In politics, even apparently insignificant incidents matter. Two incidents, which did not find much mention in the national media, have assumed significance against the backdrop of the outcome of the Maharashtra assembly polls and its political implications. The central government, recently, extended aid to two dozen sinking district co-operative banks in the country. Of these, three – Nagpur, Buldhana and Wardha district co-op banks – are in Maharashtra. All the three banks are controlled by Kunbi-Maratha leaders – Sunil Kedar, Rajendra Shingle and Suresh Deshmukh, respectively. Of them, two belong to the NCP and one to the Congress. Sunil Kedar was even elected to the Maharashtra Assembly on a Congress ticket in the last elections while former Wardha MLA Suresh Deshmukh, who contested under the banner of NCP, lost. Union Minister Nitin Gadkari played a key role in saving the three banks from the verge of collapse. Remember that Gadkari himself is a Brahmin and today, another Brahmin leader, Devendra Fadnavis, is the chief minister of Maharashtra.
The second incident is of the murder of three members of a Dalit family in the Ahmednagar district of the state, three days after the poll results were declared. This massacre is said to have been perpetrated by rightists hailing from the upper castes. Vimalsurya Chimankar, a Dalit Panther leader and president of the Samta Sainik Dal, says, “Peshwai is back.” The rule of the Peshwas showed what a direct rule of Brahmins meant as Dalits led a miserable life under their oppression. Mahatma Phule struggled against the hangover of the rule of the Peshwas. Maybe, in this democratic era, Chimankar’s view is an exaggeration but it is not entirely irrelevant either. The question is whether the BJP and its prime minister are really serious about their intention of ending casteist politics and inaugurating an era of developmental politics. The anointment of a Brahmin chief minister in Maharashtra – a state dominated by the middle Kunbi-Maratha caste – and of a non-Jat in the Jat-dominated Haryana seems to be signalling that Modi and his party want to transform the brand of politics that has dominated India since the 1990s and that their preference is for individuals who have a clean image and are committed to development. But sometimes, things are not what they seem.
Before trying to understand the political implications of the first incident or attempting its symbolic analysis, don’t forget that among the five dozen members of the Union Council of Ministers, more than a dozen are Brahmins and that one of the country’s best-known journalists (Rajdeep Sardesai) is exhilarated over two Saraswat Brahmins being made ministers. Just pay attention to the caste composition of the BJP’s candidates in the Maharashtra and Haryana elections and try to analyse the party’s strategy. In Maharashtra, of its 277 candidates (Of the total 288 seats, 11 were allotted to other members of the alliance), 106 were Marathas, 70 were other OBCs while 17 were Brahmins – this when Brahmins form just 3 per cent of the state’s population. Among the 90 candidates fielded in Haryana, 27 were Jats and 17 were from other OBCs. While distributing tickets in these two states, the BJP kept in mind the political equations that have come to the fore after the 1990s, and the strategy paid rich dividends. In Maharashtra, it got 38 per cent of the OBC votes and 52 per cent of the votes of the upper castes. In Haryana, it got 27 per cent of the non-Jat OBC votes. For winning the polls in Haryana, the party wooed caste panchayats as well as the Dera Saccha Sauda, which has a substantial Dalit following. Although the Sirsa-based Dera Saccha Sauda could not fetch even one of the five seats in the district for the party, its support gave the party a psychological edge in the state as a whole.
The exercise to build new caste equations was not aimed at merely winning the polls. It has long-term objectives. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s taking over the reins of the country has enthused the upper crust of society and its organizations have become hyperactive. They are raising new issues every day. The political shrewdness, which is a prerequisite for perpetuating the dominance of the upper castes, is reflected in the fact that a Brahmin politician has emerged as the saviour of three banks controlled by Kunbi-Marathas in Maharashtra. Gadkari did what the Maratha satrap and his political guru Sharad Pawar could never do. The not-so-hidden message is obvious. Under Brahmin leadership, the interests of non-Brahmins will also be protected and preserved. The BJP and its master strategists sitting in the RSS headquarters in Nagpur understand very well that in today’s India, it is impossible to rule without the support of the Dalits-OBCs. The respect with which RPI leader Ramdas Athawale was treated during the run-up to the polls was a part of the strategy to make the people “feel good”. Ultimately, Athawale was not included in the council of ministers.
When the time came for the distribution of the spoils (rewards) of office, the BJP played the politics of tokenism. First, the demand of 15% share in power by Athawale was rejected; secondly,only three OBCs and one SC and one ST were inducted into the new ministry.
When Chimankar makes the remark, he is not thinking of what Bal Gangadhar Tilak once asked: “Will Telis, Tambolis and Kunbahattes (Kunbi) drive the plough in the legislative bodies?” But what he is saying is that, today, people with such mindset are dominating the politics of the state and the country. BJP understands fully well that without pampering caste identities, it cannot achieve its long-term goals. That is why both in Maharashtra and Haryana it hasn’t abandoned the politics of caste equations. And it will not do so in the future either. In the days to come, the party will lie prostrate before khap panchayats and play the card of negative caste politics to the hilt.
Published in the December 2014 issue of the Forward Press magazine
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