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.”
But as the example of the Aggrawal community illustrates, it is impossible to focus on development or governance in isolation from caste fragments. Reporters who choose to do so are not doing what they should be: reporting. Instead, they are imposing liberal beliefs on a reality that does not cater to them. Even in urban settings outside the metropolis, identity, to a large extent, has a huge overlap with occupation. A policy such as demonetisation, or any developmental activity, for that matter, will be filtered through caste. The caste-based politics of UP and Bihar today is a much more accurate reflection of society in the two states than the upper-caste dominated politics that once controlled these regions—and catered to select communities—was. In much the same way, this is true of Bengal where Mamata Bannerjee, the state’s chief minister, is far more representative of the reality of the state than the bhadralok ever were.
For reporters, the liberal desire to visualise a society that they would like leaves them with a selective or distorted view. Take the case of the Jats in western UP. What seems to be apparent is that they have largely rallied to support Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal, deserting the BJP, which had greatly benefited from their vote in 2014. From Mathura to Muzzafarnagar, every Jat I spoke to emphasised a different reason for this fact—the BJP’s failure to grant reservation; its inability to help those who have had cases registered against them because of their involvement in the Jat agitation or the Muzaffarnagar riots; the delayed payments from sugar mills; the impact of demonetisation; the disrespect shown to Ajit Singh by the BJP as well as the Samajwadi Party-Congress combine when he could not seal an alliance with either; and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s failure to pay homage to the former prime minister Chaudhary Charan Singh on the latter’s birth anniversary in December.