Hartosh Singh Bal

We have never had an election like this before, with the people split between elation and foreboding. The majority eagerly anticipates the result, with many among them unconcerned about what it would mean for India or for the compact under which the country came into being. The smaller fraction hopes for, at best, any possible reduction in the Bharatiya Janata Party’s numbers that might bring a temporary respite to its betrayal of constitutional values.

Pre-election surveys, most notably the one carried out by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, as well as anecdotal reportage, point to the fact that there is growing unease with the state of the economy, particularly on the issues of unemployment and inflation. But, when faced with making a choice in the polling booth, it appears that the question of identity, in particular, an all-usurping Hindu identity, is going to prevail.

When Narendra Modi first came to power, in 2014, most people—including many liberals and all those who, even today, remain on the fence despite the prime minister’s rising concentration of power—did not think that the country was witnessing a radical departure from the past. They witnessed the overt Islamophobia, the lynchings of Muslims, the anti-intellectual environment in which all dissent was portrayed as “anti-national” and deluded themselves into believing that all this would not enjoy lasting popular support.

The 2019 results should have put paid to such delusions. Within months of the BJP returning to power with an increased majority, some key elements of the Hindutva agenda, such as the abrogation of Article 370 and the construction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya, were immediately put into force. Despite this buildup to a Hindutva, or a Hindu, nation—no one has been able to clearly articulate the difference, but we are constantly told to avoid conflating them—the opposition, political or intellectual, has remained in denial.

Modi is most frequently attacked on his record of governance. It is, of course, the job of the opposition, as well as of an independent media and civil society, to continually monitor and criticise the policy failures of a ruling government. At any other time, these failures would be enough to unseat an incumbent government. But why is it that, today, almost no one believes that Modi will lose power?

Part of the answer lies with India’s institutions, most of which have ended up helping the BJP in the election. As we documented in our April issue, the Election Commission of India is no longer seen as a neutral observer. Among its various failures, the lack of transparency over repeated questioning about the use of electronic voting machines has increased doubts about the electoral process. On 21 April, Modi made an openly Islamophobic and incendiary speech, in Rajasthan’s Banswara, violating not only election laws but also several sections of the Indian Penal Code. The ECI has so far refused to act directly against Modi, instead choosing to write a letter to the BJP president. The playing field is further skewed by the mismatch in campaign funds between the BJP and all other parties combined. Back in 2014, when the Congress had been in power for ten years, the BJP raised more money for its campaign. Today, with the BJP in power for ten years, it has the ability to outspend the Congress seven to one.

On 21 April, Modi made an openly Islamophobic and incendiary speech, in Rajasthan’s Banswara. The ECI has so far refused to act directly against Modi, instead choosing to write a letter to the BJP president.

Moreover, for a party that came to power trumpeting the supposed misdeeds of the Congress, the Modi government now faces a slew of serious allegations of corruption after the Supreme Court ordered the State Bank of India to make public details of corporates who had funded political parties through electoral bonds. In several cases, campaign contributions to the BJP followed raids by the government’s investigative agencies, or led to contracts or legislation favouring the corporations making the donations. This documented quid pro quo far exceeds anything that the previous Congress-led government was charged with. The Enforcement Directorate, meant to investigate financial crimes such as money-laundering, is today one of the most dreaded organisations in the country, weaponised under Modi with powers that would be the envy of police forces in authoritarian countries.

In a democracy as vast as India, where almost all Lok Sabha seats have at least more than a million voters, the most powerful route of communication between the government and the electorate is the media. However, when this communication becomes one-sided, with the media echoing the government without ever asking questions, all accountability is compromised. This has all but happened in India, where the mass media is entirely in the grip of the government and willingly spreads propaganda.

What we are seeing is the triumph of an ideological project. Even the grip on the media is not simply the result of fear—large sections of the media support the government, are participants in its mission. While this magazine has, over the years, documented in detail the contours of how the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has shaped this ideological project, the reason for its continued political success remained under-analysed.

THE PRE-ELECTION SURVEY conducted by the CSDS found that 44 percent of respondents wanted to give another chance to the Modi government. While this reflects a high degree of support, the share of those saying no—39 percent—is also strikingly high, reflecting the unease about jobs and prices. The pollsters write that “the BJP is leading not because of its economic performance but despite the lack of it.”

