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Is India’s North-South Divide a Challenge to Hindutva?

It is no mystery that social justice and Hindutva are hurtling towards a definitive show down. A battle with no middle ground and the taking of prisoners, most unlikely.       
Protests were held in various parts of the city by cadres of DMK led opposition parties and pro-Tamil groups wearing black dress with black flags and black balloons. Credit: Twitter

Suddenly, the North-South divide in India has become a political hot potato. The main claim rests on the fact that, as opposed to the North, citizens in the South are better educated, economically better off and are marked by a less antagonistic history of cultural assimilation. The blunt political assessment being that the entire southern region is a naturally outside the reach of the Bhratiya Janata Party (BJP) and its majoritarian Hindutva ideology.

On the other hand, what if the North-South divide actually points to a much deeper struggle between two competing visions for India? Consequently, the mandate from the general elections of 2024 will be but a mere event within a larger societal upheaval.             

In any case, election mandates can easily turn sour. The Indian National Congress (INC) led United Progressive Alliance’s (UPA) comfortable win in the general elections of 2009, in fact, proves the point. Between 2010 and 2014, not only did the INC fail to draw the links between emerging digital technologies and politics but lost the ability to gauge the popular mood in India, especially amongst the upper castes. To be fair though, those very same years witnessed tectonic political shifts across the world with several countries embracing ‘right wing populism’.

The contemporary populist turn, in a nutshell, refers to so called ‘strong leaders’ gaming liberal democracies by weaponising majoritarian and supremacist identity politics. But critical to these populist triumphs was the maturation of social media, big data and increased internet and mobile penetration.

Dilip Hiro, The Age of Aspiration, The New Press (2015)

Investigative journalist Dilip Hiro in his book The Age of Aspiration (2018) notes how the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) was alert to the political significance of data and even set up its first Information Technology (IT) unit in as early as 2010, called the National Digital Operations Cell (N-DOC). This dedicated IT outfit, soon enough, assembled a large database and during the 2014 Indian general elections specially deployed a cyber army to impact 155 urban constituencies, labeled as ‘digital seats’. 

The embrace of IT also masterfully complemented the turnaround of the Indian corporate houses and in drawing support from the non-resident Indian diaspora through the Overseas Friends of the BJP (OFBJP). Ultimately, the BJP ‘s 2014 election campaign juggernaut ended up outspending the ruling INC by 4:1.

While, in terms of issues, development and corruption dominated the messaging for the 2014 general elections and national security won the votes in 2019, it is becoming apparent that the BJP intends to win 2024 mainly on the plank of Hindutva: broadly defined as an ideology that seeks to establish the cultural and political hegemony of ‘Hindu nationalism’.

Hindutva’s imagined social coalition is supposedly made up of all castes and groups that have historically evolved under the umbrella of Hinduism. According to the 2011 census of India, close to 80 % of the population identifies as Hindu. The BJP on its own received 31 % of the votes in 2014 and which jumped to 38.4 % of the total votes in the 2019 general elections. And, from the standpoint of Hindutva, an even greater augmentation of numbers is expected to be realised in the coming 2024 elections.

It is important here to remember that the INC, at the height of its political sway, rested on a ‘core social coalition’ that comprised upper castes (nowadays often referred to as general category), Dalits or Scheduled Castes (SC), various communities listed as Scheduled Tribes (ST) and minorities (Muslims, Christians, Sikhs). This social coalition of the INC along with other caste combinations at the regional level proved fairly durable from the 1950s up to the late 1980s and was sustained with notions about the mixed economy, secularism and the ethos of the freedom movement. From the mid-1990s, however, in the wake of India’s robust embrace of economic liberalisation, the INC’s core social coalition began to wobble and suffered its lowest with the stunning en masse exit of the upper castes into the eager arms of the BJP in 2014.   

