In August 2017, months after a priest was made the Uttar Pradesh chief minister, top leaders of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh held a shakha and unfurled its saffron flag at Gandhi Darshan, adjoining Mahatma Gandhi’s samadhi at Raj Ghat. It was attended by some 100 senior leaders including sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat, the then sahsarkaryavah (now sarkaryavah) Dattatreya Hosabale, former Union minister Murli Manohar Joshi and the then BJP general secretary Ram Madhav. It was held at a public place in the national capital, but few got any wind of it.
“The significance of this meeting is that the RSS flag was unfurled and (Sangh) prayers offered at the place built after the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi,” an RSS pracharak who attended the meet told this reporter days after the event. For an organisation that continues to face questions over Gandhi’s assassination, it perhaps marked their greatest psychological triumph over the Mahatma. But note that a mighty government being run by RSS pracharaks was at the Centre, and yet the most powerful men of the country, whose primary allegiance is to their saffron flag, couldn’t openly hold their shakha at Gandhi Ashram.
If one face of identity politics appears on the streets, perhaps the more defining one is hatched and executed offstage. Such politics may argue about reclaiming the lost dignity, but it actually rests on constructing a set of inevitable others to define one’s identity. When UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath confidently terms the forthcoming assembly polls to be a contest between “80 versus 20”, or when his deputy Keshav Prasad Maurya claims that their government has got rid of “lungi-chhap gundey, jaalidar topiwaley gundey (goons who wear lungis and skull caps)”, their intent and message is clear.
If identity politics can strengthen and deepen democracy by giving voice to the unheard, it may also weaken the federal fabric when it assumes a majoritarian approach, or focuses less on community welfare and more on a perceived or imagined wound. But ask about these ploys and BJP’s Rajya Sabha MP Rakesh Sinha turns philosophical. “The question of identity is a western construct. It’s unfair to evaluate the BJP and the RSS on this parameter,” he says. “The nationalism of BJP is based on the Vedic values of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, but in electoral politics it has to counter the politics and polemics of pseudo-secular forces.”
To be sure, the party has expanded its base in UP by embracing a number of lower castes who found little space with the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party. However, a discernible thrust on the upper castes remains. In a well-argued paper, Gilles Verniers and Christophe Jaffrelot note that out of its 414 candidates in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP gave 146 tickets to upper caste candidates—the majority 109 of these went to Brahmins (71) and Thakurs (38) alone. Of its elected MPs, 51.8 per cent came from the upper and intermediate castes. Gauge the BJP’s politics by the fact that 90 of its 198 LS candidates in ten Hindi-speaking states belonged to the upper castes—81 won.
Poll symbols BJP leaders having lunch at a Dalit party worker’s house. (Photographs: Getty Images)
Figures made available by the Trivedi Centre for Political Data show that the upper castes dominate the BJP’s core team. In 2019, of the 55 ministers in the Narendra Modi government, 47 per cent were from upper castes and 13 per cent from intermediate castes, with a mere 20 percent OBCs. Meena Kotwal, the founder-editor of the Dalit media organisation Mooknayak, underlines the party’s Savarna identity. “The BJP government claims that Hindus are in danger. But it’s actually Savarna Hindu males who feel threatened. They are unable to even tolerate Hindu women. When we celebrate Manu Smriti dahan divas, who opposes it? Savarna Hindu males.”
A spate of recent resignations from the BJP in several poll-bound states also lends credence to the dissatisfaction within the party. Several leaders in UP, including heavyweight minister Swami Prasad Maurya, Nanpara MLA Madhuri Verma, Tilhar MLA Roshan Lal Verma, Tindwari MLA Brijesh Kumar Prajapati and Bilhaur MLA Bhagwati Sagar have left the party, accusing the BJP of suppressing the OBC community. Zoya Hasan, professor emeritus at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, terms the OBC revolt ‘Mandal II’. “It appears that those very groups the BJP had relied on for building their support structure are now disgruntled that they have not got enough share of power.”
In Goa also, the ruling BJP has seen several stunning high-profile resignations recently, including sitting minister Michael Lobo, MLA Pravin Zantye, former CM Laxmikant Parsekar and late Goa chief minister Manohar Parrikar’s son Utpal Parrikar. And in Uttarakhand, Harak Singh Rawat, Yashpal Arya and his son Sanjiv Arya are among the major leaders to have recently left the BJP. All the three had won their seats in 2017, but they had defected from the Congress to the BJP in 2016 claiming that they were being marginalised.
A wall painting on social harmony.
There are some exits from other parties as well. While caste identity propelled the exits in UP, in Goa, senior leaders Aleixo Reginaldo Lourenco and Lavoo Mamledar quit the Trinamool Congress recently soon after joining it. Mamledar accused Mamata Banerjee’s party of dividing Goa on religious lines.
In the electoral arena, the foundations of identity politics—caste, religion, gender, ethnicity, region, individual, even shared wounds, real or perceived—assume different and often overlapping forms. At times, religious identity may triumph over caste, with the sequence overturning in the next election; in some instances, different caste groups come under a broad secular umbrella, in others religion becomes the umbrella; and sometimes, regionalism may triumph over all other factors—and there are also political parties that identify themselves with just one individual. This fluid expression of identities makes electoral politics both unpredictable and treacherous.
