCs. These split groups or castes have to be fused at a higher level for a party to win by mustering a majority. Both fission and fusion are needed. The maturing of caste politics thus means that caste is working in a more refined form, using smaller units.

AA: In this context, what does the 2019 electoral verdict suggest?
SD: It suggests that the BJP was better at fission and fusion, at tod aur jod—break and join. It recognised frictions within larger clusters and promised things to those dissatisfied with the existing situation. The BJP read the situation better and practiced a more refined, targeted form of caste politics. It is, therefore, an illusion to conclude from the BJP’s victory that caste is no longer relevant. Pulwama and Balakot were very relevant to the BJP’s victory. But it would be wrong to say that these events made caste go away.

AA: Caste is an aspect of our national identity. Does nationalism contradict caste?
SD: Our nationalism has always made room for the substantive inequalities of caste while denying it formally. I am a product of the Nehruvian era. My father was an engineer in a steel plant in what was earlier part of Bihar. All engineers there were upper caste and mostly from outside Bihar.

If at that time, in the late 1960s, someone had said that all professionals in the steel plant are upper caste, the reaction would have been the same as it was to your piece in The Caravan website that gave out the caste breakdown of the security personnel who died in the militant attack in Pulwama. There was an outrage to it, some of which was sincere.

Today, if you were to write about the caste composition of a public sector unit, it is likely to be considered a legitimate news item. In the 1960s and 1970s, no newspaper would have published it, because steel plants were seen as the temples of modern India. Nehruvian nationalism allowed caste inequalities to flourish, along with sincerity in nation-building.

At a collective level, we need to deceive ourselves to live life normally. It was, therefore, sincerely believed that it just so happened that the right people at the right place happened to be upper caste, that it wasn’t so by design, and that there was nothing systematic about it. But that illusion could not be kept up indefinitely.

AA: How does nationalism work today? Are we still deceiving ourselves?
SD: Yes, in fact that is what nationalism is designed for—to keep a nation together in the face of all the many differences and inequalities that exist in most societies. But it can be more or less toxic according to context.

Today, nations have far less control over their economies and even societies than they had before because of globalisation. There are far less national decisions today than there were before. This is out of sync with the ideology of nationalism. The idea of nation, therefore, becomes more and more abstract, more and more insistent and shrill to prevent questions being asked. It takes the form of whataboutery. Whenever someone raises a question, the response is, “Our soldiers are dying in Siachen.” The goal is to divert and drown legitimate questions with high rhetoric. So, yes, nationalism today is more explicitly covering and denying inequalities and divisions of caste and class, as well as region and religion.

AA: Was the outrage to the caste breakup of those who died in Pulwama because it revealed the social division?
SD: Of course, it was because of that. Nationalism is considered pavitra [holy] and a giri hui cheez [despicable thing] like caste was brought into it. The outrage was a reflex action. It is reflex in the sense that it precludes thought. Society trains us to respond in a particular manner. But we do need, at times, to deceive ourselves. The reality would otherwise be unbearable. The question is: At what cost? And who will pay the cost? Will the cost be shared equally by those who shout about the nation?

AA: Who is paying the cost of nationalism today?
SD: I would say everyone is. But the highest price [of nationalism] is being paid—will be paid—by our young people. Realistically speaking, for the vast majority of them, the future is bleak. It is hard to live with that bleakness.

AA: Is nationalism a kind of intoxicant which makes people forget their bleak present and future?
SD: Yes. But saying that nationalism is an intoxicant implies it is not a necessity and can be given up. In many ways, nationalism is also like water. You need a certain amount of feel-good emotion to reconcile with the harshness of reality. The problem arises when nationalism is made toxic, poisonous, when it is used to manufacture fear and hatred rather than to create unity across diversity.

