Contrary to the claims that it is an upper-caste party, the BJP’s social base is now broad-based and mirrors the Hindu society
The shift of the poor, rural and lower caste voters is ideological, and those who identify with BJP aren’t swayed by short-term considerations
A pan-Hindu unity, and a Hindu political being seems to be emerging in India. Research shows that this, distinct from the old Hindu Nationalist plank, binds today’s BJP
The Opposition should be careful to not give a signal that Hindu divided by caste is desirable but Hindu united against caste is not
In a paper, The Rise Of Second Dominant Party System in India: BJP’s New Social Coalition in 2019, researchers Rahul Verma and Pradeep Chhibbar use the Lokniti-CSDS survey data to shed light on the factors behind the rise of the BJP.
Several other scholars have also inquired into the factors behind the rise of the BJP.
Here are the key takeaways:
1. BJP has substantially increased its support base among rural, poor and lower caste voters
The rise of BJP is not an upper caste phenomena nor an example of ‘Brahminlash’ - where the privileged upper castes, angered from the rise of the lower castes, voted for BJP.
Using the NES 2019 data, the researchers created five kinds of BJP voters - upper caste, OBC, SC and ST, Muslims, Others.
The paper shows that the party has substantially increased its support base among rural, poor and lower caste voters. While the party is often dubbed as anti-Muslim, BJP has also shown a marginal increase in its Muslim support base.
The data also shows that in BJP’s support base, the share of upper middle class and middle class voters has declined, while that of the voters from the poor section has surged.
The poor constitute around 31 per cent of the overall voter base, and 40 per cent of the BJP voter base. On the other hand, middle class and above voters constitute 35 per cent of the voter base, and 29 per cent of the base of the BJP.
The BJP’s vote share in 2019, increased from 31.1 per cent to 37.4 per cent. Over 34 per cent Dalits voted for the BJP in 2019 as compared to around 24 per cent in 2014.
The difference between the party’s vote share in urban and rural constituencies reduced from 8.9 percentage points in 2014 to merely 3.5 percentage points in 2019.
The BJP also engages more educated, and younger sections than the other parties.
2. A pan-Hindu unity is emerging
Rahul Verma says that “the BJP's social base has now become broad-based and mirrors the Hindu society”.
He also states that “a new kind of ethnopolitical majoritarianism now binds BJP. This is distinct from the old Hindu Nationalist plank”.
The paper argues that “a new form of ethno-political majoritarianism delinked from religious Hindu nationalism was key to the party’s ability to attract new voters”.
The term “ethno-political majoritarianism” is interesting.
Unity despite a diversity of castes, and the end of caste discrimination - these have been the goals of the successive governments of India since independence.
Isn’t it plausible that if different policies in this direction achieved some success, logically, a consolidated Hindu vote could emerge?
The Poona pact between Gandhi and Ambedkar, an assimilation of their ideas, laid the foundation of the integration of the hitherto excluded castes as equals into the mainstream. The end-goal of this process was a Hindu society free from the hierarchies of caste.
Majoritarianism can be an outcome of the consolidation of a group that is numerically dominant, just as secessionism can be an an outcome of consolidation of a minority group. It doesn’t necessarily mean that that must be the case.
There is no fundamental contradiction between democracy and a majority religion bloc. Similar, and more consolidated blocs exist in all the major democracies including the US.
The rise of Hindus as a political group was inevitable given the political trends after the independence.
If Hindu as a consolidated group is an abomination in political sphere, why the constitution clearly mentions ‘Hindu’ as a category when it comes to differential application of the principle of non-interference by the state in the religious matters?
Scholars like Rajeev Bhargava have given the socio-cultural context as the reason behind the Indian constitution’s violation of the secular principle in giving preferential treatment to non-Hindu religious groups, and cited the unique characteristics of Hindu society to justify it.
It is important to inquire if the Hindus (including Sikh, Jain, Buddhist, as given in the Constitution) were incentivised by this model of secularism to change themselves in ways that the proponents of the same model are now finding problematic.
3. The shift towards BJP is ideological, not just due to short term considerations
Rahul Verma states that “more than electoral victories and defeats, increasing party-identification with BJP is likely to have serious implications on the longevity of the new party system”.
He also makes a point that the “shift is ideological, not guided by government performance etc and that the identifiers aren't swayed by short-term considerations”.
4. Modi is bringing back social politics in electoral politics
Professor Badri Narayan argues that the BJP might be bringing a welcome change from the trend of the Indian politics since 1990s when “experts-turned-leaders were disconnected with the public and in the name of doing the politics of governance, emerged as arm-chair politicians”.
"Many politicians stopped having a direct connect with the people. They became dependent on experts and white-collar political advisers. These political pundits of Lutyen’s Delhi, the term used by PM Modi extensively during the election campaign, had no connect with the people”.
