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.
Dhananjay Yadav, the general secretary of the Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar’s Nalanda district, who comes from an OBC community, told me that the prime minister speech exposed a double standard and a failure to consider the politics of social justice. Yadav was referring to Modi’s election rallies across Bihar, where he canvassed votes on the policy of reservation for economically weaker sections among the upper castes, which was introduced by his government. For instance, during a campaign in the state’s Paliganj city, on 15 May, the prime minister had said, “After independence, it was the first time when the poor youth from the general category have also got 10 percent reservation.” Yadav said, “When he asked for votes on 10 percent reservation given to the upper castes by his government, he did not find any problem with it. But when we raised our voice for the representation of the oppressed, we are being called jaatibaadi”—casteist. Referring to an RJD electoral plank seeking 90 percent reservation for SCs, STs, and OBCs in jobs and education, Yadav said, “Matlab savarna kare toh jaatibaadi nahi hai, aur OBC kare toh apko dikkat hai”—If the savarna do it it’s not casteism, but if OBCs do the same, you have a problem with it.
Data collected from the post-poll research and analysis conducted by the Trivedi Center of Political Data, a department of the Ashoka University, and the research institute the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, is also telling of the BJP’s contradictory positions. The Indian Express published several analyses based on this data, studying the BJP’s victory in Uttar Pradesh and the Hindi belt states. One of these concluded, “The BJP pursued in 2019 the same strategy that helped it sweep UP in 2017: cater to all the groups that are not affiliated traditionally with either the SP or the BSP. And that means a marginalisation of Yadavs, Jatav Dalits, and Muslims.”