We do not have to search far for the answer to this paradox. In response to the question of what people considered “the most admired” work of the government, the Ram temple tops the list, at 23 percent. The degree of satisfaction with the government was significant across castes. Among Hindu upper castes, over two-thirds were either fully or somewhat satisfied. The figure was 63 percent for the Other Backward Classes among Hindus, 57 percent for Scheduled Castes and 58 percent for Scheduled Tribes, but only eight percent of Muslims said they were fully satisfied, while a further 24 percent were somewhat satisfied. We can reliably read into the figures a consensus around the BJP and RSS’s Hindutva ideology.

This suggests that Hindutva is not only a project of elite dominance but also appeals to a majority of SCs, STs and OBCs. This is an uncomfortable fact that is often dismissed in debates about upper-caste control over a population that is often represented as easily exploited or manipulated. There is an act of agency here in the support for Hindutva that cannot be discounted and needs understanding.

The figures also indicate that most Muslims and other minorities, such as Christians and Sikhs, who lie outside the Hindutva project, have chosen not to back Modi, irrespective of the economic situation. This is not something gleaned just from the polls—only 40 percent of “Others” in the CSDS survey were fully or somewhat satisfied—but has been demonstrated in election after election in states as far apart as Punjab and Kerala.

This Hindutva project, then, has overwhelming acceptance primarily among those who identify as Hindus. The varna order sanctifies the hold of the Hindu upper castes—Brahmins, Banias and Kshatriyas—and, in some measure, this grouping has exercised control over the society of a large part of the subcontinent for over a thousand years. Rulers from the Vaishya or Shudra fold who grew powerful enough to stake control were eventually granted Kshatriya status. Even when invading rulers, or Muslim and Sikh rulers from the subcontinent, took charge, they were temporarily placed on top in the secular sphere, without disrupting this structure in any way.

Control remained concentrated within the same structure in independent India. The single biggest failure of the Nehruvian era was how the Congress leadership dealt with caste inequity. It is easy to point to reservations, which we owe to BR Ambedkar, but to restrict our understanding of caste inequity simply to untouchability—its most visible, egregious and criminal manifestation—is to ensure its persistence. Throughout the twentieth century, and this is still true of the RSS, thinkers from within the Hindu fold consistently decried untouchability while upholding the preservation of the varna system.

Nehruvian India created the foundation for a constitutional democracy, which allowed a political process to flourish. That, in turn, allowed new leaders to make space for themselves. For a brief period after Independence, these issues were debated and led to reservations for SCs and STs, as well as the setting up of the Kalelkar commission for backward classes, whose report was turned down by the government. But, from then on, almost all ideas related to caste equity emerged from outside the Congress ecosystem, from leaders such as Rammanohar Lohia and Karpoori Thakur. A political pressure was created for extending the idea of reservation to other communities, now mostly categorised as dominant OBCs and the Extremely Backward Classes, which have little to no landholdings. But the intellectual ecosystem formed by the Congress largely remained immune to these issues.

The Nehruvian intellectuals of the day, from the historians to the economists, who ranged in their views from Marxism to left liberalism, were almost all drawn from the upper castes. Within this ecosystem, there was little interrogation of caste as a formation whose grip extended well outside untouchability. This remains one of Marxism’s most glaring theoretical and practical limitations in South Asia. The idea of a Brahminical communist intellectual should have been an absurdity, but it became reality.

The Sangh’s revival—after it had been banned following the assassination of MK Gandhi—had much to do with the political space provided to the Bharatiya Jana Sangh by the socialists, also a process we have recently documented. But this failure of the socialists cannot absolve the Congress for abdicating the quest for social equity. It was the Congress’s failure to accommodate and empower the EBCs and dominant OBCs who make up around half the population that created the political opportunity of leading a non-Congress alliance. If the demand had come from within, this space would have been unavailable for others. The BJS and, then, the BJP stepped into this vacuum, all the while keeping intact the same Brahminical codes that animated the Congress as well.

During this period, post-Independence intellectuals of various stripes believed that modernity would make caste disappear. This led many of them to actually oppose the implementation of the Mandal Commission report—not because the recommendations failed to account for the distinction between EBCs and dominant OBCs but because they felt the idea behind the commission was, in itself, an error, a perpetuation of caste.

It is an idea prevalent even today in a large number of the liberal upper-caste support that the Congress enjoys. In private conversations, I have found that some of India’s foremost historians and social scientists continue to argue that the very structure of reservation hardens identities to the point that caste cannot be overcome. This is an enduring intellectual strain—that caste in its current form is largely a colonial construct, melded into a certain rigidity by the British census and, subsequently, by reservations in independent India. Such arguments often descend into debates about what is meant by the term “caste” but, within the sphere of Indian politics and society, this is rather clear. It is a shorthand for the varna order, with its myriad endogamous jatis. The exact structure of jatis is not fixed and, for some, their place in the varna structure varies both with space and time, but the vast majority of jatis are rather fixed in the graded hierarchy. The entire strand of bhakti poetry or, for that matter, the seventeenth-century Guru Granth Sahib, speaks of a system of inequity much like what we see in our times.

