UK-based scholars seek an answer to a crucial question: Why doesn’t the BJP face greater resistance from lower castes in Gujarat?

???????????????By Dr Manali Desai and Dr Indrajit Roy*

Part 1Our recent research consisted of up to 50 in-depth interviews across two generations of men and women specifically from Dalit, Other Backward Class (OBC) and Muslim communities. The research aimed to understand how political subjectivities – the ensemble of beliefs through which individuals interpret and respond to their position within society – have shifted across two generations: those born during the 1950s and 1960s, and those born during the 1980s. This part of the project thus captured a period of major political and social transformation in the context of two decades of neoliberal reforms.

The research revealed the fractured, contested and ambivalent character of political subjectivity among our interviewees, which led us to question the mythologies that have become pervasive in popular and academic treatments of Hindutva in Gujarat. The recent and third electoral victory of Narendra Modi as Chief Minister of Gujarat has intensified the myth-making that is partly his style of politics and partly a product of the media frenzy over his future. The BJP’s ability to defy anti-incumbency and trounce the Congress repeatedly in elections has led to a view among supporters that Hindutva has successfully tapped the political imagination and energies of communities well outside the middle classes. The BJP claims that the people of Gujarat support Modi because of the development he has brought to the state.

Yet numerous studies show that social development in Gujarat lags behind many states, and the benefits of development have not reached beyond the middle classes. The paradox of why people vote for parties/ideologies when it is against their interests to do so is, then, nowhere more evident than in urban Gujarat where poor Dalits and OBCs vote for the BJP despite its cultural and political affinities with the upper castes. In a society where caste hierarchies and exclusion are so prominent, why does the BJP not face greater resistance from the lower castes?

A political subjectivity lens provides some answers. Political subjectivities have a much longer-term orientation than the time frame of political polls and voting studies. The problems of accuracy that plague exit polls, surprise victories (e.g. Congress-led UPA victory in 2004 and 2009) as well as unpredictable anti- versus pro-incumbency voting have occupied a lot of analytical space of late. The puzzle deepens when we consider that voting turnout in Gujarat in the December 2012 elections reached 71 per cent, suggesting that the vote is a dearly held democratic right. Nevertheless, our research suggests that we need to pay greater attention to the underlying orientations, disappointments and despondent subjectivities of those who are left out of the liberalisation process.

Many of our interviews were conducted during the 2012 elections, and we noted widespread cynicism about politics itself, which appears to contradict the high turnout. Thus reading the vote as signifying something about political subjectivity is fraught with problems. Instead, people voted for reasons that were not easily reducible to standard variables or interests. Our interviewees cited a number of reasons for voting for particular parties, most of them involving decisions made as families, communities, and neighbourhoods rather than as individuals.

Our preliminary findings show three important factors for the support for Modi among constituencies that one might have expected to oppose him:

The social engineering of consensus around the promise and premise of development. Gujarat’s roads are certainly better than those other Indian states, there are several spaces for the leisure of its ‘neo-middle’ class, and there is little doubt that the availability of potable drinking water and electricity is taken for granted in most areas and colonies of Ahmedabad, a feat unmatched even in the national capital. Although human development indicators are far more pessimistic, our respondents were convinced that Gujarat was indeed more ‘developed’ than the rest of India.

However – and this was crucial – when discussions turned to the specific ways in which they may have benefited from development, there was considerable ambivalence. Most importantly, our interviewees lamented the casualisation and informalisation of the labour market and shrinking employment opportunities. These economic insecurities were voiced by a cross-section of families. A 50-year old OBC Hindu autorickshaw-driver who ferried one of us from Khadia to Vejalpur spoke about his retrenchment two decades ago from one of the city’s several textile mills, a sector that had until three decades ago been a primary source of employment for two-thirds of city’s working population; he took to driving the autorickshaw soon thereafter. His earnings, although not insubstantial, are characterised by insecurity. Similarly,  a 35-year old Dalit Hindu retailer of ‘fancy clothes’ who had been recently shifted from the Sabarmati Riverbank to make way for the beautification of the river front to a rehabilitation colony in Vatva, referred to a limited market for his wares in his new surroundings, given that everyone else there was, like him, “dumped from the city to make way for the pleasure of the wealthy.” A 25-year old Rabari Hindu man in Shahpur talked sullenly about his inability to land a job, which he linked to his inability to continue his education. His community is associated with tending livestock, a skill that offers him neither monetary renumeration nor the “ability”- as he puts it- to obtain a college degree.

Despite these insecurities, all three individuals are fiercely supportive of Modi on grounds that he has “developed” Gujarat, and assert that they too have benefitted from it. The success of the Modi regime in constructing a shared political identity around development, while decoupling it from employment security, is by far an important contributor to his successful recruitment of subaltern social groups to his electoral fortunes.

Other reasons for Modi’s success are the perception that the security environment in Ahmedabad has improved, and the sense among Dalits and OBCs that the BJP (Modi in particular) has offered them respect and opportunities for integration into upper caste society.

