By putting up of a Dalit, Ram Nath Kovind, as its candidate for the Indian Presidency and ensuring his victory with a 65% majority, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has reached a high watermark in its bid to be accepted by all sections of Hindu society, including the Dalits, India’s most depressed caste group previously shunned as “untouchables”.
Kovind’s candidature and election are significant because, historically, the BJP has been known as a party of the Hindu upper castes, principally, the Brahmin and Bania (trader) castes. Its political and social base was too narrow for it to make a national impact. The opposition Congress party, in contrast, was socially and economically broad-based. Politically, the Congress was Centre-Left. It also had a truly pan-Indian appeal
But today, the BJP, based on the Hindu-nationalistic or Hindutwa ideology, is forging ahead of its rivals to become broad-based in every way – in terms of caste, class, and regional appeal. Hindutwa is no longer a passion or a hobby horse of some upper castes in Hindi-speaking North India, but is accepted by Backward Castes, Dalits and tribes, and in the Hindi and non-Hindi speaking states also.
The reason for the BJP’s confidence lies in the growing appeal of Hindutwa in North and East India. There are also signs that Hindutwa might catch up in the South. Already it has a presence in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, and, before long, could make inroads in Kerala too. Only Tamil Nadu appears to pose a formidable challenge, as it is still in the hold of the secular “Dravidian” Tamil sub-nationalist ideology at least in the political field.
OBCs and Dalits
The most striking new phenomenon is the BJP’s growing appeal in North India among the non-Brahmin and non-Bania (trader) Hindu Backward castes (called Other Backward Castes of OBCs in official parlance) and Dalits.
The OBCs, who tended to gravitate to the Congress and the Left parties because of their contradiction with the socially and economically well-placed Upper Caste Brahmins and Banias, are now strongly backing the BJP. And so are the Dalits, who had earlier thronged the Congress because it was the party of Mahatma Gandhi, the first Indian political leader to take up the issue of untouchability at the national political level.
Gandhi had re-named the Dalits, then known as “Untouchables”, as “Harijans” or the Children of God. He set an example to others by staying in a Harijan colony in Delhi. He strove to get the upper Hindu castes to accept the Dalits as Hindus and not outside the pale of Hindu society as was the case from time immemorial.
Ram Nath Kovind
"Kovind’s candidature and election are significant because, historically, the BJP has been known as a party of the Hindu upper castes, principally, the Brahmin and Bania (trader) castes"
The shift from the secular Congress and the Left to the BJP, is rooted in the recent history of India. In pre-independence days, because of the overwhelming appeal of Gandhi, the Dalits were with the Congress disregarding the anti-Hindu and anti-Gandhi tirade of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, the Dalit legal luminary who wanted to take over the leadership of Dalits.
Clearly, the majority of Dalits, even at that time, wanted to be within the Hindu fold and get recognition in it, and not leave it to become Christian or Muslim. When in the 1950s, Ambedkar converted to Buddhism, only some in his own Mahar caste in Maharashtra, joined him. Dalits across the country and the political spectrum did look upon Ambedkar as their “icon” and worshipped him, and do so even today. But they did not and do not follow his anti-Hindu and separatist ideology.
As former Delhi University Social Anthropologist Prof. Jit Singh Uberai put it: “ In India there has always been a rush to get into the system, not to get out of it.” The Dalits wanted to remain in the Hindu system and get recognition and a better deal in it and not alienate themselves from it.
Role of Reservations
The incentive to remain in the Hindu fold magnified after India became independent. The new constitution drafted by Dalit leader Ambedkar gave 15% reservation to the Dalits in educational institutions and government jobs from the bottom to the top rung. Electoral constituencies were reserved for them to enable them to contest for political office.
Although it took decades for the long-deprived Dalits to make use of the reservations, a Dalit middle class eventually emerged. Economic growth, industrialization and urbanization blurred caste distinctions at least in the urban milieu. The legal ban on hate speech against Dalits also helped tone down animosities. Political parties started cultivating Dalits as they were turning out to be exceptionally enthusiastic about exercising
BJP Becomes Reformist
In the early decades of independent India, the Hindutwa predecessors of BJP were not into social reform or acceptance of marginalized Hindu groups into the Hindu fold through a re-worked concept of Hinduism. They were primarily anti-Muslim and anti-Pakistan and sought to militarise the Hindus against Muslims. In fact, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Hindu Mahasabha (HM) ran a tirade against the social reform provisions in India’s new constitution saying that these were alien to the culture of “Bharat”.
The political party that the RSS spawned, the Jana Sangh, was also not into social reform. And, as a party of Brahmins and Banias, Hindu revivalists and anti-Muslim Hindu nationalists, it had only limited appeal. In the 1980s, when the V.P. Singh government sought to introduce 27% reservation for the OBCs in educational institutions and government jobs, Hindutwa forces not only opposed it violently but floated a parallel anti-Muslim movement to destroy the Babri mosque in Ayodhya and build a Lord Rama temple in its place.
However, a growing country-wide disenchantment with the Congress saw the non-Congress and non-Leftist parties taking Centre-stage in Indian politics. Caste-based parties and coalitions of small parties came to power in some states. By then, the Hindutwa forces had formed the BJP, which sought a wider voter base by shedding its earlier social inhibitions. The BJP started cultivating the OBCs and the Dalits with single-minded devotion.
By this time, the Dalits were ready to lend an ear to the BJP and the Hindutwa organizations associated with it (collectively called the “Sangh Parivar”). Sangh Parivar organizations started projecting a non-Brahminized and non-caste type of Hinduism which stressed Hindu culture, beliefs and mythologies and avoided
Hindutwa leaders like Narendra Modi also began to co-opt Dalit deities into the Hindu pantheon by participating in their worship. They shed their antipathy to Ambedkar and brought out a book praising him as a “Hindu icon”. Pictures of Modi bowing low before idols of Dr. Ambedkar were seen as a
mark of acceptance.
The Dalits and OBCs had by now developed contradictions with the Muslims whose bid to secure reservations on par with them was opposed. Many Hindu-Muslim riots were actually “Dalit/OBC Muslim riots”. The contradiction with the Muslims made the Dalits and Muslims accept Hindutwa.
The other factor which worked in favour of the BJP was its policy of giving a place to the Dalits in its political leadership in contrast to the Congress and the Left which kept them as subordinates and treated them merely as a vote bank.