Caste in India will never be annihilated. Hindus are condemned to bear it from birth till death, and even after. Though the nation has witnessed numerous social reform movements and the virtues of the modern Constitution, alongside the promises offered by the growing capitalist expansion, the caste monster has not died. It reappears in our quotidian affairs. To build a casteless India is on nobody’s political agenda today, including that of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The recent announcement to implement reservation in the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) by the current BJP-led government has, therefore, not surprised many. It is being seen as a strategic move to assert the BJP’s pro-OBC character in the upcoming Uttar Pradesh Assembly election. For the continuous upheaval of the BJP in north Indian states, it is a must for the party to retain its newly garnered social base amongst the Other Backward Classes (OBCs). Under the leadership of Narendra Modi, the party has been promoting its image as a protector of Dalit-Bahujan interests, and with this announcement, the BJP wants to promote such an impression. However, the question of social justice is beyond such petty promises, which are often made just to win elections.
The OBC population in India is bigger than the combined population of the United States and Canada. In the post-Independence period, various national governments failed to enumerate OBCs in the national Census, and therefore, figures for their exact population are unverified. However, with the help of other institutional mechanisms (such as the annual NSSO surveys) and detailed studies by various national commissions (such as the Mandal Commission), there is an estimate that the OBC population is equivalent to half of India’s total population. But ironically, in political, cultural and economic spheres, such a massive population has an insignificant presence, and most public affairs are exclusively controlled by the hegemonic power of the social elites.
Collapse Of A Powerful Struggle
The first significant political challenge to the conventional ruling classes in Independent India was initiated under the maverick leadership of Periyar Ramasamy in Tamil Nadu. It initiated a radical critic of the Brahmanical caste order and challenged the hegemony of social elites in modern institutions. In the mid-1970s, the agrarian castes of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Haryana and Karnataka were mobilised under J.P. Narayan’s powerful slogan of ‘Sampoorna Kranti’ (total revolution). The period witnessed the arrival of young socialists like Chaudhary Charan Singh, Lalu Prasad Yadav, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Devi Lal and Ram Vilas Paswan as promising Dalit-Bahujan leaders to carry forward the struggle for social justice. However, within two decades, the phenomenal Janata Party/Dal euphoria fizzled out, as the party splintered into a dozen factions. The high hopes that the Dalit-Bahujan mass can rule the nation and provide substantive meaning to India’s democracy seemed like a short-lived dream.
The failure of social justice politics allowed space for the right-wing party to emerge as a new alternative for the Dalit-Bahujan masses. Though the BJP started its political campaign with an anti-Muslim communal agenda, it was not enough to bring electoral success at the national level. In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, Narendra Modi’s impressive elevation in the BJP ranks added new characteristics to Hindutva politics. First, it prioritised the neoliberal capitalist agenda and made development a major plank to attract the urban middle classes and youth. Second, it introduced a new brand of ‘social engineering’ to bring the Dalit-Bahujan masses under its clout. In Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, it is the BJP’s new caste politics that led to such emphatic victories in the last two general elections.
BJP's Rise Has Scuttled The Movement
But the BJP’s elevation as a party of the Dalit-OBCs has significantly damaged the prospects of the social justice movement. First, the BJP’s social engineering program has no intention to uproot the evils of the caste system — it is just a strategy that exploits social fragments for political benefits. For example, it is an open secret that in Uttar Pradesh, the BJP has commissioned special programs to mobilise the Rajbhar, Pasi, Dhobi, Khatik and other Dalit castes as a counter to defeat the Jatav-led Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). Similarly, amongst OBCs, it posited the Mauryas, Kurmis and Lodhs as the flagbearers of Hindutva politics against the dominant Yadavs. It is this Machiavellian politics that exploits social fragments unscrupulously and retains the conventional caste antagonisms for electoral victories.
Second, the BJP’s association with the Dalit-Bahujan masses is strictly electoral and we are yet to witness its impact on improving their social relations and class conditions.
The representation of OBCs in the employment sector, especially in state institutions, is way below the constitutional mandate. The representation of OBCs in faculty positions at Central universities is below 3%.
Further, other influential spheres of power, like big businesses, entrepreneurship, media, cinema, sports and national culture have long been dominated and managed by the social elites, who allow the Dalit-Bahujan communities to have only minor or occasional representation.
Tokenistic Representation For Dalit-Bahujans
Third, though the BJP claims that it has politicised and mobilised the subaltern and powerless Dalit-Bahujans sections (often called Most Backward Castes or ati-Dalits), a cursory view would reveal that such politicisation has not brought any substantive change in their socio-economic conditions and educational status. A majority of these groups still survive in the most precarious conditions and remain excluded from the basic human entitlements of health, social security and hygienic living spaces. During the recent waves of COVID-19 infections, India witnessed the failure of the state machinery to provide even the basic facilities and security for their dignified survival.
Finally, because of deep social and regional fragmentations, any possibility of having an independent political alternative by an organic Dalit-Bahujan collective is severely dismissed. The BJP has not only reintroduced the hegemony of social elites in democracy, but it has also relegated Dalit-Bahujans to being mere passive recipients of tokenistic benefits extended by the ruling classes (like the current decision on NEET, or the rhetoric that the current Cabinet has 28 OBC Ministers). The Dalit-Bahujan leaders function as allies, alibis, vote-banks and active foot soldiers of the Hindutva ideology. But in the distribution of powerful political assets, such as important portfolios in the Cabinet or chief ministerial berths, they are mostly neglected.
Social justice politics was aimed at promoting the Dalit-Bahujan masses as equal and dignified participants in the corridors of power. It is generally expected that because they form a majority of the country’s population, their significant presence must be reflected in political and economic affairs. However, the current dispensation forgets such ideals of social justice and treats the Dalit-Bahujan mass as a perpetually poor subject of the state’s welfare activities.
(Harish S. Wankhede is Assistant Professor at Centre for Political Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)