Part 2

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The perception that the security environment has improved. Many Hindus defined the past 10 years of BJP rule (since 2002) as one of ‘security’, citing the better law and order situation (i.e. absence of riots). This was despite the perceived lack of avenues outside oppressive work and declining living standards. There was a general perception, experienced first-hand by the authors, that Ahmedabad was by and large safe at very late hours: although public transport was not very reliable, autorickshaws plied till very late in the night. It was common to see – at least in the central parts of the city, the more conservative old town and the upscale western suburbs – young women, sometimes dressed in western outfits, out until late in the evening, albeit in groups.

This sense of security did not always find echo among the city’s Muslims, partially on account of them having been at the receiving end of state-orchestrated violence of 2002 as well as because the bulk of them were compelled to live in colonies and settlements with little or no public amenities such as tarred roads and streetlights. Increased security for the bulk of the Hindus has come at the expense of Muslims (as well as Dalits in rural Gujarat, as exemplified by police firing on four youth from among this community). The Chief Minister’s later electoral speeches bordered on scaremongering. In one, delivered in his home constituency, he commented on an alleged deal between arch-rival Pakistan and India’s central government controlled by his opponent the Congress Party. He warned his audience, a cheering crowd of perhaps over two thousand that if these policies continued, “the enemy would soon be knocking at your doors.”

The perception that Modi was the only guarantor of the state’s security, which would be severely compromised if the opposition acceded to power, was widespread among a majority of the Hindus. A few of our interviewees echoed sentiments widespread among Hindus that they had it coming: they had been flirting with ‘criminal elements’, the argument went, and ought to have been more sober in their ‘support’ for gangsters such as the dreaded Abdul Latif. Most Muslims reacted angrily to the suggestion that such gangsters had been heroes for their community, but accepted that they had not done enough to counter such a characterisation. Their insecurities notwithstanding, they were emphatic that they would cast their vote and try and change their situation through electoral mechanisms. One 45-year old Muslim widow from the 2002 riots in Juhapura was clear: “We are citizens of this country. There is no question of us not voting. That’s our right, and our obligation.” Such spiritedness was matched by the Hindus: a 45-year-old OBC Hindu shopkeeper in Khadiya said, “we must vote in order to preserve our security. Otherwise, it will be like the misrule of the 1980s.” As with development, the Modi regime appears to have successfully constructed a political identity around enhanced security of life, including the bulk of the population to the exclusion of others.

The belief that the BJP encourages rapprochement between the different ends of the caste spectrum into a socially respectable undifferentiated Hindu community. Our interviews also suggested that some Dalits and OBCs felt that the BJP (Modi in particular) had offered them respect and integration into upper caste society. An OBC Hindu family from Shahpur, of the Devipujak community, proudly said, “Modi gave us identity, respect.” That they continued to be (and feel) discriminated by local elites from the self-styled ritually pure communities was not inconsequential to them, but they could draw solace from the fact that at least they could now claim a respectable status. Modi’s own elevation as the son of a local teacher to that of the state’s Chief Minister, and his own origin in a ritually ‘low’ (but not ‘untouchable’) caste, was often held up as a model of upward social mobility offered by the BJP in the state. Indeed, central to the political identity forged by the BJP was the leaders’ claim that it encouraged rapprochement between the different ends of the caste spectrum into a socially respectable undifferentiated Hindu community.

The Congress Party was seen as a party of the poor, of Dalits and Muslims, without the promise of being lifted out of these social locations and their associated stigma. The BJP, on the other hand, offered Modi’s career trajectory as the model for those who aspired to better lives. Although there were reportedly many party leaders who disdain him on account of his social origins (with particularly crude and vulgar jokes about the caste group he is affiliated with), he remains an important symbol for the upward mobility that is crucial to maintaining the mythology of BJP rule. At the same time, he is also offered as the quintessential ‘subaltern’ hero, battling the dynastic rule of the Congress Party, a disparaging English-speaking liberal secular intelligentsia, and yet one who can do business with corporate interests and get them to set up shop in the state.

In a situation of pervasive material insecurity and a deep sense of ‘lack’, with little hope held out for the future by either of the two political parties, the rhetoric of a development-oriented security-enhancing regime offering avenues for apparent upward social mobility found many takers. That this was fallible was evident from election results in Sanand, the showcase industrial township a few kilometres north of Ahmedabad, which provided home to the much-hyped Tata Nano automobile project. A resident complained of land deals being cut between the supra-local BJP leaders and representatives of big business with little benefit to the ordinary folk. Long considered a safe seat for the BJP, these elections were expected to cement the party’s long-term presence in the constituency; however, the party suffered a defeat, exposing the chinks in its strategy of promulgating development as a strategy of social engineering.

Our research suggests that the method of correlating electoral outcomes with social structural data gives us a clue to the kinds of ‘pacts’ that are forged between parties and citizens, but does not tell us much about the subjective political orientations of these citizens. The high voter turnout suggests that people in Gujarat are politicised, and keen to make their voices heard. However, there seemed to be very little positive sense that much would change in their lives once the elections were over. The predominant subjective orientation was pessimism towards the future – not many felt either they or their children would have a better life.

*Dr Manali Desai is with the Department of Sociology, London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), and Dr Indrajit Roy is research fellow with the Queen Elizabeth House, University of Oxford. The article is based on interviews they conducted across several communities in Ahmedabad, and is part of the Leverhulme research project “Beyond Identity? Markets and Logics of Democratisation in India, 1991-Present”. Reproduced from two-part blog in LSE’s online engagement with India

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