The Bharatiya Janata Party’s victory in the 2019 general election has largely been interpreted as the triumph of nationalism over the politics of caste. The basis of this interpretation is the perception created by the BJP that the party stridently represents the ideology of nationalism, which has enabled it to build a massive social base comprising a medley of castes with conflicting interests. In 2019, the BJP is said to have mustered even greater support from these castes than before because of the nationalistic fervour generated by India’s air strikes within Balakot in Pakistan. The strikes were conducted in retaliation to a militant attack on a Central Reserve Police Force convoy in Kashmir’s Pulwama district in February.
The BJP is traditionally considered to represent the interests of the upper castes. Yet, the party’s strong showing in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar suggests it succeeded in weaning away a large segment of the lower and middle castes, which have constituted the mainstay of prominent parties in these states—the Bahujan Samaj Party, the Samajwadi Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal. This success has led some to celebrate the death of caste in Indian politics.
Is their celebration premature? To what extent was the backward caste identity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi a factor in the BJP’s victory? In July, Ajaz Ashraf, an independent journalist, interviewed Satish Deshpande, a professor of sociology in the University of Delhi who has written extensively on caste. They discussed the evolution of the BJP’s brand of caste politics and why it is not considered casteist and divisive, in contrast to that of parties which primarily draw their support from subaltern groups. “At the popular level, the kind of people who say they want an end to caste politics, actually want the end of lower-caste politics and a return to upper-caste politics,” Deshpande said. “Hindutva has done more for upper-caste politics than what was thought possible.”
Ajaz Ashraf: What are the implications of the 2019 Lok Sabha verdict on the politics of caste, particularly in large parts of the Hindi heartland?
Satish Deshpande: Academic wisdom tends to be retrospective. In that sense, we will be able to better understand the 2019 Lok Sabha elections a little later. That said, I would say the 2019 elections show that the political role of caste is maturing, becoming more fine-grained.
AA: Contrary to the media narrative, do you think caste is very much alive and working in politics?
SD: Yes, it certainly is. It would be very surprising if it were not so because caste continues to shape our society. What matters in society will surely matter in politics. But there has always been a systematic misrecognition of the caste question in modern India, especially in politics. The media narrative reflects and amplifies this misrecognition.