Opinion: Be it Rajput or Yadav, Maratha or Dalit; this time the centre of the tide among castes is only BJP.

Ronit Kawale
Ronit Kawale - Senior Editor
7 Min Read

Authors: Bharat Hun and Uday Chandra
This year's elections have exposed new avatars of caste that will surprise both critics of Indian politics and admirers of social life. The grievances are also different in every state.

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Rajput taking oath

The presence of the Karni Sena in Amethi along with former Congress chief minister of Rajasthan Ashok Gehlot has created curiosity among the people. The Karni Sena, which demands reservation for Rajputs, has been touring North India and organising oath-taking ceremonies in which participants vow not to vote for the BJP.

There is controversy over the caste identity of Mihir Bhoja, a medieval ruler of western Uttar Pradesh; was he a Rajput or a Gurjar, as recently installed statues suggest? In other parts of Uttar Pradesh, BJP voters are divided over whether their Rajput leader Yogi Adityanath has been sidelined by those in power.

In Gujarat, a Union minister's statement about Rajput rulers colluding with the British has sparked widespread outrage. In Rajasthan, young Rajput leader Ravindra Singh Bhati, denied a BJP ticket and challenged the party candidate as an independent candidate. These separate campaigns have connected with each other through digital media and are fuelling Rajput anger against the Modi government.

Jat, Maratha, Yadav alliance

In Rajasthan and Haryana, Jats demanding OBC status have rejected the BJP and supported the Congress-led alliance, while Barmer, Jhunjhunu, Sirsa and Bhiwani-Mahendragarh witnessed a surprisingly close contest. However, it is not clear whether Jats in western Uttar Pradesh will follow this path or not.

Maratha voters in Maharashtra are supporting the opposition, blaming the state government for not granting OBC status. Yadavs in UP and Bihar have historically voted for regional parties dominated by Yadavs, but a large section of them is also inclined towards non-Yadav candidates. The caste counterparts of Yadavs in Haryana and Madhya Pradesh, who have voted for the BJP in recent elections, may also support Bharat. Like Rajputs and Jats, Yadavs are also organizing in new ways in the states due to anti-incumbency.

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Mandal politics is back!

These developments are being seen as a return to Mandal politics after a decade of Hindutva dominance. It is this greed that has led opposition parties to campaign for caste census in far-flung states like Karnataka and Bihar. But there is a lot of difference between the present times and the days of the Mandal Commission.

First, the BJP is in power at the Centre at the moment. Its political strategy so far has been to divide the OBC and SC groups and give a new edge to Hindutva through the newly formed groups. The BJP under Modi talks to leaders of each group separately, even giving them important positions like policy making. In return, the sub-castes of the reserved categories may prefer to enter the corridors of power rather than suffer political resentment for the next five years.

Second, new economic pressures are now driving the politics of dominant peasant castes such as Rajputs and Jats. Caste-based reservations have led to people from OBC, SC and ST backgrounds making greater progress than the dominant groups in rural areas of north India. In contrast, agriculture is no longer as lucrative or prestige-boosting as it once was. Castes that previously valued farming are now clamouring for jobs as it has become a guarantee of financial security. This is why the Modi government has tried to satisfy the wishes of the rural elite by creating the EWS category.

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Third, the caste survey in Bihar has given rise to demands for similar surveys in states from Karnataka to Maharashtra and Telangana. However, so far only the opposition coalition has supported it. The Congress has proposed a nationwide caste census to guide national welfare policies and remove caps on reservations.

The BJP has ignored the issue. Like in Karnataka, it has sometimes mentioned a Muslim sub-quota in OBCs. But the BJP has missed a major political opportunity to emerge as the voice of the subordinate castes in Bengal or Tamil Nadu. The promise of a caste census based on the 'as many people as they have' approach could have destabilised regional parties in these states.

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Emergence of smaller ethnic groups

These elections seem to promise the beginning of an era of a new democratic rebirth of caste. On one hand, Brahmins and Rajputs may join hands with Dalits or Adivasis under the larger banner of contemporary Hindutva. On the other hand, rifts among OBC and SC groups may give rise to a new wave of anti-BJP politics. Both trends may play out simultaneously in different states, throwing up many unexpected electoral possibilities.

We need a new approach to understand these conflicting trends across North and South India. As India emerges as a society of many differentiated middle classes with varying levels of uncertainty and security, caste pride and anger are becoming dominant ways of demanding welfare and social security benefits.

Shifting political coalitions within and outside castes are now vying for power. These are demanding policies that pit fragments or smaller groups against each other rather than entire caste groups. In this new game of snakes and ladders, social justice for some may lead to social destruction for others. Therefore, we are forced to wonder whose rights are at stake and whose justice is at stake?

Bharat Hun is a social anthropologist. Uday Chandra teaches politics and history at Georgetown University in Qatar.

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