The assertion of political strength based on jatis, eventually, came from an alternate politics of assertion manifest in both Kanshi Ram’s Bahujan Samaj Party and the Janata Dal of Lalu Prasad Yadav and Mulayam Singh Yadav. This directly reflected in a change in the social composition of those who controlled the union and state governments.

Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state in the country, exemplified this transition. The Congress gave the state a succession of chief ministers drawn from the upper castes, from the Brahmin Govind Vallabh Pant, in 1950, to Charan Singh, a dominant-caste Jat, in the late 1960s. After Charan Singh’s second term ended, in 1970, the Congress gave the state more upper-caste chief ministers. In 1977, Ram Naresh, a Yadav from the Janata Party, became the chief minister. After returning to power, in 1980, the Congress, having learnt nothing from the evident change in the social composition of a successful opposition, gave the state four more upper-caste chief ministers. In 1989, the party lost power, never to regain it.

The BJP got a brief look in after Mulayam Singh Yadav came to power. The first thing the party did was to appoint Kalyan Singh, a Lodh OBC, as chief minister, in 1991. Even as the BJP was making a bid for power through its hard-line Hindutva, manifested in the Ram Janmabhoomi campaign, it had already taken a leaf out of Kanshi Ram’s Bahujan strategy by drawing a number of non-dominant OBCs, particularly the Lodhs, to its ranks.

The Lodhs had suffered at the hands of the upper-caste Thakurs, who had enjoyed considerable leeway under the Congress. The BJP had worked among the community primarily through figures such as Govindacharya, an RSS pracharak—worker—who was the party’s general secretary. Other Lodhs who were drawn to the BJP fold included the future Madhya Pradesh chief minister Uma Bharti.

After Kanshi Ram’s protégée and successor, Mayawati, and Mulayam Singh Yadav alternated as chief ministers of Uttar Pradesh, the BJP came back to power in 1997, with Kalyan Singh as chief minister. He was soon replaced by two upper-caste figures. Between 2002 and 2017, the state was governed by either Mayawati or Mulayam’s son, Akhilesh. Finally, the BJP came to power with Adityanath, a Thakur, as chief minister. He was to win again five years later.

The BJP had successfully managed a Congress in reverse. It first found its way into power through an OBC face, then steadily built on this to achieve what had seemed impossible in Uttar Pradesh: the return to power of the varna hierarchy, with a Thakur chief minister. This is its real attraction for the Hindu upper castes. This is what led them to abandon the Congress and head to the BJP in droves. The Congress was in no position to control the upsurge from below in the varna hierarchy. This is exactly what the BJP has successfully managed. It did so while accommodating Hindu OBCs, SCs and STs, turning their attention to a hate directed outwards, towards Muslims and Christians.

Today, the various varnas of the Hindu order are no longer searching for equality. They are, for the moment, content with the beginnings of equality that come with some representation in power—representation the Congress had never even thought of providing them. For now, the BJP’s Hindutva has managed to keep the varna hierarchy in place and resist the forces of equality from within the caste system.

THE PRESENCE OF AN UPPER-CASTE chief minister in Uttar Pradesh is not the only indication of a reassertion of upper-caste control under the BJP. Consider the BJP manifesto for the 2024 election which claims that sixty percent of the union council of ministers are from OBC, SC and ST communities. While this is an achievement of sorts, it does not mention that real power resides with the union cabinet, which today comprises of 29 members, at least 15 of whom are upper-caste. The major portfolios of defence, home, highways, economy and external affairs are all with the upper castes. Moreover, the 15 do not include Modi’s own Ghanchi Teli caste, a trading Bania community that is only notionally an OBC; the Scindias, who are Kurmi but, as royalty, have traditionally married into the Rajput aristocracy; and landowning castes such as Reddys and Yadavs.

Additional evidence for the fact that the upper-caste transition from the Congress to the BJP was about elite dominance, where ideology served as the means of consolidating power, comes from the nature of Muslim support for the Congress. The entire Muslims leadership in the Congress was drawn from the Ashrafs, who are the equivalent of Hindu upper castes. The caste system among Muslims, Sikhs and Christians, while far more flattened than it is among Hindus, still bears the hallmark of endogamous jatis and hierarchies that are peculiar to each such religious community, while departing from the traditional varna hierarchy.

