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How BJP is Trying to Divide Bahujans to Avert Its Biggest Threat

The BJP appears to have a strategy in place to manage the challenge the bahujan constituency represents.

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Bahujan consolidation is the greatest political threat to Hindutva. The indifference of Adivasis, Dalits, backward classes and religious minorities – the bahujan – towards it ensured that the Bharatiya Jan Sangh, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) predecessor as Hindutva’s political arm, remained a niche presence, and if it weren’t for the inroads the BJP has made among some of these groups over time (thanks to its own savvy and the disappointments its rivals have caused), it would not be in the position it is today.

However, the BJP can hardly afford to be complacent. Large sections of the bahujan continue to be wary of Hindutva’s subordinating tendencies; the demonetisation experiment and the woeful pace of job creation have led to a sense of betrayal among those who bought the acche din promise; and, the systematic and often violent targeting of Dalits and Muslims by pro-Hindutva groups in recent times can only have hardened anti-BJP sentiment among them.

Encouragingly from the BJP sympathiser’s perspective, the party seems aware of its shaky grip over the bahujan constituency and appears to have a strategy in place to manage the challenge it represents.

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Faux Nationalism to Prevent Bahujan Consolidation

The (faux-) nationalism plank is one element of the strategy. It aims to yoke together essentially disparate groups by fanning paranoia around dwindling respect for national symbols, projecting phantom threats to Indian culture and unity, and appropriating (in some cases, rubbishing) the legacy of yesteryears’ heroes. ‘National’ and ‘Indian’, of course, are conflated with ‘Hindu’.

The second element of the strategy involves preventing the emergence of a bahujan bulwark.

Preventing bahujan consolidation, the BJP realises, is the next best thing to achieving it, for such are the numbers stacked that even a partial bahujan consolidation favoring anti-BJP forces in 2019 may prove enough to deny Narendra Modi a second consecutive prime ministerial term.

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Courting carefully identified social groups is the cornerstone of the ‘divide bahujan’ agenda. Hence, Amit Shah’s hobbnobbing with influencers, including seers, with clout among specific groups, and the sustained effort to expand the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in states where the BJP does not have a significant organisational footprint yet. The idea is to either add a crucial ‘plus’ to the BJP’s existing base, or at least make a dent in the Opposition edifice.

In the more competitive Hindi heartland states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, the BJP approach is more evolved, centering around wooing leaders and parties who may have reason to be upset with the dominant space certain groups have come to occupy in more established Mandalite and Dalit formations.

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BJP’s Confidence in the Two-Pronged Strategy

The BJP’s confidence in this two-pronged strategy is bolstered by its impressive show in the 2017 UP assembly elections. One end of its campaign, of course, was shored by talk of love jihad, pink revolution, shamshan-kabristan, etc.

A parallel, perhaps more electorally-rewarding project involved outreach among the Samajwadi Party’s (SP) non-Yadav and the BSP’s non-Jatav supporters, via the welcome of disgruntled state and local level SP and BSP leaders into the BJP fold and alliances negotiated with small parties. 

The split of the Muslim vote between the SP and the BSP did the rest.

The recent embrace of Nitish Kumar in Bihar is also consistent with this, predicated on the hope that Nitish’s presence in the NDA will break the formidable voter alliance that Lalu Prasad Yadav, Nitish and the Congress managed in the 2015 Assembly elections. Much to the BJP’s disappointment, its allies Ram Bilas Paswan, Upendra Kushwaha and Jitan Ram Manjhi, didn’t quite bite enough of the vote pie then.

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The recent Union Cabinet decision to set up a national-level commission to examine the sub-categorisation of Other Backward Classes (OBCs) has potential for political leverage too. The Commission is mandated to recommend the re-working of reservation quotas in central government jobs for specific groups within the existing cap of 27 percent, ostensibly to ensure that benefits flow beyond the creamy layer to the extremely backward classes.

In practice, its recommendations, at least in the short-term (read: the run up to 2019), could pit the OBCs against one another, further fracturing the OBC vote and leaving sections of it amenable to the BJP’s overtures.

The BJP’s support for ending the practice of instant triple talaq can also be seen from this prism. While the Supreme Court judgment that ended the practice is welcome, it is not difficult to imagine the motives behind the weight the BJP lent to the cause. Besides being a signal to its loyal voters that the party hadn’t forgotten its core agenda, there would have been the hope that a wedge, however thin, could be driven between progressive and non-progressive elements in the Muslim community.

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BJP Isn’t the First to Exploit the Caste Sentiment

To be accurate, the BJP isn’t the first party to exploit nationalist, caste and religious sentiment for narrow political gain.

Having said that, it is the first to manipulate these in the service of an agenda that is ranged against the liberal and egalitarian moorings of the Constitution of India and nurses aspirations of restoring a hierarchical Vedic era order.

Also, the BJP, because of a unique constellation of circumstances, including a driven and smart top leadership and an Opposition struggling with imagination, credibility and inertia issues, appears to be enjoying considerable success in its efforts.

Any plan to take on the BJP juggernaut in 2019 must root itself in galvanising the bahujan. Historical and/or local antagonisms between – and the BJP’s entrenchment among – certain social groups, plus the dynamics of state-level politics, may make it tough to bring all bahujan under a single anti-BJP coalition, but the challenge must be taken up if the BJP’s hegemonic designs are to be countered and the idea of India is to be reclaimed.

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The trials faced by India’s poor, oppressed and disadvantaged since 2014 – and prescriptions to respond to these – provide the opportunity to weave the compelling counter-narrative which the Opposition has been rightly chastised for lacking so far. In other words, the discourse needs to go beyond anti-BJP positions and secular/ communal divisions, and refer to a larger story of disempowerment, erosion of constitutional protections and selective privileging.

At another level, even a partial bahujan consolidation would require every single Opposition party to step out of its comfort zone, re-engage with groups they have ‘lost’ and accommodate such groups in decision-making structures. Crucially, forces will have to combined setting aside past differences so that energies aren’t dissipated and synergies can be achieved on ground.

The Congress, the largest Opposition party, is better placed than any other to anchor the effort, but the time has come to explore collective leadership if the Congress inertia continues. There is too much at stake to let things drift.

(Manish Dubey is a policy analyst and political columnist. His second work of fiction, a novella titled 'A Murderous Family' has recently been released by Juggernaut Books. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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