Under Illusion

How caste trumped class in the state elections

The anger visible in the Dalit protests of 2018 was reflected in the BJP’s consistent loss of Dalit votes. PTI
31 December, 2018

The disconnect between the Delhi commentariat and political reality becomes most evident when the time comes to analyse a defeat of the Bharatiya Janata Party. This was underlined after the latest state elections, which saw three states in the Hindi belt change hands—Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. The Congress’s less-than-thumping victories, with the thinnest of margins in the two most populous states in play, were enough to get the capital talking of the end of the Narendra Modi era. In liberal drawing rooms and watering holes, many who maintained a studied silence for the last four years are rediscovering the language of dissent as they prepare themselves for what they see as an impending regime change.

But political reality has no regard for such expectations. The Delhi chatter was sustained by a blinkered focus on the number of state constituencies won and lost, which diverted attention from the data on vote share. The former numbers are the ones that count when forming governments, but the latter are the truest markers of voter sentiment. And it is the vote-share breakdowns that offer an answer to the big question that remained unanswered after the editorial pages were filled and the television debates exhausted—what explains the differences in the verdict across the Hindi belt? By the popular vote, the Congress swept Chhattisgarh, with a lead of 10 percentage points over the BJP, but in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh the two parties were essentially tied. Accounting for this is key to deciphering the vote as a whole.

There have been various root causes proposed to explain why the elections swung against incumbent BJP administrations in all the three states. The largest share of them have been economic—farmers’ distress, job losses, rising prices, poverty. Post-poll surveys by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies show that the percentages of voters concerned with economic issues were comparable across the three states, suggesting that these had broadly similar impacts everywhere. That, then, cannot account for the variation in the results between states.

Further proof that the outcome was not simply down to economic distress lies in the data on voting by caste. Staying with the CSDS figures, in the 2014 Lok Sabha election the BJP led the Congress in the Dalit vote in all the states except Chhattisgarh, where it trailed its rival by four percentage points. In the recent polls, the Congress had an advantage of 17 percentage points among Dalits in Chhattisgarh, 16 in Madhya Pradesh and five in Rajasthan. The BJP’s popularity compared to the Congress’s saw huge reversals among Adivasi voters as well. In Chhattisgarh, the Congress’s one-percentage-point lead over the BJP in 2014 grew to a 22-point lead in 2018. In Madhya Pradesh, the BJP’s advantage of 14 percentage points in 2014 became a deficit of 10 points. In Rajasthan, the four intervening years saw the BJP’s 22-percentage-point lead over its rival in the general election almost entirely wiped out.

The full impact of the shifts in each state becomes clear when we consider local demographics. In Chhattisgarh, Dalits account for 12.8 percent of the population, and Adivasis for a full 30.6 percent. In Madhya Pradesh, those figures are 15.6 and 21.1 percent, and in Rajasthan, 17.8 and 13.5 percent. This means that in Chhattisgarh, compared to 2014, the Congress enjoyed a vote swing of over 15 percent in its favour among roughly 45 percent of the whole population. Not by coincidence, this was where the BJP was routed. In the other two states, where demographics magnified the swing to a lesser extent, the contest was much closer. The difference in the overall results in all three reflects almost entirely the extent of Dalit and Adivasi flight away from the BJP and to the Congress, rather than the much less pronounced disaffection among the economically marginalised classes.

It follows that the immense pro-BJP consolidation of the dominant castes and Other Backward Classes, which has driven the party’s success across the Hindi belt, remains a force. In Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, where the popular vote was tied, it was enough to compensate not just for the BJP’s unpopularity among Dalits and Adivasis, but also for the consistent disapproval of the party among Muslims—who form 6.6 percent of the population of Madhya Pradesh, and 9.1 percent of the population of Rajasthan. By some crude math with the numbers at hand, and assuming that Muslims voted largely for the Congress, it is safe to conclude that the BJP led its rival in the dominant-caste and OBC vote in each state by something in the rough vicinity of ten percentage points. Even the country’s better electoral surveys, with their peculiar prejudices, do not provide firm numbers on the voting patterns of these two groups, so their behaviour can only be deduced by working backwards from the data available on others. The surveys would have us believe that only Dalits, Adivasis and Muslims form the often derided “vote banks,” and that the dominant castes and OBCs, who flock together as much as any other group, do not.

