June 24, 2021
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Modi As Abraham Lincoln?

Prof Kancha Ilaiah recently argued that Narendra Modi-led BJP can potentially liberate backward castes, classes and tribes because Modi belongs to a backward caste. Really?

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Modi As Abraham Lincoln?
Modi As Abraham Lincoln?

Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.


—Martin Luther King Jr.

How does one react when one of India’s prominent intellectuals and tireless activists against caste and all forms of oppression in society, turns around and shockingly finds social and political liberation in the same ideology that he has had scathing criticisms for in the past? Thus, Professor Kancha Ilaiah, author of the radical Why I Am Not a Hindu (which has been compared with Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth), who is a staunch critic of Hindutva and Brahmanism and for the establishment of a Dalit-Bahujan society, recently argued that Narendra Modi-led BJP can potentially liberate backward castes, classes and tribes because Modi belongs to a backward caste. How does one read this prognosis in the light of the past seven months of the Narendra Modi regime and the unravelling of Hindutva’s development agenda?

Ilaiah argues that Hindutva is undergoing a process of Mandalisation since 1992, and Narendra Modi’s ascension to prime ministership is very demonstrative of this. Unlike the Congress and the Left, the BJP and the Sangh Parivar, despite their past opposition to reservation, realize how crucial the large numbers of OBCs are for the survival of the party and the Hindu religion itself. But this does not mean that they will go as far as Dalitisation, a systematic dismantling of caste practices. Nevertheless, Ilaiah believes that if Modi initiates the process of liberation, he “can become a cult-figure for backwards,” an iconic figure like Abraham Lincoln, who liberated the African Americans by abolishing slavery. Ilaiah does not see a trace of irony in comparing Narendra Modi to Abraham Lincoln. But more importantly, he seems to think that becoming a progressive and an iconic figure of history is a matter of choice. One’s past history of politics and ideology and the forces that propelled one to power (and keep you in power) do not matter here; you can assume an entirely new political visage that has no connection to the past. Hindutva and its foot soldiers seem to have played no part in the election victory. Here the fundamental problem with Ilaiah’s thesis is that he draws a distinction between Narendra Modi and the Sangh Parivar, the former being a liberatory force both in social and economic aspects, and the latter, a regressive one upholding the Varna dharma, and against economic development for all castes. This seriously obfuscates their inter-constitutiveness and how both are dependent on each other.

Mandalisation of Hindutva is based not on the annihilation of caste, or equality of castes, as Ilaiah himself recognizes, but an instrumental use of caste for the building of an hegemonic Hindutva project which is still organized under a Brahmanical framework. While political representation of lower castes is absolutely vital, Hindutva has reduced it to a symbolism rather than seeking a structural and material reorganization of the condition of the backward castes. Even the accommodation of lower castes in the leadership structure is camouflaged by persisting domination of upper castes in substantive positions of power. Thus while the Prime Minister is an OBC, Brahmins alone are 30 per cent of the cabinet-ranked ministers! OBCs and SC/STs are still only 44 per cent of the council of ministers. Despite the supposed Mandalization of the BJP, the UPA II under Manmohan Singh was, ironically, less upper-caste dominated than the Modi ministry. Earlier, analysing the profile of BJP MPs in the Hindi Belt in five Lok Sabha elections from 1989-1999, scholar Christophe Jaffrelot had shown that despite the reduction of upper castes and increase in OBCs, the BJP was still an upper caste party.

The same hopes for Modi as a liberator is seen when Ilaiah reposes faith in him in the economic domain as well: “We have not given power to Modi to increase the wealth of the multi-national companies. We need a change.” The paradigm of MNC-led neoliberal capitalist development, with its destructive consequences for the dispossessed, that has been implemented in Gujarat in the past, and is the overall economic framework of the Modi government, does not matter here. One can just wipe off all that and start governing in the interests of the poor. But the slew of decisions of the Modi government over the past months diluting environmental regulations, whittling down the powers of gram sabhas over forestlands, decontrolling the prices of vital medicines, relaxing land acquisition rules curbing labour rights and massively cutting social sector funding have been emphatically favouring big capital, both Indian and national, at the cost of the poor, the Adivasis, the workers and the environment. Economic forces are of no importance, for Modi, according to Ilaiah, has come to power only on the basis of his backward caste status. The entire discourse of (neo-liberal) development (backed by the corporate class) in the Modi campaign has had no role.