Call it cynical politics, devoid of any values, but one can also see traces of an individual’s identity crisis. Joining a party they have been fighting against for decades is likely to come with a cost, scars that may not be immediately acknowledged but nevertheless remain. Harak Singh, who has been in various parties including the BSP, perhaps best exemplifies an individual’s crisis. When he was in the Congress, BJP leaders often made stinging remarks against him. “Koi bhi ladki bhagti hai to sabse pehle log kehte hain ki yaar kahin Harak Singh to nahi le gaya usko utha kar (Whenever any girl disappears, at first people speculate whether Harak Singh has abducted her),” BJP’s former Uttarakhand vice president Dhan Singh Rawat once said. In February 2017, when he was contesting on a BJP ticket, this reporter met Harak Singh in a Dehradun hotel and asked him about Dhan Singh’s remarks. He munched French fries and replied: “He meant that whenever any girl disappears, I give them shelter. I have arranged the weddings of several girls. I am facilitating MBBS education… If you take it [Dhan Singh’s remarks] in a negative way, what can one do?” Political scientist Annpurna Nautiyal, the vice chancellor of Hemvati Nandan Bahuguna Garhwal University, notes that “Harak Singh’s defection is also a part of identity politics. He did not enjoy the identity in BJP he wanted.”
Samajwadi Party president Akhilesh Yadav at a temple in Lucknow. Photograph by PTI
The regional identity of Kumaon versus Garhwal also plays a crucial role in Uttarakhand’s politics. Kumaoni leaders have often dominated politics in the state. Uttar Pradesh’s first chief minister, Govind Ballabh Pant, was from Kumaon. Another Kumaoni N.D. Tiwari became the UP chief minister on three occasions. In the state’s first assembly, chief minister N.D. Tiwari, state Congress chief Harish Rawat and Vidhan Sabha speaker Yashpal Arya were all from Kumaon.
The rivalry is rooted in history. People of Kumaon celebrate a yearly Khatadva festival to remember their king Khatad Singh who had defeated a Garhwali ruler. The divide grew during British rule when Kumaon became the centre of British activities and modern education. In 1889, Kumaon became a commissionerate that included parts of Garhwal, which could become a commissionerate only in 1967. In fact, it was the 2016 rebellion by Garhwali leaders that had led to large-scale defection from the Congress government run by the Kumaoni CM Harish Rawat.
Some identities are created by the statute—notified tribes, SC, ST, OBC—whereas society also defines and shapes various identities. Not all Dalits are given the constitutional status of SC (Christian Dalits have been demanding it for long), and the word Adivasi carries a lot more history and culture than the sarkari nomenclature Scheduled Tribe can denote. Sujatha Gidla in her moving book, Ants Among Elephants, recounts her early life as an untouchable Christian in Andhra Pradesh before she got admission in an engineering college and met Christian girls from Kerala. While the Christian girls of her neighbourhood were called ‘scavengers’ and ‘shit lilies’, the Kerala girls were sought after because they were Brahmins, descendants of the Nambudiris baptised by Jesus’s disciple Thomas. A gap of two millennia had not been able to dent the higher status of the Kerala Christians.
Women to the front Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi sweeping a Dalit basti in Indira Nagar, Lucknow.
However, in the last few years, digital media has remarkably helped under-represented communities build and assert a new identity. “National media had no space for us. Social media has given us a voice,” says Meena Kotwal. “People living in villages can also upload videos. National media is forced to take up our issues. Incidents in remote areas soon receive national and international attention.”
The political revival of lower castes began in south India around the 1960s before it reached northern India in the 1980s. It, incidentally, mirrored the Bhakti movement that first emerged in the southern peninsula in the eight-ninth century before travelling towards central and northern India in the 14th century. Just as the Bhakti movement, often led by lower caste saint-poets like Raidas and Kabir, impacted the Indian society and its relationship with kingships, the lower caste movement of independent India jolted the polity and ensured representation of various disadvantaged groups. The Samajwadi Party promised hope in UP, whereas the Mayawati-led BSP had, and justly so, national ambitions. But as these parties allowed themselves to be defined by a few caste groups and couldn’t expand their base, the BJP could easily approach a range of other communities and subsumed caste politics in the grand vortex of Hindutva identity.
A woman casts her vote in May 2019 in New Delhi.
Perhaps the deeply entrenched varna system of Indian society also enabled the BJP’s triumph over other groups. The 1996 parliamentary elections offer stunning evidence. P.V. Narasimha Rao’s tenure had seen two developments whose consequences are still unfolding—unprecedented economic measures and demolition of the Babri mosque. In 1996, according to a CSDS survey, just 19 per cent of the electorate had heard of economic reforms, whereas 75 per cent voters knew and had views about the demolition. If one thought that the linking of the economy and society with the world and the consequent greater economic prosperity of several groups and communities would lead Indians to shed their parochial traits, it wasn’t to be.
Indian society is still far from the kind of discourse that, say, emerged about the rights of trans-women following an essay the feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie published last year. In a country where rape victims are forcibly cremated or demonised, the debate between trans-woman and trans-exclusionary feminism seems a few light years away. There has perhaps never been any election in independent India when women’s identity featured prominently in a manifesto.
A demonstrator holds a placard against atrocities on Dalits, in New Delhi. Photographs: Getty Images
In such a backdrop, the programme Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra unveiled in UP stands out. The party is trapped in an identity crisis emerging from the family. It has seen more leaders quitting its ranks than any other party in recent years. It may draw a zilch in the elections. Her range of promises for women, including 40 per cent reservation in government jobs, 25 per cent of police posts, special quota in male-centric professions, free public transport and Rs 1,000 monthly pension to elderly women, may remain buried in the manifesto. But a national party giving 40 per cent of its tickets to women in India’s electorally most significant state, a party firmly resting on women’s identity, even though in a battle where its defeat looks foretold, is perhaps the only hope for the tormented nation in this election.
(This appeared in the print edition as "Identity Markers")