On the subcontinent, ritual hierarchy appears to be the primary social formation, and religion in the form of Hinduism, Islam or Sikhism sits atop this hierarchy. Over the seven decades of Congress domination, this right of the Ashrafs to speak for the entire Muslim community was never challenged within the party. This Ashraf presence may have been attracted by the Nehruvian secular ethos but, when a real choice arose—between speaking up against majoritarian violence or rallying behind the party leadership—during the 1984 massacres of the Sikhs, almost every prominent Ashraf voice within the party chose to remain silent, while lining up behind Rajiv Gandhi. The intellectual outreach to other minorities, a sense of a common shared fate with other minority identities, only arose with the rise of the BJP.

It is for this reason that non-Congress political formations began attracting a leadership that was not upper-caste but also drew upon a very different Muslim class leadership. However, even though this new class of leadership was not part of the old Muslim nobility, they were also drawn from the Ashrafs. Leaders such as Azam Khan who ended the political reign of the family of the nawab of Rampur, exemplified this phenomenon.

Outside this elite Ashraf leadership, wherever Muslims have had an alternative to the Congress, they have opted for it, from Uttar Pradesh to Bihar to West Bengal. The only political space outside the BJP where the Muslims were unable to register their presence in substantial numbers was in the Bahujan Samaj Party. This problem stems directly from the BSP’s brief tie up with the BJP in 1995. In a wider sense there would have been no reason to see the BSP and the Muslims as representing separate interest if the country had remedied one of the more serious constitutional lapses of the Indian republic: excluding Muslims and Christians from reservations for SCs. Once Sikh Dalits were given these rights in 1956, there remained no convincing reason to deny them to Muslim or Christian Dalits. The very nature of politics in India could have been different if there had been the possibility of Dalit solidarity across religions.

THIS, THEN, IS THE CURRENT REALITY of Indian politics: an elite dominance of the Hindu upper castes, exercised through their current vehicle of choice, the BJP, and maintained through the ideology of Hindutva. And it is not just politically that the BJP has served to reinforce upper-caste control over India. A recent working paper by the World Inequality Lab found that, by 2022–23, the share of income (22.6 percent) and wealth (40.1 percent) cornered by the top one percent was the highest it had ever been in the country, higher than in Brazil, South Africa and the United States. “As per our benchmark estimates,” the authors noted, “the Billionaire Raj headed by India’s modern bourgeoisie is now more unequal than the British Raj.”

It went on to specify the evident consequences of such concentration of wealth.

One reason to be concerned with such high levels of inequality is that extreme concentration of incomes and wealth is likely to facilitate disproportionate influence on society and government. This is even more so in contexts with weak democratic institutions. After largely being a role model among post-colonial nations in this regard, the integrity of various key institutions in India appears to have been compromised in recent years. This makes the possibility of India’s slide towards plutocracy even more real.

But this is no slide towards plutocracy. It is the shoring up of an eternal “varnacracy” that was showing signs of erosion through the exercise of political power. It is no coincidence that this acceleration in inequality has happened in the Modi years, in the very period that the challenge from below in political terms had been absorbed and managed through Hindutva. It is telling, and no surprise, to consider the direct beneficiaries of this rising inequality. A majority of the hundred richest Indians are from the mercantile Bania and Khatri castes, while nearly ninety are from the upper castes. There are just five Muslims on the list, and almost no EBCs or Dalits, who make up around half the population. The post-liberalisation growth in inequality, hugely accelerated in the Modi years, has also gone hand in hand with the continued domination of the top positions in the private sector, as well as in educational institutions and the media, by Brahmins and other upper caste. Almost all of the 21 Indian-origin CEOs of top multinational corporations fit this description.

This explains the committed upper-caste support for the BJP, which is likely to break away only once the elites see the BJP as close to defeat, unable to protect their dominance. But it does not explain the preponderant support that the BJP now enjoys down the hierarchy of the varna system, as well as among the Adivasis. This is despite the Modi government having worked hard, across a range of institutions, especially in education, to undercut the reservation system—either by failing to select the required number of candidates or by the University Grants Commission attempting to change the criteria for filling seats. It has even implemented a quota for the upper castes in the guise of an economic criterion. Moreover, the issues of inflation and unemployment should impact these communities the most.

