On the evening of 23 May, as it became clear that the Bharatiya Janata Party had secured a massive lead in over 300 seats in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the incumbent prime minister Narendra Modi delivered a victory speech at the party’s headquarters in Delhi. Terming the mandate a “new narrative” of the twenty first century, Modi credited the country’s “poorest of the poor” for the BJP’s impressive tally. Modi then proceeded to describe this purported narrative. “Only two castes will remain in this country. And the country is going to be focused on only these two castes.” He continued, “The first caste in India is the poor. And the second caste is of people who contribute whatever little to free the country from poverty.” The speech was telecast live on almost all mainstream news channels. In the following days, many of these channels—such as Republic TV and Times Now, which are known to favour the BJP and Modi —helped peddle this “new narrative.”
Modi used his speech to target “people who play games in the name of caste” and advocated the realignment of society based on economic parameters. He did not acknowledge the social backwardness and untouchability that the Hindu caste system imposes on the marginalised communities from the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes and the Other Backward Classes. He also alluded to the fact that political leaders—especially the ones who hail from marginalised communities and fight elections on the plank of social justice—would no longer be able to raise caste-centric issues, such as reservation, during campaigns. He went on to attack opposition leaders and parties for “doing caste-based politics,” and called his victory a validation of his welfare programmes which did not use caste as a determinant. In short, Modi asserted that caste will not be a factor in future elections.
To understand the election mandate and the BJP’s record on caste politics, I interviewed a dozen political leaders from different political parties of what is popularly known as the Hindi belt. A majority of them hailed from marginalised communities. All of them unanimously rejected Modi’s claim that he had dismantled caste-based politics and said that the BJP had merely realigned the various caste groups across Lok Sabha constituencies and harnessed votes from these new combinations. According to them, caste was as much a part of the BJP’s political strategy as of other parties during the general elections, and the party would not have won if not for the new caste-equations created by them. The leaders also believed that the BJP leadership viewed caste from an upper–caste lens, through which they could deny the existence of it altogether, and yet reap the benefits from it.