 BJP and a problem called Hindutva

Despite the BJP’s spectacular electoral successes in recent years, managing a social coalition on the appeal of Hindutva still remains a fraught project. For one, as Pankaj Kumar in a recent piece reminds us, creating a social and cultural unity around ‘hindu-ness, nationalism and development’ greatly depends on how material contradictions between different castes are hidden from sight. Kumar, in particular, spells out how the BJPs success in recruiting subaltern castes comprising the Other Backwards Castes (OBCs), Extreme Backwards Castes (EBCs), SCs and the STs depends greatly on ‘culturalisation’: side stepping caste hierarchy and domination by creating belonging and identity. 

BJP supporters hold up Modi posters. Photo: X/@narendramodi

Besides culturalisation, the second strategy for the BJP involves transforming the subaltern castes into labharatis (beneficiaries) of various schemes that involve the transfer of cash or kind (food grains and other subsistence items), just before voting. For public policy researcher Yamini Aiyar, however, these ‘labharati schemes’ neither foster citizen-rights nor strengthen public services such as education, health or nutrition. Instead, the poorest across the class and caste spectrum get politically demobilised and are rendered into passive recipients of state largesse through the rubric of public welfare.

While culturalisation, labharti-ism and the BJPs powerful organisational capacity have ensured a string of electoral wins, tensions remain. Particularly when dealing with the challenge of social justice. Take, for instance, the November 2022 judgement of the Supreme Court which upheld reservations for the Economically Weaker Sections (EWS), introduced through the Constitutional 103rd Amendment Act, 2019. Strikingly enough, the judgment excluded SC, ST, EBC and OBCs from availing of the EWS quota, even though these castes comprise some of the most economically disadvantaged. In effect, the EWS has been turned into a captive preserve for the upper castes. The obvious political implication being that social justice involves zero-sum outcomes. The gains of one caste can only happen at the expense of another caste. 

This realisation that all castes are not equally placed on the grand stage of Hindutva also explains the BJP’s ambivalence on the caste census. A census that could be particularly troubling in revealing the intensity of caste-based and caste-caused inequality that runs across a range of socio-economic indicators. Bihar’s caste survey data released in 2023, for example, not only laid bare how skewed economic opportunity and access to social capital was amongst the different castes and communities but, more pointedly, in the inadvertent implications from the percentages. If one added numbers comprising the OBCs (27.12%), EBC (36.03%), SC (19.65%) and the ST (1.68%), then, in theory, a total of  81.47 % of the population could be mobilised under the social justice platform rather than be drawn into the folds of the Hindutva project.

Also read: Need of the Hour: A Selfie Called Caste Census – India Must Confront its Truth

It is no secret that the upper caste interests and their anxieties colour the BJP’s Hindutva project. What is widely touted as a quest to unite the ‘embattled’ Hindu identity involves, in practice, the dexterous and troubled politics for assembling ‘Hindu solidarity’ in the form of a social pyramid, where the upper castes or general category elites are expected to dominate the apex while the other castes are ‘ritually adjusted’ within a descending order.

But securing the top position and not allowing the pyramid to crumble is no easy task either – an inherent fragility that Ravinder Kaur’s brilliant monograph Brand New Nation (2020) compellingly alerts us to. Kaur notes how the INC suffered stiff upper caste disquiet just as neoliberal globalisation policies were supposed to be working in their favour. Following a robust push via new market logics for rural to urban migration from the mid-1990s onwards, the upper castes unexpectedly found themselves jostling against the urbanised aspirations from incoming waves of SC and OBC rural migrants. And as decent middle-class jobs became scarcer, upper castes’ anxieties became even more palpable over their growing vulnerability to the constitutionally guaranteed system of the universal franchise (one person one vote). That is, the belief that their social, economic and cultural dominance might not prevent them from becoming politically marginal within India. This widely perceived political irrelevance from the politics of numbers, however, is a story that had already played out in the South, not as anxiety and fear but as fact. 