The simple fact is that, despite intellectual claims to the contrary, in my twenty years of reporting in the Hindi belt, I have yet to come across an OBC, EBC or Dalit community identified nominally within the Hindu fold that does not identify as Hindu. Whether this dates back to less than a century, whether this identification has deepened in the post-liberalisation era and through the accelerating process of identifying local deities with Hinduism are all issues for academics to discuss. Unfortunately, today, this places many Ambedkarite intellectuals in the same position as Hindu upper-caste liberals, concerned about what is happening but not representative of what is unfolding in their own communities.

This does not mean that these communities are interested in the propagation of the varna system, but issues such as the Ram temple do impact and motivate them. When this is tied to the manner in which the BJP has reached out to individual jatis in these folds—providing them representation at the local level, which they had often been denied in the long years of Congress rule, and extolling or projecting community heroes in the pantheon of Hinduism—the results are a consolidation of support.

IN THE FACE OF THIS overarching Hindutva, the opposition presents a rather disparate character. The Congress, in the composition of its leadership, is largely the BJP without Hindutva. The real challenge in the Hindi belt comes from parties such as the Samajwadi Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal. Outside this fold lies the BSP, a shadow of what it once was.

Kanshi Ram, while the most important Dalit figure in Indian political history after Ambedkar, is today largely absent in academic discourse. “He is rarely talked about as someone who contributed to the making of Indian democracy or even shaping Dalit identities,” the sociologist Surinder Singh Jodhka writes. “Mainstream political analysts began to forget him soon after he exited the scene.” This is a glaring omission. The shape of politics in the Hindi belt today owes everything to him. If the BJP is harvesting any legacy, after moulding it to its own purpose, it is that of Kanshi Ram.

Kanshi Ram was a Punjabi whose political awareness grew only once he travelled outside the state, to work in Pune. He read Ambedkar extensively and saw his work beginning from where Ambedkar had left off. In his view, Jodhka writes, the Poona Pact between Ambedkar and Gandhi, which denied Dalits a separate electorate, was responsible for the political marginalisation of Dalits.

Given their demographic distribution across the country, no SC candidate could win without the support of upper-caste voters. This is how national parties (read: upper-caste parties) gained control over Dalit leaders and representatives. Dalits who managed to get elected as members of national parties did not represent their fellow Dalits but acted as agents and stooges of the upper castes, their chamchas, Kanshi Ram argued … It was not only the elected representatives from the reserved seats who he was critical of, he also included bureaucrats in the same category. Given that Dalits do not have any say in the political system, Dalit employees also suffer. Even when they are selected, SCs are rarely given substantive positions of authority in the system. They too are therefore turned into chamchas. Such opportunist mobilization of a section of Dalits in the chamcha age thus produces, what Kanshi Ram calls, an ‘alienation of the elite’.

Kanshi Ram’s disenchantment with the Republican Party of India was also borne out of this belief, and he rather frankly voiced his criticism of the group. Such views have made him a difficult figure to engage with even among Dalit intellectuals. But it is from this realisation of the drawbacks of asserting power by riding on the coattails of upper-caste parties that he formulated his own Bahujan politics.

Jodhka quotes a 1998 speech. “As I have come to understand, caste is a double-edged sword,” Kanshi Ram said. “We need to learn to handle it.” Savarnas, who only made up fifteen percent of the population, had used caste to oppress the rest of Hindu society, he added.

If we have such large numbers, why can’t we use it for ourselves? However, the challenge is to learn to use caste, politically … What appears to us as a source of all our problems could also be a source of opportunity for us. We need to use it for our own good. If we use it intelligently, we can be in power … And power is the key to all solutions. We need to be the rulers of this country.

Kanshi Ram’s idea of “handling” caste was to empower jatis by creating their own leadership and fostering a pride in their own icons, before welding them into a Bahujan whole that would be ranged against the upper castes. It was a remarkably effective strategy, propelling the BSP to power in Uttar Pradesh and helping it grow in Punjab and Madhya Pradesh.

In hindsight, the BSP’s alliance with the BJP in Uttar Pradesh was its biggest political mistake. It was to set in motion a process that led to the BSP becoming a single-jati party, with a large number of Bahujan elements that Kanshi Ram had wrested away from other Dalit and EBC communities now aligning themselves with the BJP. This accommodation of the BJP, which briefly brought power to the BSP, was further exacerbated after his death by Mayawati’s own distrust of leaders who had an independent connection to Kanshi Ram’s legacy.

