How India's New 'Mezzanine Elite' Classes Enable Majoritarian Politics

Neither economically weak caste Hindus nor upwardly mobile Dalit-Bahujans represent the majority of their respective communities. Yet both wish to speak for their social segments.

A significant change in India’s social and political scene in the last few decades has been the emergence of ‘mezzanine’ or intermediate elites.

Mezzanine elites are not the traditional social elites who combine economic power with social status and are close to political power. Instead, they primarily comprise two social groups: the economically weak caste Hindus and the upwardly mobile lower-end and marginalised caste groups.

Economically weak caste Hindus represent the rhetoric of the dominant castes, while upwardly mobile Dalit-Bahujans have come to represent anti-caste politics. Neither group represents the majority of its own ilk, but each wishes to become the voice of its social segment. Thus it is essential to examine the mezzanine elites and understand the part they play in the majoritarianism of Indian politics.

Poor, but caste proud

We do not have statistics on the percentage of the economically weak within the forward castes. But the Act intended to provide social justice to the economically weaker sections (EWS) of society has helped articulate the anxiety of the poor from the dominant classes in relation to the uplift of the under castes.

The dominant castes occupy all significant positions in the bureaucracy, judiciary and many other professions. A sizeable section of these castes however is economically vulnerable. At the very least it could be said that their economic position is at odds with their perceived social status. This group not only thinks that caste-based social justice does not represent them, but genuinely believes it is delivered at their cost.

This pushes them to social conservatism; to exaggerate their caste pride to the extent of taking it to the brink of hatred and violence. A caste census, not just of the Other Backward Classes (OBC), but of the forward castes too, would give us a more precise picture of the size of this group and the deprivation they might be suffering. After that, we can discuss how to include them in the politics of social justice and how to rescue them from their bitterness towards vulnerable castes and religious minorities.

Desire for dominance

At the other end of the spectrum are the newly emergent middle classes among the Dalits and the OBCs. They too produce a rhetoric of caste that does not represent the majority of the Dalit-Bahujan section of society. They need to be seen as a specific social constituency that has emerged from the benefits of reservations, but does not necessarily represent those they have left behind. Nor are they in a position to understand the strategies necessary for the uplift of others from their social background.

This group mostly has demands that suit its own class location. For instance, it demands education in English, but not a public school system. It demands reservations in the private sector, but does not speak about jobless growth. It also reproduces the culture of the dominant caste Hindu middle class and does not necessarily produce a new cultural lifestyle of anti-caste politics.

Reservations have benefited about 6% of Dalits, leaving behind the majority. Reservations alone cannot help those who have been left behind, but the mezzanine Dalit-Bahujan elites have no demands that can help the rest, except to argue that further enhancing the social power of the existing elites will gradually result in a trickle-down effect on the others.

This newly emergent mezzanine group desires political power, but reduces anti-caste politics to the question of representation and numbers without a social and economic agenda for those left behind.

Also read: Caste Is the Achilles Heel of Hindutva Politics

No real inclusion

The demands of the Dalit-Bahujan mezzanine elites suit both the traditional elites and the cultural nationalist-majoritarian politics that has taken over India today. This means we need to make better sense of the interface between majoritarian politics and the mezzanine elites. The mezzanine elites represent two extremes, with a heightened anti-caste rhetoric at one end and anxiety caused by democratisation at the other end. Neither of these extremes provide real avenues of inclusion.

Anti-caste politics speaks in the name of all Dalit-Bahujans, but actually represents the interests of only a tiny minority of mezzanine elites. In fact, for Dalit-Bahujans, it even circumscribes the kind of people who matter. For instance, migrants do not matter for either Dalit or OBC mobilisation, even though the majority of the migrants who walked thousands of kilometers to their homes during the 2020 lockdown were Dalits and lower-end OBCs. Some 38% of the migrants were OBCs, but neither OBC-based social justice parties nor independent middle class entities reached out to them.

A sizeable section of the migrants in that long march was also from poor intermediary and forward castes. But they neither matter in traditional caste Hindu mobilisation, nor as part of social justice politics. Instead, they become sources of justification for the further consolidation of the social and economic power of the traditional social elites.

Mezzanine forward caste elites have no real avenues of moving up to join the traditional elites, but can symbolically identify with them through a common mobilisation. It is possible that they find their self-representation in the rhetoric of the ‘historical injury’ of aggrieved Hindus. The Hindu identity provides the succour of rhetorical inclusion without necessarily providing any concrete avenue of social and economic mobility. It provides notional inclusion, psychological succour and cultural belonging, which are more empowering than caste or class politics.

Voices of their own

The material roots of cultural majoritarianism are located in the divisions within the lower and upper ends of society. There is no real political discourse that manages to articulate the demands of these left-behind social groups. The traditional socially dominant classes usurp the demands of the mezzanine elites within the forward castes and the mezzanine elites within the Dalit-Bahujans usurp the demands of precarious under classes and castes. In between is a void that is being filled with cultural nationalism.

To mobilise against majoritarian politics, these left-behind groups need to speak for themselves. The simple rhetoric of political power and the imitation of the traditional English-speaking middle classes cannot possibly represent the demands of the precarious underclasses among the Dalit-Bahujans. Similarly, the overbearing representation and privileges of the dominant castes cannot count for the underprivileged within them.

Ajay Gudavarthy is an associate professor at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.