The North-South divide and the INC

Throughout the 20th century, innumerable subaltern caste struggles for social emancipation and economic upliftment have reverberated across South India, with Dalit and tribal movements still bitterly fighting, even to this day, over their continued oppression. What remains a striking feature in the social landscape is the dramatic transformation of several erstwhile peasant or Shudra communities into ‘dominant castes’.

Harish Damodaran,
India’s New Capitalists,
Palgrave Macmillan (2008)

Harish Damodaran in his award-winning book India’s New Capitalists (2008) meticulously documents how former cultivating castes such as the Kammas, Reddys, Rajus, Nadars, Kongunad Naidus, Gounders and the Ezhavas adopted an entrepreneurial route, throughout the 20th century, to set up factories and inevitably enabling their entry into the corporate boardroom. Their businesses spanned a huge spectrum: manufacturing, food processing, engineering goods, construction of dams and public highways, telecom, ports, mines and even investing in film production. 

In subsequent writings, Damodaran describes the years between 1991 and 2011 as India’s closest tryst with ‘free-market entrepreneurial capitalism’. Not only was the overall environment one of optimism and conducive for risk-taking but it also prodded diverse ethnic and caste backgrounds to take up entrepreneurship. The rise of South India’s dominant castes, moreover, was also coterminous with coalition politics at the Union level and vibrant regional parties in the states. 

Since 2014, however, the swagger and shine of these ‘Andhra-preneurs’ has all but faded. A raft of shock and awe policies such as demonetisation, the hurried implementation of the GST (Goods and Services Tax) and the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code (IBC) has undermined the competitive edge of many medium and small businesses. For journalist M. Rajashekar, India Inc in recent years has been brutally winnowed through ‘a giant fire sale’, wherein debt strapped businesses have been picked up by a handful of buyers at less than competitive prices, causing the ‘largest change in ownership patterns since independence’. To several, this post-2014 emergence of muscular monopolies, rigged markets and the run of oligopolies, ineluctably harkens India’s return to the previous domination by ‘Bania-Brahmin’ businesses. 

It is amidst what some would term a counter-revolution of sorts, that the INC’s decisive wins in the Karnataka and Telangana state elections opens the possibility for reconfiguring itself as the party of the OBC and dominant castes. And in contrast to the BJP’s social pyramid, the metaphor for the INC can be the image of a wheel with the dominant castes/OBCs holding the centre and spokes radiating outwards to meaningfully connect with SC, ST, minorities and an array of other political groupings. This socially rejigged INC can then choose to be realistic about their previous equations with the upper castes, even as they provide the intellectual heft to transition its newly assembled OBC-led alliance system from earlier regional moorings to one that is prepping for a national role. That is, transform the OBCs and dominant castes from being regional satraps into a pan-India leadership, a preserve that was held only by the upper castes.   

Clearly, two competing visions have been thrown up. On the right is the BJP’s attempt to balance its social pyramid by principally defending the interests of the upper castes. Though the ‘ritual adjustment’ of other castes within the folds of Hindutva have produced several stunning electoral wins, these arrangements are inherently fragile and prone to crisis as it depends greatly on the BJP’s ability to sustain strong man politics and continually ensure India’s democratic backsliding. On the other hand, along the center-left spectrum, a socially reconfigured INC, as the party of the dominant castes/OBC, is now ideally positioned to pursue social justice as an inclusive nation-making project. 

Turning the wheel for social justice and inclusion, however, will greatly depend on how the INC can galvanise the Indian constitution for bringing about change through democratic negotiations.        

The inauguration of the Ram temple in Ayodhya and the Bharat Jodo Yatra 2.0 (the theme unsurprisingly being Nyay or justice) clearly tells us that the outcome of the Indian general elections of 2024 will be but a mere blip within a larger protracted battle. It is no mystery that social justice and Hindutva are hurtling towards a definitive show down. A battle with no middle ground and the taking of prisoners, most unlikely.       

Rohan D’Souza teaches at the Graduate School of Asian and African Area Studies, Kyoto University, Japan. 

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