The rise of Mulayam Singh’s Samajwadi Party and Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal were built around the assertion of the Yadavs. The assertion, which has come about as a result of power, must not obscure the degree of complete feudal control that upper-caste Thakurs and Bhumihars enjoyed over rural society until very recently. Despite the OBCs including both landowning castes and EBCs, it was not easy to pull them together because, in the context of rural India, the most immediate problems the EBCs faced were at the hands of the landowning OBC castes. Thus, both Lalu and Mulayam saw the need for the Muslim vote and took a strong stand against the Ram Janmabhoomi campaign. The BSP’s dalliance with the BJP further shored up Muslim support for these parties.

These combinations still remain alive at the state level, enjoying enough support to pose a challenge to the BJP. Even the BSP has more play on the ground in Uttar Pradesh than the Congress can manage. Both have the ability to attract EBC support through representation, and the SP is finally beginning to respond to this imperative.

The BJP’s singular achievement in the Hindi belt, while maintaining and shoring up real power for the upper castes, was to invert Kanshi Ram’s paradigm. It used his methods to build up jati icons, going a step forward to directly associate them with the myths of Hinduism, while, at the same time, ensuring that they did not participate in a larger political identity, either as EBCs or as Dalits. In this way, the constantly divisive nature of jatis was harnessed once again to ensure the varna system went unchallenged. It is this politics that has seen the BJP gain hold of Uttar Pradesh. In other Hindi belt states, such as Madhya Pradesh, that lack a large Dalit or Yadav core around which a political formation could arise, most OBCs, who were first attracted to the party through the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, have largely become default BJP voters. It is only against this political backdrop that we can even begin to understand the dissipation of the Congress.

THE PRIMARY PROBLEM FOR the opposition is the complete collapse of the Congress wherever it is locked in a direct fight with the BJP. But, as the above description makes clear, the Congress lacks a clear idea of what it is and who it should appeal to if it is to regroup politically.

Among the chief ministers the Congress has given the Hindi belt over the past forty years, only one, Ashok Gehlot in Rajasthan, was an EBC. Gehlot shows the difference such representation can make. There is little to separate the Congress in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, but the presence of Ashok Gehlot has managed to ensure that EBCs do not break away completely from the party in Rajasthan. Unlike the complete wipeout of the Congress in Madhya Pradesh over the past four assembly elections under its upper-caste leadership, the party has remained competitive in Rajasthan. Even in this general election, there are signs that, unlike in Madhya Pradesh, the party is in the fight for Rajasthan. In Punjab, Charanjit Channi, a Dalit, was made chief minister for a few months only to be discarded from leadership positions within the state. In any case, as was evident within the state, Channi was not chosen because he was Dalit—rather, his identity was used to put a spin on a political situation that had rapidly gone wrong because of direct mishandling by the Gandhi family.

Today, as we look across the Congress high command, we see a leadership far less representative of the country than even the BJP. Mallikarjun Kharge is a Dalit who has shaped a remarkable political career, but he is from south of the Vindhyas, and the appeal and recognition of identity does not travel across that geographical barrier. A Kharge from the Hindi belt is not even a remote possibility. Leaving aside Gehlot, we are left with people such as Jairam Ramesh, Randeep Surjewala, Abhishek Manu Singhvi, Digvijaya Singh and Ambika Soni. This is a coterie, not a party leadership. Even its Muslim leadership does not reflect Muslim diversity or aspirations in the Hindi belt.

Moreover, even the Gandhis’ family friends, gatekeepers and academic advisors, both in India and abroad, are drawn from the same milieu. It is easy for the liberal media to converse with such people, engage with them over ideas about the future of India in a shared hand-wringing. But none of this is a sign of effective politics.

It is no surprise that such a political party is caught up appealing, in its atavistic imagination, to an India that does not exist. There is a constant attempt to reach out to upper-caste voters, especially Brahmins, still playing on the caste identity of the Gandhi family, even though the upper-caste vote is the BJP’s most entrenched support base. The Congress cannot offer it Hindutva or any other means of ensuring its continued dominance over Indian society—why should the upper-caste voter even focus on this party?

Over the past ten years, the Congress has believed that focussing on governance and the economy would be sufficient to bring down the Modi government’s popularity. They have been aided in this by intellectuals and the liberal media, largely upper-caste, that continues to believe that Modi’s defeat is another article on joblessness away. In my experience on the ground, what I have found is that asking a voter their view on Hindutva or Modi is a sure-fire guarantor of knowing whether they think a particular scheme is good or bad. Those with faith in Modi and Hindutva will always respond favourably to any questions on the government’s scheme. Reporters unaware of this reality ask questions about schemes and then claim that these have resulted in support for Modi.

