Opinion

Subaltern Dignity Not Hindutva

The BJP may have lost in West Bengal, but it has grown. Why? Because it moved into a gap in the polity: caste. And the poor are not brainwashed sheep.

Subaltern Dignity Not Hindutva
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The West Bengal elections have ignited popular interest in the social dimensions of politics. Although the TMC has retained power in the state, the meteoric rise of the BJP from three seats in 2016 to a whopping 77 has excited obs­ervers across the political spectrum. It has increased its voteshare from 10 per cent to 38 per cent within a span of five years. In explaining the rise of the BJP, some commentators highlight the role of welfare transfers. Others lament the introduction of identity politics. Commentaries on the crisis in the state’s ‘party society’, the changing contours of bhadralok politics and the emergence of “subaltern Hindutva” abound. However, the prolific discussions on the growing support for the BJP, especially among the oppressed castes, have ignored a key component of their politics: the role of political ideas.

Oppressed people, like everyone else, harbour political ideas about what kind of society they want to live in and how to get there. In West Bengal, conversations with them, in both rural and urban areas, inevitably turn to themes such as shoshan (exp­loitation), anyay (injustice) and aty­achar (oppression): such themes cut across caste, gender and religious divisions. They identify themselves as goribmanush (poor people) who are poor not because of past karma or kismet but bec­ause the borolok (big people) have cornered resources and refuse to share it with others. As a Santhal woman in Maldah’s Tudtudiya hamlet told me when I interviewed her for my book on the politics of the poor, “Jaar mathaye joto tel, sheye aaro beshi paye” (those who have more, get even more).

Trickledown democracy

In postcolonial democracies such as ours, political parties have mobilised votes in the name of the poor. As a consequence, the poor themselves—many of whom are from Dalit, Adivasi, OBC and Muslim backgrounds—have appropriated ideas of justice, equality and dignity. They support political parties that take seriously the idea of dignity.

The quest for dignity often brings the oppressed in conflict with the elites. Demanding dignity involves renegotiating status, which is inherently a zero-sum game. However, because oppressed people depend on the elites for employment, goodwill and sheer survival, they cannot aff­ord whole-scale class conflict to liquidate their antagonists. Rather, the ensuing conflict is “agonistic”—in which the different sides seek to rec­onfigure power relations rather than annihilate each other. West Bengal today is seeing an intensification of this “agonistic” politics between the oppressed and the elites.

Interestingly, the BJP has successfully portrayed itself as the party that offers dignity to the oppressed while casting the TMC as the party of the elites. Indeed, if the CSDS post-poll analysis after the 2019 Lok Sabha elections is to be believed, support for the BJP among Dalits, Adivasis and OBCs—who comprise the bulk of poor people in the state—more than doubled between 2014 and 2019. The 2021 post-poll survey suggests that support for the BJP among such demographics as Dalit men, Adivasi men and OBC women was much higher than among their elite caste counterparts.

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How did the BJP do this? Because the idea of a monolithic Hindu rashtra would prima facie seem to promise equality, respect and dignity to members of communities who continue to be discriminated against as “low caste” and “untouchable”. Arguably, this has been the party’s strategy elsewhere: research I conducted in Ahmedabad with the Cambridge sociologist Manali Desai illustrates the ways in which Dalits and Adivasis in that city perceive the BJP, more than any other party, to have offered them respect and recognition as equal members of society. Oppressed people vote for the BJP not bec­ause they are brainwashed. Instead, their vote for the party is motivated by their quest for dignity, which they believe the BJP—rather than any other—is best placed to confer.

Ideas vs identity politics

Although similar, the BJP’s strategy in West Bengal has a twist to it. As several researchers have documented, caste discrimination has been a blind spot for the Left Front which ruled the State for 34 years—theoretically never articulated, and always subsumed under the category of ‘class’. The TMC, by contrast, actively recognised caste as a crucial factor in soc­ial life by extending 17 per cent reservations for the state’s OBC communities. Long before PM Modi’s recent antics at Oraknadi, Mamata Banerjee sought, and bec­ame, a lifelong member of the Matua Mahasangh, signalling her commitment to redressing the dem­ands of recognition sought by members of the Matua community, historically stigmatised as “unt­ouchable”. Indeed, Mamata battered the bhadralok bias of West Bengal’s political elites. However, the TMC refrained from entrenching a conflictual politics focused on redressing caste oppression in the state. That was a major limitation, since conflict is inescapable in democratic life, especially in the context of hierarchical soc­ial relations. Filling this void, the BJP has successfully displaced the inc­hoate but simmering conflict bet­ween the oppressed castes and elite castes onto other cleavages—namely, Hindu vs Muslim, citizen vs illegal mig­rant, and Indian vs Bangladeshi.

The BJP has not brainwashed West Bengal’s oppressed castes into supporting the Hindutva ideology. Nor has it attracted them by delivering welfare more effectively than the TMC (it hasn’t). It is also not the case that the state’s oppressed people are inherently anti-Muslim. Rather, the growing support for the party is motivated by the demand for dignity among the historically oppressed castes. Indeed, as an analysis by the Trivedi Centre for Political Data shows, almost half of all BJP MLAs are Dalit. The contrast with the TMC, where less than a quarter of MLAs are from opp­ressed caste backgrounds, cannot be starker. Consider Dilip Ghosh, the president of the state unit of the BJP. He is from the Sadgop community, listed as OBC in West Bengal. This is significant in a state where no politician from outside the elite caste club has come close to power, despite Dalits and OBCs together acc­ounting for almost 60 per cent of the state’s population. The BJP has enh­anced political representation of Dalits in its party, responding to Dalits’ demand for dignity in a state where they have long faced political marginalisation. This is a lesson the TMC ignores at its own peril: the party will hurtle into oblivion if it does not meet the demands for dignity expressed by oppressed castes in West Bengal. The reason, though simple, is often less than obvious to analysts: oppressed people take pol­itical ideas seriously. It is time that analysts of their politics, and those who do politics in their name, did so as well.

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The author is senior lecturer, Global Development Politics, at the University of York. He is the author of The Politics of the Poor: Negotiating Democracy in Contemporary India

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