The CSDS data’s strategic implications for the Congress are clear: the party’s “soft” Hindutva—Rahul Gandhi’s temple-hopping, the avowal of Brahmin identity by prominent spokespersons—is doing nothing to win the BJP’s core voters over, even though it is targeted specifically at them. The upswing in fortunes owes to Dalit and Adivasi voters who flirted with the BJP in the recent past now turning against the ruling party. While the Congress was busy trying to woo dominant-caste and OBC voters, its salvation was the party’s once-traditional support base of Dalits, Adivasis and religious minorities.

Yet the Congress continues to neglect that base. The shift in Dalit support is much more a protest against the BJP than an endorsement of the Congress. The years of BJP rule have seen a considerable escalation in violence against oppressed castes, as the dominant-caste aggression that drives the BJP’s politics and policies runs up against increasing Dalit mobility and assertiveness. The anger visible in the large-scale Dalit protests across the Hindi belt in 2018 shows no signs of abating, and the BJP’s consistent loss of Dalit votes across that belt in the recent elections suggests that that drift will carry on into the upcoming general election.

An analysis by the political scientist Gilles Verniers shows that, in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, the candidate lists of both the Congress and the BJP were dominated by the dominant castes and OBCs. This, Vernier writes, shows that both parties “are sociologically somewhat undifferentiated” in these states, and that both recruit “from the same pool of local elite candidates, despite the rhetoric on inclusiveness and token gestures made to smaller communities.” Unsurprisingly, “local politics, as well as state-level politics mediated by local actors, remains largely the province of traditionally dominant groups. Both states have not seen the kind of ‘plebeian revolution’ that took place in other Hindi belt states, such as Uttar Pradesh or Bihar.”

Voting patterns in states that have witnessed such “revolutions” should serve as a warning against the Congress’s current approach. Where Dalits now have other strong political suitors, as in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, they seem to have given up on the old party permanently. That they have returned to the Congress in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh has plenty to do with the persistence in these states of an essentially two-party system. If the Congress wants Dalits behind it in the general election, it will have to offer them something more substantive, and understand that, in much of the country, they will have little reason to ally with the party if it continues to position itself as a Hindu-centric alternative to the BJP.

The Adivasi vote suggests a complex breakdown of allegiances across regions and groups, but the data available so far, which does not differentiate along these lines, only allows for hypotheses. The decline of tribal support for the Congress from east to west—starting in Chhattisgarh, and moving across Madhya Pradesh into Rajasthan—could reflect a difference in voting patterns between the Gonds and the Bhils. The Gonds are the largest Adivasi group in Chhattisgarh and the adjacent regions of southeastern Madhya Pradhesh, while the Bhils dominate in western Madhya Pradesh and contiguous regions of Rajasthan. The BJP won its standing with the Gonds by convincing some of their leaders to defect from the Congress, and the community now seems to have turned back to the Congress with little hesitation. Among the Bhils, the BJP’s base owes to concerted, long-term mobilisation by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. This work seems to have created a more persistent loyalty, but has still been unable to prevent a substantial loss of support.

Adivasis, like Dalits, have seen ample evidence that the BJP’s pretence of inclusion does not translate to real equality of status and opportunity, and have returned to the Congress only because they lack other choices. They, too, will back the party at the national level only if given reasons to do so. The Congress cannot take the votes of Adivasis and Dalits for granted in the way that it can those of religious minorities such as the Muslims, who truly have nowhere else to turn across the large part of the country. But that perverse fact should not excuse the party’s neglect of them.

The Congress would do well to listen to the message of the recent polls, and understand that it stands to gain from giving Dalits, Adivasis and Muslims a reason to stand by the party. That would require greater representation of these groups across its ranks, and, wherever the party holds power, substantive policies in their favour—including policing that ensures their safety and access to justice in cases of past wrongs. This consolidated base can ensure that the Congress is a major contender in any election, anywhere. In a party dominated by social elites who only pretend to equality and justice, this message is not welcome. But the need to keep itself alive may yet force the Congress to accept this. It will have no counter to the majoritarian consolidation behind the BJP until it does—and there is little sign that it will before the general election.