Periodically, new categories, such as women or labharthis—beneficiaries of welfare schemes—are pulled out to explain particular election results. No reasonable explanation other than a hardening Hindu identity can explain a trend across the Hindi belt, where Hindus across the varna structure back the BJP, with the party’s vote increasing as we go up the hierarchy, with the rare exception of the Yadavs or Jats in some states. What remains equally true is the trend of the minority vote not responding to the schemes with the same enthusiasm. This is understandable in the case of Muslims and Christians, who have been at the receiving end of the hatred generated by the politics of Hindutva, but why should it hold true of the Sikhs? Do the schemes change in Punjab? Do they impact people differently?

If we have to imagine a workable and effective opposition to the Sangh Parivar, it must begin by looking past the Congress. It is not a question of restructuring or reorganising—the very thinking that animates the party is the problem. It cannot come to terms with the fact that a liberal upper-caste leadership whose main endeavour is to bring together people in the name of constitutionalism or citizenship (viable ideas that must be aims, not presuppositions) is not a workable political platform.

The same problems dogs the Aam Aadmi Party in even greater measure. Its intellectual flexibility over issues related to Hindutva has always been evident, and its silence as violence against Muslims unfolded in Delhi, where it is in power, was a clear illustration. It is no coincidence that its electoral success has been restricted to the two states, Punjab and Delhi, where jati politics is not the biggest factor.

Individual jati parties, whether they are run by Akhilesh Yadav, Mayawati or Sanjay Nishad, eventually will fall prey to the phenomenon that Kanshi Ram sought to describe in his book Chamcha Yug. He had spoken of how those who joined and worked within the Congress—or, now, the BJP—became useful tools for upper-caste interests. The story of the BSP is an apt illustration that those who chose to work with the BJP from the outside have also ended up becoming useful tools.

The battle against the BJP’s Hindutva and jati politics must be, once again, like Kanshi Ram’s struggle, animated from below, but it has to consider the minorities as equal partners. It must speak the language of jatis, not just in terms of token representation but in those that place the question of representation at the heart of its leadership. It would be the equivalent of a Samajwadi Party where the next rung of leadership is not made up of only Yadavs but would include, say, a Rajbhar, a Pasmanda Muslim and a Valmiki. It must put together solidarities that Kanshi Ram instituted but the BJP has taken apart. Such a party cannot come into existence from nowhere. It must be born out of the realisation among individual jati leaders that the search for representation and respect can only go so far in an alliance with the BJP or the Congress. As Kanshi Ram indicated, there is no substitute to holding power on one’s own.

IT IS ALREADY CLEAR that this election is not like 2019, when Modi used an attack on paramilitary personnel in Pulwama to curry votes. This time, instead of coasting on a nationwide wave in its favour, the BJP is having to fight the election one seat at a time, one region at a time. Modi seeks a majority for a third consecutive term—a feat that no one since Nehru has managed.

He is doing so against an opposition that his government has depleted through arrests and defections, and through an unprecedented scale of attacks via the mass media. One of the most potent factors for the BJP’s brute power is the capital that has lined up behind the party, thanks to the mercantile castes, and a media ecosystem that is complicit not simply because of possible external pressure but also because its ownership believes in the Hindutva thrust.

Despite this, the party can see the problems that lie ahead. The BJP and its allies control 346 out of the 543 seats in the Lok Sabha, and 117 out of 245 in the Rajya Sabha. It is difficult to see the BJP making any significant increase in its current Lok Sabha tally. It seems unlikely that the NDA alliance would get the required seats to secure a two-thirds majority and, even if it does, the Rajya Sabha remains a bigger challenge. The next large round of Rajya Sabha elections will take place in 2026, after a host of important assembly elections, including in Bihar, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Assam. The BJP already holds a significant number of the 75 seats that will be decided that year, so the possibility of achieving a two-thirds majority in both houses lies well into the future.

Next year, 2025, is the centenary of the RSS. There would be no better occasion to change the de facto Hindu nation the BJP has imposed on us into one that is set in law. The party lacks the numbers to do so, but we can expect more than symbolism over the course of the year. At least a uniform civil code, which—based on the Uttarakhand example—would not be uniform for Hindus, is set to be put in place.

