The BJP banks on the collective resentment of the upper castes in the north, who expect the restoration of an ancient social order in which they are on top.
The shoedown: BJP MP Sharad Tripathi hit BJP MLA Rakesh Baghel with a shoe in Sant Kabir Nagar, UP, last month. (Photo: Rajesh Rai)
The rise of the BJP ahead of and after the 2014 general election has been marked by the strong resurgence-or the further increase-of the representation of traditional elite groups across states, particularly those where the BJP won massive victories. In the Hindi belt, the upper castes obtained a representation that they had not achieved since before Mandal (42.7 per cent in 2014 against 32.4 per cent 10 years before).
In the Uttar Pradesh assembly, the overall representation of the upper castes jumped from 32.7 per cent in 2012 to 44.4 per cent in 2017. In Haryana, the cumulative representation of dominant groups (Jats and upper castes) has risen from 52 per cent to 62 per cent after the 2014 state election. In the current Assam assembly, nearly one BJP MLA out of two (47 per cent) is an upper caste, against 33 per cent among all MLAs.
Even in states where the BJP did not perform very well, traditional elite groups have increased their hold on elected assemblies by virtue of being highly over-represented within the BJP. In Bihar, 54 per cent of the BJP MLAs are upper caste, against 21 per cent in the overall assembly. In Rajasthan, 57.6 per cent of BJP MLAs belong to dominant groups, against 53.7 per cent overall. In Madhya Pradesh, 53 per cent of all BJP MLAs belong to dominant groups, against 47 per cent total.
In Karnataka, the representation of Lingayats in the last election went up from 24 per cent to 28 per cent, largely due to the BJP’s elitist nomination strategy (65 per cent of Lingayat MLAs are BJP). Lastly, in Gujarat, 51 per cent of BJP MLAs are Patidars or upper castes, against 34.6 per cent of all Congress MLAs.
This state of affairs contradicts the claim that the BJP has become an inclusive social rainbow platform. Since 2013, the BJP has systematically campaigned on the theme of inclusion of the excluded-mostly lower OBCs and Dalit groups who traditionally do not find much representation among caste-based parties, and are usually aligned with some local dominant group or another.
An examination of the BJP’s record as far as the representation of non-dominant groups is concerned reveals that few non-dominant OBC or non-Jatav SC castes find political space within the saffron party. In the 2017 UP assembly, the BJP distributed half of its tickets to upper-caste candidates (48.2 per cent) against 31.2 per cent to OBC and Jat candidates. Among these, two-thirds of the tickets were given to members of dominant groups (Jats, Yadavs, Kurmis and Gujjars). The rest was split between a number of small groups, such as Nishads, Rajbhars, Kushwahas, Lodhs, among others, who each received a handful of tickets, usually given to leaders of small local allied parties. The story is similar for non-Jatav Dalit candidates. Thus, the group of castes the BJP needs to rely on the most-the non-Yadav OBCs and the non-Jatav Dalits-receive a token representation at best.
The Rise of the Elites
What is the significance of this phase of assertion of traditional elites under the BJP dispensation? First of all, the phenomenon is not limited to elected assemblies. Since assuming power in 2017, the UP government led by Yogi Adityanath has been on a nomination spree of Thakurs in various institutional domains. Be it zilla parishad elections, SHO nominations, promotion of civil servants or of cops in particular, Thakurs have received a preferential treatment from the Yogi administration. Before the December 2018 elections, five out of seven BJP chief ministers in the Hindi belt were Thakurs.
The perception of a fast-growing ‘thakurvad’ across the Hindi belt has fuelled resentment among the non-upper-caste allies of the BJP in the state, and among pro-BJP Brahmins in general. The infamous ‘shoe incident’ in which a BJP Brahmin MP clashed with a BJP Thakur MLA last March was seen as an act of cathartic retribution by many Brahmins in the state. The perpetrator of the viral ‘shoedown’, Sharad Tripathi, became an instant celebrity and proceeded to Lucknow in a motorcade of 200 vehicles to state his point.
