Shrikant Sharma is the Bharatiya Janata Party’s national media convener, and one of its brightest stars. Rooted in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s student affiliate, Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, Sharma was ensured a ticket in Mathura, which went to polls on 11 February, through the backing of the RSS and the BJP president, Amit Shah. Yet, his campaign ran into trouble. This was partly because the BJP’s local unit, which helped elect the actor Hema Malini as an MP in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, saw him as another outsider imposed on them. While this resentment was manageable for a party that still retains some idea of hierarchical discipline, the desertion by its traditional Aggarwal vote bank may prove not to be.
The Aggarwals, who form the backbone of the trading class in much of north India, have been badly hit by demonetisation. In several instances, they are consolidating behind candidates from their own caste. This is visible in the community’s support for Ashok Agrawal, who is the Rashtriya Lok Dal’s pick from Mathura. JN Agrawal, the vice-president of the UP unit of Vaishya Ekta Parishad as well as the Congress’ district general secretary for Mathura, told me, “Demonetisation has achieved nothing. We don’t oppose the idea but Modi should have begun with those directly under him, the bureaucrats. The system that generated black money is still in play.” The Aggarwals, he said, have decided to support, “people from our community from any party that may put them up. We have realised our representation is low; we need to increase those who speak of our concerns in the legislatures.”
There cannot be a clearer example of how the idea of community drives politics, its importance often transcending parties and ideologies. But a false binary is created when it is assumed that this identity-driven politics can be separated from questions of development or policy. In a recent column, the historian Ramachandra Guha wrote, “Why is Uttar Pradesh so badly governed? One reason is that it remains trapped in the vortex of identity politics. In this state, politicians are assessed not on the grounds of what services they deliver, but on the basis of what caste and religious groups they represent or favour. This is strikingly manifest in the press coverage of the recent election campaign in the State, where few reporters have focused on issues of development or governance, reserving their energies instead on understanding what caste fragment was allying with which religious sect.”