But what is truly inexplicable in Ilaiah’s thesis is the obfuscation of the Hindutva agenda as something that exists outside the Modi-led BJP government. And the pitfalls of this is now dangerously becoming evident as the development mantra tears open to reveal everyday the gory face of a politics based on communal hatred which was always present. One did not have to be a sage to predict at the moment of victory what state power can do to the right-wing forces that have been biding their time, waiting patiently to place another brick in the grand edifice of a Hindu Rashtra. In the alarming context in which Muslims are increasingly being reduced to numbers with no political significance or representation (the Modi ministry is the most Hindu in independent India with an absolutely trivial representation for minorities), Ilaiah argues, “there is no secularism”; for him, “it is a bogus theory”! This is when he recognizes that Hindutva’s “main enemies will be Muslims and Christians” and that he was always for the establishment of a spiritual democracy in which Muslims and Christians have the right to propagate and expand their views. He also argues that evangelical Christianity is immensely attractive to the oppressed Hindu castes and RSS can do nothing to stop conversions to Christianity as it is not willing to abolish caste. But he does not see any contradiction in these two assertions.

Hindutva, unfortunately, is not a bogey invented by “casteist seculars” as argued by some Dalit-Bahujan intellectuals like Ilaiah, but has real material consequences as has been shown time and again. Thus secularism cannot be anything but bogus. In a recent study by Yale University researchers looking at 40 years of data (the first and the most comprehensive of its kind) regarding communal violence concludes that the election of Congress MLAs caused a “significant reduction in Hindu-Muslim rioting.” If these MLAs in the dataset had actually lost their elections, they estimate that “India would have experienced 10 per cent more Hindu-Muslim riots (1,118 instead of 998) and 46 per cent more riot casualties (43,000 instead of 30,000).” These are seriously large numbers and are explained by the fact that the Congress party has strong ties to Muslim voters, and any religious polarization caused by rioting benefits right-wing parties like the BJP.

The equally serious and insidious aspect of the Mandalisation of Hindutva, ignored by Ilaiah, is how the lower caste leadership and cadres are used by the Sangh Parivar to further communal polarisation through actual violence or otherwise. What had previously existed as disparate low castes (and in peaceful coexistence with the Muslim community) now emerge, post-communal violence, as a “Hindu” community pitted against Muslims as in Muzzaffarnagar or in Trilokpuri in Delhi. The rabid communal pronouncements of lower caste BJP leaders like the Sadhvi Niranjan Jyotis and Sakshi Maharajs are a reflection of the darker side of a necessary process of Mandalisation which drives a wedge between religious minorities and lower castes who in fact share commonalities of oppression.

When Modi as Prime Minister maintains a deafening silence in the face of brazen efforts by his party colleagues at religious polarisation, or presides over the government’ sinister communalisation endeavours like devaluing the religious festivals of minorities, what qualities of Abraham Lincoln does Ilaiah see in him? And how can he even now place hope in Modi as somebody who can rein in the RSS agenda?
Astoundingly, along with the demolition of secularism, Ilaiah wants, as he has argued before, the complete demolition and dismantling of the Left and communist parties in India. So he thinks that in a country which has some of the most egregious forms of economic exploitation in the world and vast numbers of poor, there is no relevance for communist or Left parties. He dismisses them as “basically upper caste Brahmanic networks.” Ilaiah is following here Kanshi Ram’s famous formulation that communists are “green snakes hidden in green grass.” His disdain towards the Left is seen in the fact that he wants to start a “massive campaign” which will exhort people to not to join the communist parties even if that means joining Narendra Modi. The Right is always preferable to the Left because at least it is giving spaces to the OBCs now. He questions the communist record in Kerala, where according to him, no Dalit or OBC from the communist parties has become a Chief Minister.

This is factually wrong as the originally upper-caste dominated communist movement in Kerala has in the recent times produced a Chief Minister and party secretaries (as well as many MLAs) from the OBC Ezhava community. Communism in Kerala has, of course, not eliminated caste and its hierarchies. But the limited economic and political empowerment the oppressed castes could achieve through the Communist movement in Kerala is far superior to that of any Hindutva project elsewhere in India. While the Dalits are still at the bottom of the social structure, the Human Development Index (HDI) value for Dalits in Kerala is almost one and a half times more than the second-placed state, and more importantly, the gap between Dalits and non-Dalits/Adivasis is 11 per cent while the all-India difference is 23 per cent. The economic struggles by the Communists and the social-democratic policies pursued by their governments have had some impact on this outcome. The key feature of these has been the universal provisioning of health, education and essential food by the state something that has been unmatched by right-wing governments.

