IN 2003, Pramod Mahajan was appointed chairman of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s central campaign committee for the next year’s Lok Sabha elections. Mahajan—known for his organisational skills and his fondness for the company of wealthy industrialists—was appointed against the backdrop of an Indian economy that was growing at a rate of close to 8 percent. Buoyed by the upbeat economic mood, Mahajan, with the approval of his party leadership, assembled an expensive marketing campaign, “India Shining”, which celebrated the Indian growth story in a series of high-gloss television and newspaper advertisements. In the months before the election, the government spent more than Rs 100 crore selling the idea of an economically vibrant India to its own people, even as, according to the World Bank, close to 75 percent of the country lived on less than Rs 100 per day.
After the election, which the BJP had been widely favoured to win, Mahajan’s campaign bore the brunt of the blame for the party’s defeat. The BJP’s upbeat narrative of inclusive growth, it was said, conflicted too starkly with the below-subsistence reality of the majority of Indians. While the country was witnessing unprecedented growth, as has been the case during other periods of economic expansion—under both the Congress and the BJP—the most significant beneficiaries of that growth were a small proportion of upper- and middle-class Indians, with the overwhelming gains accumulating to the super-rich. While Mahajan might have mistakenly seen the signs of broad prosperity in the gains of a small minority, what was more surprising was that the senior leadership of the BJP had gone along with extravagant notions of a “shining” Indian economy. Given the exuberance of the campaign, it is plausible that they, too, might have gotten carried away by the seductive shimmer of growth visible amongst the select few who populate the party’s inner circle and its social periphery.
Both the BJP and its ideological and functional backbone, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), have found their core constituency amongst upper-caste Hindus. They have historically appealed to the aspirations of this small minority, which comprises less than 10 percent of the country’s population. The upper castes constitute a substantial proportion of the BJP cadre and RSS shakhas; the top leadership of both organisations has always been made up largely of Brahmins. Though the overlap between caste and class is inexact (and current data on this subject remain elusive), it is safe to say that among the wealthiest 10 percent of Indians—who have reaped the largest benefit from the country’s growth—Hindu upper castes are vastly over-represented. This cross-section of upper-income and upper-caste Hindus mirrors the core constituency of both the BJP and the RSS.