“Social media, TV debates and big rallies at the time of elections were their only channel of communication to the public. The task of working in the society was outsourced to a new institution, namely the NGO, and politicians stayed aloof from the society”.
Badri Narayan argues that Modi is attempting to being social politics back into the electoral politics.
“Prime Minister Modi’s is evolving his vision of the Indian state from the intellectual resources of thinkers such as Vivekananda, popular Hindu traditions, Deendayal Upadhyaya and from the RSS’s own intellectual sources. He is also trying to include radical thinkers like Ambedkar and Lohia in his statecraft to build what he calls, New India”.
5. BJP win is not predicated on its social media performance
The study on “Political Behaviour and Social Media” by the Lokniti-CSDS conducted in April-May 2019 found out that the BJP’s vote share lead over the Congress among social media users was actually lower than in 2014.
The paper noted that the greatest gains made by the BJP were among those who did not use the platforms of Twitter and Facebook at all compared to those who did.
The study stated that the BJP would have won the election even if the social media was taken out of the equation.
Lessons for Opposition
The above mentioned observations should spark some serious course correction by the Opposition.
The first one would be to stop dismissing BJP’s rise as an aberration of history (like fascism is alleged to be), and a result of “collective insanity”.
For one, it would be really hard to explain why Indian people would be more “insane” today than in 1950, given the gains in wealth, democratic penetration, representation, education, health etc, especially when the politics as well as academics have since been dominated by Leftist ideology.
As the research shows, the BJP of today is not the same as that decades ago, but the Opposition’s counter to BJP is essentially the same. It is seriously over-estimating its capacity to throw labels at the right wing that stick.
A lot of the Opposition tactics are premised on Left’s intellectual hegemony. This hegemony has come under serious challenge, especially with the spread of internet and social media.
Therefore, the attempts to reduce a whole spectrum of non-Left thought to BJP, and delegitimise it as composed of power-hungry fanatics who want to secure their feudal privileges is not only dishonest, but also a strategic mistake.
The truth is that BJP is just one part of a wider phenomena where the Indian people are questioning the settled consensus thrust down their throat by politico-academic complex in the last seventy years.
Around three decades ago, V S Naipaul had predicted this trend and asked its detractors, “Do not dismiss them. Treat them seriously. Talk to them”.
A crucial point made by Verma is that “.. Hindu Nationalism, Ethnopolitical Majoritarianism, Hindu religious Practices and Conservatism are distinct phenomenons. They may have areas of overlap. This differentiation is crucial to understand Modi's appeal”.
The Left will have to recognise the nuances of the right wing, and engage with it.
To cry “trolls”, “bhakts”, “fascists”, “EVM tampering” in order to purge the right wing thought from the table of discussion may not work for long.
The distinction between "Hindu nationalism" and "ethnopolitical majoritarianism” that Verma has talked about also indicates why appeals to Hinduism vs Hindutva, and temple-hopping during elections might fail as a strategy.
Today’s Hindu might not be thrilled about the Congress trying to undermine his rise as a political being by diagnosing it as simply a rise in Hindu religiosity - and attempts to manipulate it by branding Rahul Gandhi a ‘Shiv bhakt’ and a ‘Janeudhari’.
The charge of identity politics against BJP may also not hit home with the voters as there is no evidence to suggest that the opposition parties don’t indulge in it. In fact, BJP’s identity politics comes off as more principled and strategic.
Like the rest of the young India, the lower caste voters are discovering that one particular ideology is not their only refuge, and they don’t necessarily need to work for a Marxist revolution first, or depend solely on state patronage for progress.
The Left is finding it hard to make peace with the fact that it does’t remains the sole saviour of the rural, the poor and the Dalits and Adivasis of the young India, and sometimes engages in mindless attacks against those members of these groups whose path of success diverges from its ideology.
PM Modi is from a modest background, and a “most backward caste”. He worked his way up, starting from a grassroot karyakarta, to the chief minister of Gujarat, and ultimately becoming the PM of the country.
When those, whose diagnosis for all the problems India faces is ‘Brahmin supremacy’, in an attempt to belittle Modi, start singing praises of two Brahmin former prime ministers (Nehru and Vajpayee), the people can only laugh at the theatrics.
The opposition should also think about the choice of words used for Modi’s criticism - a mocking of PM Modi for his allegedly flamboyant appearances - a suit with his name embroidered in his meeting with Obama, an "outlandish” head-gear in Nagaland, etc - reeks of the upper class privilege of making fun of the attempts of the underclass to look ‘classy’.
It is interesting that Modi and Shah, arguably the ministers most criticised by the Left in the history of independent India, are from a lower caste and a minority community, respectively.
With confidence and eloquence, the way Modi talks about his ati-pichhda identity is fresh and appealing to many. That the same Modi is dubbed ‘Hindu Hruday Samrat’ (The king of the hearts of the Hindus), and is arguably one of the most popular leaders of independent India, is a great signal to the lower-class about the promises of Hindutva.