Therefore, the differences between the Right and the Left are not meaningless when it comes to alleviating material deprivation of the oppressed castes even when both are marked by caste hierarchies or various socio-religious conservatisms. While the argument that casteism which is practiced under the progressive veneer of class struggle (Communists as green snakes) is more difficult to dislodge has some merit, this does not make the Right an appealing possibility over the Left as Ilaiah argues. It ignores the differences in material consequences for oppressed castes between Right-and Left-based mobilisations (as it shockingly papers over the devastating outcomes of right-wing ascendancy in the last three decades). As Anand Teltumbde argues with regard to Dalits, the Left parties even “with their numerous follies were still their natural allies” (this argument does not discount the fact the Left itself is in need of a radical reinventing) Rather than an empty equation of the Right and the Left, we need a more nuanced distinction between different types of states in India (Atul Kohli, for example, outlines three tendencies: developmental, neo-patrimonial and social-democratic) and their differing impact on marginalized classes and castes.

Ilaiah also propounds a simplistic model in which everything that is native is ideal compared to what is foreign. Thus he has disdain for foreign-educated intellectuals, who according to him preserve Brahmanism in the name of secularism. Again, he believes Narendra Modi’s “emergence from grassroots is good” for he was not educated in foreign elite institutions and also finds Modi’s slogan “Hard work, not Harvard” appealing for it resonates with the masses. Ilaiah’s view is a crude nativism which fails to appreciate that the forces of liberation straddle the native/foreign divide.

Ilaiah is for “spiritual democracy, reforms in all religions, anti-idol worship, Dalitization, [and] Mandalization of politics.” But his belief that one of the means to achieve this is Narendra Modi is, besides being ridden with contradictions, to participate in the ominous exercise of forgetting the past and rewriting of history in the image of the victor. He had argued earlier that Hindutva is Brahmanism, and following Ambedkar, “Brahmanism has no organic link with Dalit-Bahujan life, world-views, rituals and even politics.” And now to argue for an association with a Modi-ised Hindutva because it is supposedly Mandalising gives legitimacy to its appropriation of caste which, as we have seen, is more symbolic than real equality among castes.

It strikes at the root of the very unity that Ilaiah seeks to build among “SC-ST-BC-minorities” against Brahmanism/Hindutva. Further, he ignores the material realities spawned by the latest phase of capitalist development in India. In a society like India, which is defined by the monstrosities of caste, it is inevitable that caste-based political parties and movements provide a major means of liberation. But the struggle for equality in these has had a tendency to be reduced to political representation alone. As Ashwini Deshpande has shown, the Mandalisation of political leadership has a very weak correlation with an improvement of the material condition of the lower castes in terms of jobs, wages, education, etc. This demonstrates that the dismantling of caste hierarchies would require a broader and structural transformation of all aspects of society rather than an instrumental alliance with Hindutva.

Furthermore, at some point, the lower caste political movements will also have to contend with other intersecting and overlapping oppressions. The fracturing of the OBC and Dalit movements into numerous parties and factions is a reflection of caste and class divisions within these. The benefits of sustained political mobilizations of oppressed castes have disproportionately gone to a few castes at the top fuelling disenchantment among the excluded castes within the marginalized. This leads to new political categories like Most Backward Castes (MBCs) and Mahadalits and struggles based on them. The greatest hurdle that stands in the way of the liberation of the oppressed is the failure to build a united front of the oppressed castes and classes leading right-wing forces to exploit it by crafting social coalitions like that of Brahmins, Thakurs, MBCs and Mahadalits, as in UP recently. Thus BJP’s national vote share among Dalits doubled to 24 per cent in 2014 Loks Sabha elections. Rather than articulating a position which tries to undertake the difficult task of negotiating and uniting oppressions based on caste, class, religion, gender, etc., Professor Kancha Ilaiah takes recourse to a regressive identity politics which becomes a handmaiden to a dangerous idea of India that is taking inglorious flight. And in doing so, progressive politics loses a formidable warrior from its ranks.

Nissim Mannathukkaren is with Dalhousie University, Canada and the author of The Rupture with Memory: Derrida and the Specters that Haunt Marxism

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