For a more radical transformation, a series of steps lie ahead over the course of a third Modi term. The issue of delimitation of Lok Sabha constituencies will come up. As a result, membership of the house may grow from 543 to 753—an increase of nearly forty percent. The seats for the southern states, including Karnataka, are likely to go up from 129 to 143, an increase of only eleven percent. Thus, the south’s share in the Lok Sabha is set to go down from 29 percent to just 19 percent. Combining this with the idea of simultaneous elections, the BJP could then achieve the two-thirds majorities that would allow it to unilaterally amend the Constitution.

This is where the BJP’s continued control over the Hindi belt becomes essential—it is the only way that the party can benefit from delimitation. But there is an evident paradox: Hindutva and jati politics is sustainable only for so long. After a period of time, jatis on the lower end of the varna hierarchy, which continue to gain representation, will require increasing representation at the top. This does not mean they will not see themselves as Hindus, but the very act of demanding representation at the top is to seek to undo the varna order. It does not undo jatis, but it does challenge the hierarchy that is an explicit part of the system.

The larger question of what shape the Hindu identity can take in the face of the decay of the varna order is interesting, but part of a separate discussion. The assertion of equality that could emerge from an end to the varna hierarchy justifies itself, irrespective of the fact that this new version of Hinduism may not necessarily be any more tolerant or less Islamophobic than what is being practised now.

As this general election shows, the Hindutva–jati paradigm does not operate in the same way across the Hindi belt. In states such as Madhya Pradesh, jati is comfortably ensconced within Hindutva, with no large non-upper-caste jatis that could form the backbone of an alternate political formation. Neither is the Muslim population large enough to impact the verdict in a significant fashion. The Congress cannot pose a challenge either on Hindutva or on representation. It remains a default alternative, hoping for the BJP to defeat itself.

In Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, the paradigm operates very differently, and here is where the challenge to the BJP’s jati paradigm is immense. The BJP has not been able to control Bihar on its own and, in Uttar Pradesh, it has needed a more recent, more aggressive and violent Hindutva, magnified by the 2013 communal violence in Muzaffarnagar. This has then been sustained through an increasingly tyrannical state machinery. Here, a large Muslim population, along with numerous jati parties that have challenged the varna order, and will continue to do so, pose a clear and constant political danger to the BJP. Unlike Madhya Pradesh or Rajasthan, these states do not require the overwhelming number of Hindu votes to switch for the BJP to be defeated. This precarious hold, despite its large numbers of seats in the state, means that we are likely to see a hardening of state tyranny and a more virulent Hindutva leading up to future elections.

What Uttar Pradesh points to is a phenomenon that we are likely to see at later points of time in several parts of India. Greater democratic awareness fostered through the politics of identity, which is not necessarily the negative phenomenon that upper-caste liberals often claim, will make the preservation of the varna order harder. With its targeting of Muslims, the BJP has temporarily contained the challenge from below. As this challenge re-emerges, we are likely to see a magnification of the BJP’s rhetoric of hatred. There is no other tool in the RSS arsenal left to contain the challenge. The BJP will look to make the marginalisation of Muslims more acute and more visible.

The BJP has also witnessed that, in the run-up to this election, despite its control over the mainstream media, an increasingly chaotic digital space that hosts social media, small independent organisations and content creators is getting enough traction to at least occasionally raise questions about its narrative. The new digital laws that have come into effect are aimed at curtailing exactly this phenomenon. The Caravan recently had a story on torture and killings by the Indian Army taken down online, even as the print issue with the same story continued to sell on the stands. This only made it apparent that there was no issue with the story that would have allowed the government to act under existing laws. The solution is already at hand. Changes to the Code of Criminal Procedure have included similar provisions enabling the government to clamp down in arbitrary fashion. We will witness much more of this in the coming months and years.

Moreover, after delimitation, the rumblings from the south will get stronger. The resistance to the Hindutva project from the Sikhs in Punjab is not going away and, at the same time, we have witnessed in Manipur the BJP’s inability to deal with a situation where the state itself has been set aside by vigilante groups because its ideological compunctions prevent it from acting as an impartial arbiter. These challenges will grow stronger as and when the BJP shows signs of weakening in the Hindi belt.

The unfortunate fact remains that increased tyranny and autocratic control seems a given as we look ahead. Even a weakened BJP emerging from these elections would only move one way. If we need an example, we have one in Israel. The continued bloodlust in Gaza is fed by the fact that a Netanyahu without a war in Gaza is a Netanyahu without power. A man like Modi thrives on the aura of power. There is no way he will let go of it easily.

Hartosh Singh Bal is the executive editor at The Caravan.

https://caravanmagazine.in/politics/tyranny-will-worsen. Please consider subscribing to and supporting Caravan magazine.

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