On a more serious note, the assertion of traditional elites across the North has also been accompanied by violence, often targeting Dalits. In UP, the Hindu Yuva Vahini, essentially a Thakur organisation Yogi Adityanath founded in 2002, has greatly expanded its reach and activities, filling the void in the criminal space left by gangsters who have been eliminated, arrested or driven out by the government’s drastic encounter policy. This blatant favouritism of the BJP towards traditional elites goes directly against its promise to do away with the kind of caste-based preferentialism usually associated with its regional opponents.
This serves as a good reminder of the fact that the BJP’s success in recent years is not solely buoyed up by voters among the lower segments of the population, but is also backed by the consolidated support of members of traditional elite groups. Many among the latter have harboured deep resentment over the years against the rise of backward classes in state and national politics, and what they perceive to be an undue displacement of their traditional status and authority. The BJP banks on the cumulative resentment of large segments of upper castes across northern India, segments that are expecting a restoration of sorts of an ancient social order in which they occupy the highest positions.
In fairness, the BJP is not solely responsible for the high representation of upper castes across the Hindi belt or for the over-representation of powerful intermediary castes beyond. Throughout India, these groups have been generally and historically over-represented, particularly in western India, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. Many of the strong regional parties in the South-the Telangana Rashtra Samithi, Telugu Desam, YSR Congress Party, Janata Dal (Secular)-are dominated by one or more locally powerful castes: Reddys, Kammas or Vokkaligas. In Maharashtra, Marathas have routinely occupied between 40 per cent and 45 per cent of the assembly seats and are well represented across major parties.
In large bipolar states, the BJP and Congress both pursue the same strategy of co-opting candidates from locally dominant groups, tending as a result to be largely undifferentiated sociologically. Even in UP, the few MPs and MLAs the Congress managed to get elected have largely been upper-caste representatives.
The success of the BJP’s electoral formula, however, has encouraged other parties to emulate its pro-elite bias. In UP, as of now, the Congress has distributed 35 per cent of its tickets to upper-caste candidates (against 47 per cent by BJP). In the recent state elections in Rajasthan and MP, the Congress matched the pro-elite strategy of the BJP.
What this Means
What are the implications for electoral politics more broadly, and what does this phenomenon say about the functioning of democracy in India? One can list at least five lessons or observations.
First, the fact that major parties recruit their candidates within similar pools of regional and local elites tends to homogenise the sociology of the political class as a whole. An important aspect of this elitist recruitment is that within dominant groups, parties tend to select rich, self-funding candidates who invest in politics for a variety of motives that do not always coincide with the general interest. The caste-based elitism of representation is therefore compounded by the economic background of the candidates, which further deepens the existing disjuncture between the representatives and the represented.
Secondly, the elitism of the parties’ candidate recruitment aggravates the marginalisation of non-dominant groups. Lower OBCs receive token representation. Minorities also suffer from the caste- and economic-based elitism of parties (beyond the BJP’s communal bias). It is no accident that many small parties or splinter groups of larger regional parties are often based on some marginal caste or community that cannot find adequate space within larger political formations.
Third, women’s representation also suffers. There are many reasons why parties specifically marginalise women as candidates. But the general rules of the game-high cost of entry and the elite bias of parties-also prevent many women from entering politics.
Fourth, if one accepts the assumption that the job description of elected representatives consists more of acting as effective mediators between segments of the electorate and whatever resources-public or private-they can obtain, rather than discussing legislations in the House, then the fact that representation at the highest level tends to be captured by relatively small groups necessarily has consequences on the local distribution of public goods, or access to public services for many citizens.
Finally, this disjuncture between representatives and citizens might account for the strong proclivity of voters to reject whoever they had elected in the past poll, what is known as anti-incumbency. Regardless of aggregate electoral outcomes and party performance, most elections in India see many seats changing hands and the majority of elected representatives losing after a single term. The new MP assembly counts for only 31 re-elected MLAs in a house of 230.
There is more to anti-incumbency than simple anti-elite sentiments, but the fact remains that parties exert such tight control over the supply of candidates that they can shape it the way they wish. The BJP, through its progression, has shaped representation with its own biases, the way the Congress used to do when it was itself in a dominant position. This sobering portrait of India’s political class should lead us to question the emancipatory promise of electoral politics in India as well as the claims of inclusion made by political parties.
(Gilles Verniers is assistant professor of Political Science and co-director, Trivedi Centre for Political Data. Views are personal.)