BJP Experimented With Its Brand of Caste and Religion-based Politics in 2014 and Cemented it in 2019

The BJP's nationwide campaign to turn the idea of social justice and affirmative action into a model of selective development in now firmly entrenched.

New Delhi: With the Bharatiya Janata Party improving its 2014 tally, Amit Shah’s words have come true. On the day when the campaign for the 2019 elections ended, he had told reporters that the party will get more than 300 seats alone and will not need the support of any other organisation.

The Congress has been decimated yet again, but perhaps it will marginally improve on its 2014 figure of 44. Although it ran an energetic campaign on livelihood issues for the poor, its demotivated cadres and its overall indiscipline could not match up to the highly-centralised political messaging of the BJP.

The saffron party projected the election as a referendum on Narendra Modi, and the prime minister indeed emerged vindicated.

With this victory, the saffron party has cemented its brand of identity politics.

Tracing the BJP mandate

In 2014, soon after Narendra Modi was declared the party’s prime ministerial candidate, the BJP ran a nationwide campaign to turn the idea of social justice and affirmative action into a model of selective development.

It attacked the Congress and regional parties – like the Samajwadi Party, Rashtriya Janata Dal and Trinamool Congress – for being “Muslim-friendly” parties. It alleged that these parties worked only for Muslims and were only concerned about whether or not they have the support of the Muslim community.

Although the socio-economic condition of Muslims were abysmal across north India, as was demonstrated by the thoroughly-researched findings of the 2006 Sachar committee, the BJP narrative managed to thrust a political wedge among people along religious lines. The BJP successfully created an impression that while Muslims had enough bargaining power in politics  – courtesy the “pseudo-secular” parties – the Hindus would remain the neglected lot.

This new styling of the old Hindutva narrative, directed against the Congress and other caste identity-driven political parties, worked for the BJP in 2014.

After 2014, the BJP worked hard to reach out to non-dominant caste groups of India. It realised that caste-based political parties have evolved to rely primarily on its core vote bank of one dominant caste group – Samajwadi Party on Yadavs, Bahujan Samaj Party on Jatavs, Rashtriya Lok Dal on the Jats of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana Congress on the state’s Jats and Maharashtra Congress on Marathas.

The core vote base of these parties have ensured their victories from time to time, depending on how broad-based a social engineering formula they applied in different elections.

Also read: Live Election Results 2019: Rahul Gandhi Congratulates Narendra Modi on Victory

The BJP tried to consolidate the non-dominant OBCs and Dalits everywhere. As political analyst Sajjan Kumar says, they not only gave them political representation but also ensured they got a slice of public resources, that were earlier only shared by the politically well-represented dominant caste groups.

The beneficiaries of the BJP’s strategy were innumerable caste groups like Dhanuks, Mauryas, Sakhyas, Dhobis, Khatiks, Rajbhars, Pasis and so on, which were numerically smaller than the dominant OBC and Dalit caste groups but formed a majority when put together. Having found representation and, thus, a new bargaining power, they backed the BJP in whatever it said and did.  

When the saffron party foregrounded national security, they were behind it. When it ran a “minority appeasement” campaign against the opposition, they supported it. The BJP just had to choose what it wanted to campaign on. Invariably, it picked classic Hindutva issues which polarised society further.

The Sangh parivar’s umbrella doesn’t just comprise of upper caste groups, but also many new communities. While the BJP did not change its politics, it definitely shared power with diverse groups. By denying tickets to minorities, it had an extra kitty of seats which it distributed among the hitherto poorly-represented caste groups.

Sajjan Kumar says that the mix of traditional Hindutva with an anti-dominant caste narrative gives an unprecedented advantage to the BJP in electoral politics. Its recent campaign on the Balakot airstrikes only consolidated its base, which appeared a little scattered in the assembly polls of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh.

Most commentators rightly criticised terror-accused Pragya Thakur for calling Nathruam Godse “a patriot”. However, what lay beneath it was Thakur’s visceral hate for Mahatma Gandhi – and for the last 50 years, the Sangh parivar has covertly demonised Gandhi on various counts. In informal conversations, it has propagated many falsehoods about Gandhi, the most recent being how Ambedkar was happy when Gandhi was killed by Godse.

With a base so large – as indicated by its almost 50% vote share – the valorisation of Godse may have actually worked in the BJP’s favour.  

Such consolidation of Hindus can throw up interesting electoral results. A candidate like AAP’s Atishi, who campaigned on issues like education and health, came as a distant third in her east-Delhi constituency. Or student leader Kanhaiya Kumar, who took on the mantle to speak about the rights of the poor and civil liberties of Indian citizens, lost by a huge margin in Begusarai.

So, how did the BJP pull it off this time?

But let’s be clear on one front: the vote for Modi and the BJP is not an apologetic one. Many people have said that the majority wanted to give Modi another chance, but that is clearly not the case.

A few instances would make this clear. In most constituencies of Delhi, the BJP’s vote share is greater than the combined vote share of Congress and Aam Aadmi Party. So, do those observers who were decrying the failure of the two parties to forge an alliance and saw it as the reason for a possible BJP victory need to rethink? Probably, yes.

For those minority rights activists who thought that Kanhaiya Kumar – by contesting as a third pole in Begusarai – actually denied a Muslim candidate Tanveer Hasan a chance to represent his community in the Lok Sabha, this result could be a lesson. The fact that Giriraj Singh, the rabid right-wing leader known for his controversial statements, polled almost double the votes than Kanhaiya and Hasan put together exemplifies this lesson.

Similarly, the Congress-JD(S) alliance also did not work against the might of the BJP fighting alone. Those who were upset with Congress not becoming a part of the alliance in UP may derive little relief from the fact that Congress was almost rejected in India’s most populous state and its president, Rahul Gandhi, also losing from Amethi. Although the alliance swept away most opposition votes, it was not enough in front of BJP’s almost 50% vote share.

Also read: Are We in for a Foundational Shift in India’s Nationalist Imaginary?

You may call it a ‘Modi wave’ or what have you, but most political factors were stacked in favour of the BJP. A large section of observers and journalists, including this correspondent, failed to see this.

The BJP’s strategy to turn the election into a presidential style poll worked, but none of this would have happened without the hard work the party put in on the ground over the last few years. The clarity of a large section of electorate to see Modi as the next prime minister reflects in the outcome.

At the same time, the opposition leaders – despite being more or less united – could not keep their individual prime ministerial ambitions a secret. Several loose statements by them on the question of who could be the next prime minister only fed the electorate’s confusion.

In fact, the very thought of a Dalit leader like Mayawati becoming India’s next prime minister put off many who fall on the liberal side of the political spectrum.

For those who voted BJP, the choice was clear. It was Modi versus “Don’t know who, could be Mayawati too”.

The BJP experimented with its unique mix of caste and religion-driven identity politics in 2014 and  has cemented it in 2019. The excitement of that success showed in the wave-like outcome.