Sachin Pilot’s New Challenge? To Juggle ‘Caste and Modernity’

Challenge before Pilot is to walk the tightrope between his caste-oriented self and his Lutyens’ alter-ego. 

Updated
Opinion
6 min read
Image of Sachin Pilot used for representational purposes.
i

Being Sachin Pilot is not easy in Indian politics today. But that could be the best thing that has happened to the youthful leader from Rajasthan, whose unseemly ouster as deputy chief minister and state party chief by the Congress party, has evoked mixed reactions. As this is being written, we are not sure what his next steps will be, though the first-up tweet from him suggests defiance of the party leadership – which, if the history of the Indian National Congress since 1969 is anything to go by, is an exit from the organisation.

Those who are quick to associate him as an impending ally of the Congress's bitter opponent, the BJP, or as one playing into the Hindutva party's hands, somehow are already throwing mud at him or writing him off. There are others who think the 42-year-old's exit might mean ‘political suicide’, because the Congress is as good as it gets for him.

One Can’t Fit Sachin Pilot Into A Classic Mould – Here’s Why

One habit that won't die easily in the Hindi belt is the back-of-the-envelope arithmetic based on caste votes. As a leader of the Gujjar caste and a son of the late Rajesh Pilot from the Dausa Lok Sabha seat, the caste mantle falls easily on the young Pilot's shoulders. But folklore has it that the father shed his caste surname (Bidhuri) because he wanted to fly – something that must have endeared him to the late Rajiv Gandhi, a pilot-turned-PM whose ministry he was a part of.

The more astute would recall that the elder Pilot, as a minister of state for home under Prime Minister Narasimha Rao, was more of a party man than a Nehru-Gandhi family loyalist. Pilot was seen as a Rao protege for some time, and later teamed up with Pawar for a while in the 1990s. Sachin, as a young inheritor, is now a chip off the old block.

Though very much an anointed scion in the same mould as Rahul Gandhi, Jyotiraditya Scindia or a Milind Deora, Pilot is increasingly showing himself to be his own man.

Now, what exactly does this mean? In more than one sense, you cannot fit Sachin Pilot into a classic mould – and that could be the best thing going for him, if he can take the courage and put in the chutzpah and hard work required.

Snapshot
  • In more than one sense, you cannot fit Sachin Pilot into a classic mould – and that could be the best thing going for him, if he can take the courage and put in the chutzpah and hard work required.
  • As a leader of the Gujjar tribe, he fits in as a community leader of a socially disadvantaged caste.
  • Yet, as a graduate of St Stephen’s College, Delhi, who later went to the world-class Wharton Business School in Pennsylvania, Pilot is a Lutyens’ kid.
  • The challenge before Sachin Pilot is to walk the tightrope between his caste-oriented self and his Lutyensian alter-ego.

‘Both Sachin Pilots’ Must Stand Up – Together

As a leader of the Gujjar tribe, he fits in as a community leader of a socially disadvantaged caste. His ability as a party strategist, to win power in Rajasthan against the Modi-Shah-led campaign in the last assembly election in 2018, is still part of folklore, underlining his ability as a hard-as-nuts leader.

Yet, as a graduate of St Stephen's College, Delhi, who later went to the world-class Wharton Business School in Pennsylvania, Pilot is a Lutyens’ kid. What's more, he married the daughter of Jammu & Kashmir's golf-loving modern Muslim politician Farooq Abdullah. It doesn't get fancier in the Westernised liberal lexicon. The kind the saffron brigade would label as the ‘Khan Market Gang’.

Pilot can hold forth in an English debate and spew the local rhetoric in aapno Rajasthan.

Here’s the catch: it is best if both these Pilots know how to stand up together.

Because just one won't last in the post-Modi era, in which – like it or not – the BJP has rewritten the rules of the game.

What Should Sachin Pilot’s Next Steps Be?