AA: The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, of which the BJP is an affiliate, is known to have been dominated by Brahmins, who believed in the supremacy of their caste. How did the RSS change its outlook to woo the lower castes?
SD: It is not alone. All political ideologies including the communists have had to overcome their earlier allergy to caste. In the 1990s, the RSS was reluctant to alter its political style and language in order to attract other castes. Its largely Brahmin leadership sincerely believed that they were working for the good of everyone, and that only they had the wisdom to run the country. It was reluctant to engage with the kind of politics that the OBCs and Dalits wanted.

This attitude of the RSS can be traced to the 1930s, when there was a split between the Ratnagiri line and the Nagpur line in the larger Hindutva fold. The Ratnagiri or the Hindu Mahasabha line was represented by VD Savarkar. [The Hindu Mahasabha was a Hindu nationalist political organisation.] He had a very radical line on caste. It was, in fact, too radical for the RSS. His only condition was that the caste of every child at birth should be declared Hindu. He was implacably opposed to Muslims and Christians, particularly the former. He was even ready, unlike others including Gandhi at that time, to break the Dalit versus non-Dalit divide in intermarriage. He led campaigns to get Dalits to enter the garbhagriha—sanctum sanctorum—of big temples on the Ratnagiri coast [in Maharashtra.] With the one condition that everyone should join in this opposition as Hindus, he was willing to do anything for the abolition of caste. The Nagpur or RSS line, which had a paternalistic approach, perceived lower castes as children who were to be placed under the benevolent guardianship of the wise upper caste leadership which would look after the interests of everyone.

Then in 1948, the assassination of Gandhi happened, and it got undeniably linked to the Hindu Right. Both the Mahasabha and the RSS were chased by the state. They were off the political playing field, so to speak, for a long time. When they started to come back, the Mahasabha had lost a lot of ground. The RSS survived much better because it was less radical. It could participate wholeheartedly in traditional institutions such as caste, clan or neighbourhood festivals and gatherings. They did not ask people to change very much and they did not hide their upper-caste culture. In fact, they wanted all castes to adopt it, as long as everyone knew their proper place or their aukaat—status in their society—as we would say in north India.

But on the other hand, in India there are very few public organisations in which you can point to half a dozen men who worked selflessly for decades and did not make money. Like the communists, the RSS had plenty of such men. This is their cultural capital, which they are now trying to invest in wooing the lower castes. This is a challenging task given their base among the upper castes, and their earlier history of resisting electoral or populist logic.

AA: Why has the RSS-BJP’s outreach to the lower castes started to work at the national level from 2014 onwards?
SD: First of all, we have to be careful about treating them as though they are one organisation—they are not, even though today their public faces are merging more and more. Or so it seems. That said, as far as the lower castes are concerned, part of the reason for the BJP-RSS’s success is precisely the kind of breaking down of large caste groupings that we talked about earlier.

A large part of it has to do with the “Modi effect”—the constant making and remaking of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his persona. How many people before 2014 knew he was from the Ghanchi caste traditionally associated with oil pressing? That fact is now well known. As a person from a RSS background, he started with his acceptability to the upper castes and clean image as his initial startup capital, and then in his second and third terms as CM in Gujarat, he added the support of industrialists.

AA: Has Modi’s backward caste identity helped the BJP-RSS to expand among the OBCs?
SD: I don’t think Modi being from a backward caste means much here, it is a rhetorical gesture. It is not as if he is promoting the interests of his caste. Just like Indira Gandhi being a woman did not mean anything for gender politics. She was a degendered person. Modi is a de-casted person. The starting point for Modi was his acceptance by the upper castes. Then the take off point of the Modi story was the solid support of industrialists and financiers—the Ambanis, Adanis, Tatas and others. Minus them, there would have been no Modi.

Today, his equation with the Ambanis and the Adanis has changed completely. Modi’s equation with everyone, including the RSS, has changed. He has changed the Hindutva game. It is now Modi-led, not RSS-led. He has almost become the game. What Indira Gandhi did to the Congress post 1971, Modi has managed to do to the BJP in a fraction of time that she took. He has surpassed Indira Gandhi in every way. Think of the Emergency, which now seems almost innocent compared to what is happening today. Her regime explicitly told the nation in 1975: “We are legally suspending all civil rights and liberties.” Look where we are today when that is not even necessary.

