What did Dr. Ambedkar want? The title of his most famous book makes it quite clear. The Annihilation of Caste. He was not a man who would mince his words.
Today as the nation remembers Dr. Ambedkar on his 129th birth anniversary, let us go beyond the token tributes and ask the really important questions. Who in contemporary India really stands against casteism? And who stands to gain the most when Hindus are divided on caste lines?
The answer is fairly obvious. In 2019, the opposition to Modi had no clear leader and no coherent agenda. The opposition had only one backup plan: casteism.
In Uttar Pradesh, the BSP and the SP had been poles apart for decades. But the arch rivals decided to fight the 2019 election in a Gathbandhan. Not only the two parties themselves, there was also intense pressure from within the liberal ecosystem for the two parties to come together. Nobody wanted to ask what two regional parties, with a total footprint of around 80 seats, had to offer in terms of a national agenda. Instead they added up the share in population of Yadavs and Dalits and decided that, along with Muslims, this was a winning formula.
In other words, Uttar Pradesh was presented with a clear choice. Modi vs caste.
Incidentally, the Congress stayed out of the alliance, seemingly for strategic reasons. It was expected that the Congress would put up upper caste candidates, thereby cutting into the BJP’s votes. That way, the Congress could be more useful outside the alliance than inside it.
Caste, caste, caste… they had nothing else to offer.
In Maharashtra, India’s second most populous state, the strategy was quite similar. All through the 2014 to 2019 period, there were a number of attempts to provoke the Marathas against so called ‘Brahmin rule,’ a direct reference to the caste of then Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis. When that didn’t work, the ultra left set up flash points like Koregaon-Bhima. Memories of a 200 year old war with Maratha soldiers on one side and Dalit soldiers on the other were used to provoke violence in January 2018.
In the caste conflict planned by the left, the winners would neither have been Marathas nor Dalits. The winners would have been Lutyens liberals who had been writhing in pain since losing the 2014 election. Just like the Battle of Koregaon in 1818, where the real winner was the British East India Company.
Like the British, the ‘secular’ opposition bats on the side of a different caste group in each state. In Haryana, they are all about consolidating the Jats against a Chief Minister who happens to be a Khatri from Punjab. But doesn’t the Congress also have huge stakes in Punjab? Who cares? Different states, different demographic combinations, but the same policy of Divide and Rule.
It gets better. Sometimes, the caste strategy of the secular opposition can reverse itself between two successive elections in the same state. In PM Modi’s home state of Gujarat, the strategy was to stop the BJP using Hardik Patel. Incidentally, there are two subgroups among Patels : Kadva Patels and Leuva Patels. Now, Hardik happens to be a Kadva Patel. This means that the Congress 2017 Assembly election strategy was built around courting Kadva Patels, projecting Modi as pro-Leuva Patels. This is ironic, because the 2012 Assembly election strategy of Congress was all about courting Leuva Patels using the newly formed Gujarat Parivartan Party (GPP) and projecting Modi as pro-Kadva Patels.
This may seem funny, but it really isn’t. Because this is the kind of pathetic politics that has kept India from becoming a superpower.
The creativity of casteist politics does not end here. In Karnataka, the Congress is up against B S Yediyurappa, who happens to be a Lingayat. So in 2014, the ruling Congress in Karnataka decided to bring a bill that would allow them to take over religious mutts, the obvious targets being the Lingayat mutts all across the state. But the bill was met with fierce protests and it fell through.
With Plan A failing, the Congress did a perfect U-turn on caste politics in Karnataka. Plan B was to stop fighting the Lingayats and instead project the party as their savior. Just before the 2018 Assembly elections, the party announced hastily that Lingayats were now a separate religion and thus entitled to benefits of being a minority!
When Plan B didn’t deliver good enough results, the Congress came up with Plan C. Ally with the JDS and secure the votes of the Vokkaliga caste!
If only all this creativity had gone into nation building instead of playing one caste against another.
I could go on and on about other states, how the ‘secular’ opposition plays caste politics in Bihar, in Andhra Pradesh and so on. But you get the point.
Caste is a system of hereditary privilege. When we examine any system of privilege, we have to ask : who benefits?
With all its talk of social justice, the Congress got away with over six decades of submission to a single upper caste family from the Hindi heartland. Incidentally, the Congress did have a Dalit President for a while in Sitaram Kesri. Reportedly, he was locked in the toilet to make way for you know who. By the way, don’t miss the symbolism of the toilet here.
Today, even the most loyal Congress supporter in the world would not bet on Rahul Gandhi, except perhaps to show off his “janeudhari” status. No! The politics of India’s secular opposition runs on casteism.
In 2019, India rejected the politics of caste. That was one step towards fulfilling Dr. Ambedkar’s dream.