Pilot is most certainly not an Akhilesh Yadav of UP or a Tejaswi Yadav of Bihar, to don rustic robes and play on kinship as a vote-bank inheritor. A finer parallel would be with Supriya Sule, daughter of Sharad Pawar, who is trying to make her own mark in Maharashtra and New Delhi.

Pilot's caste group, the Gujjars, are, as a community, spread over Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Delhi and even Jammu & Kashmir. As an upwardly mobile socially disadvantaged community, the clan of traditional goatherds sits easier with the socially affirmative plank of the Congress or the Left, than with the Hindutva ideology that puts Hindu unity above pro-active efforts to lift up disadvantaged castes in a modern society.

The challenge before Sachin Pilot is to walk the tightrope between his caste-oriented self and his Lutyensian alter-ego. 

To do this, he has to raise his sights and stakes.

In Rajasthan, the Gujjars are only an interest group in a complex political puzzle in which the princely Rajputs, tribal Meenas and former Jats jostle for power and pelf. It is simply not in Pilot's personality to play small-time political rummy in the desert state. Some reports suggest that Pilot's humiliation by Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot was in the rejection of his requests for transfers and postings of government officials – in addition to a failed wrestling match for cabinet posts to be given to Pilot's camp mates.

Era Of Simplistic Rummy Politics Is Over

It would be counter-productive for Pilot to play that game too long because, under PM Modi, national politics has been converted into a more complicated game in which appeals based on governance, national security and a fight against corruption is helping the BJP buttress its Hindutva plank.

Caste politics has certainly waned. In UP, a grand alliance between the Dalit-oriented Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) led by Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav-led Samajwadi Party fell miserably in 2016, suggesting that simplistic rummy politics may be over.

It is time for Sachin Pilot to play at once some poker and bridge – or nation and caste, as it were. 

The BJP deftly manages (from the right-wing) a mix of caste-based moves with an appeal to higher nationalist ideals. Somebody has to do the same from the left. The Congress, under now-resigned president Rahul Gandhi, tried and failed because it could never overcome a mix of mudslinging and hyper-nationalism thrown at it by the BJP.

Things may have changed now. Modi's second term has been met by the coronavirus pandemic and its disruptive impact on the economy. If that is combined with an expected anti-incumbency mood, the game is wide open.

Sachin Pilot Must Project Himself As a Well-Intentioned National Figure

If the rise of Jagan Reddy 's YSR Congress in Andhra Pradesh, and Arvind Kejriwal's Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi, is any indication, India's Gen X and Y voters like to give fresh faces a chance. Pilot could play that game, keeping in mind the long haul that may be required.

To minimise his risks and maximise his gains, he has to choose his words, promises and allies carefully – not letting go of his caste-base and yet, being himself as a modern Gujjar, not a grumpy lord of old-world goatherds.

Pilot's oratory and administrative grasp evidenced in TV appearances are quite substantial – something discounted by his critics.

If he can turn that into a charismatic package and project himself as a well-intentioned national figure, there might well be a lure that appeals to younger voters and fence-sitters.

Sharad Pawar was in a similar mould as a Maratha figure circa 1990, and he projected himself as a national leader and rose to be the defence minister – and nearly became PM.

Pilot may do better, because a younger, restless India is more willing to transcend clan kinship – though it would be naive to wish away caste-based politics.

A modern Gujjar who went to Wharton may be more aspirational as an idol for heartland Indians than a rummy politician counting posts and postings. The spoils system is not very scalable for an ambitious leader.

Which party Pilot does this in or for is relatively less important – though it must be said that his past and his personality suggest that Hindutva may hit his political neck more than a ‘Gehlotine’.

(The writer is a senior journalist who has covered economics and politics for Reuters, The Economic Times, Business Standard and Hindustan Times. He tweets as @madversity. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(The Quint is available on Telegram. For handpicked stories every day, subscribe to us on Telegram)

Published: 
Stay Updated

Subscribe To Our Daily Newsletter And Get News Delivered Straight To Your Inbox.

Join over 120,000 subscribers!