AA: A persistent idea of Indian politics was that subaltern castes will mobilise themselves against the hegemony of upper castes. How has the fanning of aspiration and, therefore, the offer of mobility, which are crucial elements of Modi’s rhetoric, affected subaltern mobilisation?
SD: We often forget how large and complicated our country is. The expectation that subaltern castes will mobilise against the upper castes is a logical one, it is what we would expect to happen under normal conditions. But these conditions are getting more and more intricate because of the differentiations within every group. No identity today is singular or homogenous—it is cross-cut by many other identities, so the overall effect is very hard to predict. It is, therefore, hard to answer such a huge question as yours. But it does seem that the current success of Hindutva-related politics has pushed back the future of lower caste emergence.

This is an ideological battle. You believe in an ideology to the extent it has the strength to overcome the friction that the reality provides. There is always a contest going on between the pulling-down force of reality and the raising force of ideology. Which one proves stronger is a contextual thing.

The Modi regime’s success is in the lifting power of its ideology. It is such that the bleakness of the present and the immediate future is not seen. This is what politicians are supposed to do. In that sense, Modi is a very successful politician. This is also why Hindutva is—it has to be—so loud and shrill, because there is so much it has to cover up or distract attention from.

What we have to avoid is to believe, as the Nehruvian era did, that we have already transcended caste. At the popular level, the kind of people who say they want an end to caste politics, actually want the end of lower-caste politics and a return to upper-caste politics. Hindutva has done more for upper-caste politics than what was thought possible.

AA: Social scientists, Christophe Jaffrelot and Gilles Verniers, have written about how the BJP’s triumphs in 2014 and 2019 have led to the Hindi heartland’s upper castes dominating the Lok Sabha.
SD: It is a return to the Nehruvian era without Nehruvianism—socialism, secularism, the welfare state and non-alignment have been declared outdated ideas. But not the idea of who should be ruling. That old mentality of the Nehruvian era still persists. Modi may have loosened, to a certain extent, the hold of Brahminism in the RSS. But it must also be remembered that Modi has not said anything against it. He is not going to.

AA: The RSS had coined the term “social engineering” for melding different castes. But is social engineering possible without communal polarisation?
SD: Their politics requires both. The question is whether they can ride both horses at the same time. Their effort has been to convert Muslims into new Dalits. I am putting this sharply, even crudely, that it is offering a chance to everyone to be better than Muslims. Dalits can say they are Hindus; they are at least not Muslims. This appears to be the intention, but there is no guarantee that it will succeed. Will Dalits actually accept such an invitation in significant numbers? I don’t think we can be certain about the outcome.

However, there are also castes, which we know as middle and lower-middle castes, whose sense of self is heavily invested in the social distance between themselves and those below them. They are very sensitive to the lessening of that social distance. On the one hand, Dalits are being invited into history and offered positions of apparent equality, the price for which involves opposing Muslims. On the other hand, there are castes for which the offer of equality to Dalits is indigestible. The Hindutva project is to make the anti-Muslim project as one in which everyone can join in, to make it a national project for holding all castes together. This is not an easy task.

The Modi project started off with the promise of economic opportunities as its foundation. If economic opportunities continue to remain unrealised, then the superstructure—Hindutva—will increasingly come under pressure. This will force them to pump up Hindutva more and more aggressively.

AA: Can we still call the BJP a Brahmin-Bania party as it was known? Or do we need a different label for it?
SD: It is like a Brahmin-Bania partnership firm that has gone public, turned into a public limited corporation that is listed on the stock exchange. When it was just a partnership, there was no doubt as to who were the owners. But when you go public, everything goes a little opaque. The caste identities of the CEO and CFO are the same, but ownership is now converted into control. This is a somewhat different thing, because there are shareholders who must be kept happy. And there is the stock market of electoral politics, which can be a source of infinite opportunity, but also of possible disaster.

This interview has been edited and condensed.