Kancha Iliah Shepherd, who shot to fame with his book Why I am Not a Hindu, also celebrated Narendra Modi becoming the first OBC leader to take office as Prime Minister.
While the Left keeps claiming itself as the champion of the marginalised, the BJP might just give India its first SC prime minister who is equally strong and popular - a true landmark. A large number of progressivists in the right-wing are certainly hoping so.
For Opposition, a Hindu without caste is undesirable
In the Opposition, there has been a complacency regarding the BJP challenge because of the prediction of its inevitable doom due to "inherent contradictions” of the Hindu society.
Such a prediction is immature in being based on a rejection of the long and rich legacy of Hindu social reform and ignoring the work done by thousands of widely respected Hindu leaders, including Gandhi.
The traditional structures that the Left rejects as rotten are also be the ones whose cultural capital is cherished the most by the lower caste, as opposed to an urbanised affluent ‘caste-less’ intellectual.
There is no reason why these structures can’t be moulded and strengthened in a way that ends caste discrimination.
Badri Narayan argues that BJP has been successful in tapping the non-political but socio-culturally and religiously important structures.
“While such spheres are ignored by non-Hindutva political parties, they contribute towards the forming communities in the society. It enables the Hindutva groups to accumulate social capital that is later used for the expansion of their ideology”.
While the Left criticises BJP for trying to appropriate Gandhi, it must remember that the Left itself drove India away from the Nehru-Gandhi consensus of a common minimum acceptance of plurality (expressed in Hindu idioms) even from the monotheistic religions.
One would argue this minimum acceptance is necessary for peaceful co-existence.
The Left, instead of building over this base, moved towards a distorted kind of “deep diversity” wherein the Hindu was expected to tolerate hatred and aggression as a matter of the other’s right to freedom of religion.
Those who have read the Indian scholars know very well that the remarks made by Sharjeel Imam - calling Gandhi the greatest fascist of 20th century- are indeed mainstream in the Left intellectual ecosystem.
Ideologically possessed intellectuals are Opposition’s bane
A lack of right-wing intellectuals, that is often dubbed as a weak spot for the BJP, means that the BJP can freely draw from the intellectual resources of a variety of thinkers such as Gandhi, Vivekananda, popular Hindu traditions, Deendayal Upadhyaya, Sardar Patel as well as radical thinkers like Bose, Ambedkar and Lohia.
BJP cannot be accused of appropriation of these scholars any more than the Left.
On the other hand, the Opposition carries on its shoulders an ideologically possessed intelligentsia whose rigorous tests of purity render not only Shashi Tharoor, Sadananda Dhume, but also Gandhi, Nehru, Tagore, Sardar Patel and Ambedkar as Islamophobes.
“The purity tests for liberalism are constantly being made so stringent that even the Left has to keep proving that they are Left enough,” noted Syed M Faud in a recent Newlaundry piece.
Disconnection of Hindu religiosity from power politics of caste
Another trend the Opposition needs to take into account is the disconnection of Hindu religiosity from power politics of caste.
Most of today’s famous Babas, with significant following and resources, be it Sadguru or Ramdev, are from a non-Brahmin background. Many of them are women.
These are ‘religious entrepreneurs’ akin to Machiavelli’s political entrepreneurs - people who lack the backing of tradition, and achieve their position solely based on their own talent. These entrepreneurs have built their own brand, not premised on any special knowledge of the scriptures or Sanskrit.
Something like a “democratic upsurge” (not necessarily a new thing in the Hindu tradition) has occurred in Hinduism, but remains largely outside the lens of the scholars.
Most of the Hindu religious men who have made big in politics, including Yogi Adityanath, come from a poor, rural background, and don’t speak good English.
There is nothing new about a rural, non-English speaking politician becoming popular in India. Many of the regional parties’ leaders can claim that title.
However, the former seem more eloquent and have been able to gain a following beyond their immediate groups. Meanwhile, the state parties have descended into narrow family enterprises full of infighting.
The former are also more attractive as their promises go beyond political representation. They seem to provide the marginalised a pathway to modernisation along with the shied of cultural-moral capital that protects them from some of the disruption associated with the change.
As the Left intellectual hegemony recedes, BJP is increasingly throwing away the label of the “fringe”, and positioning itself centrally in important debates, like Gandhi's individualism vs Nehru's statism, Marxism vs Gandhian thought, different models of secularism etc.
This churning is a healthy change for our intellectual ecosystem.
Unlike before, the Left is now forced to answer the marginalised groups why should they trust people like Kanhaiya Kumar, who have already benefited from their Brahmin privilege, but tell others to follow them all the way to the revolution, when finally all Brahmin privilege will be abolished.
On the other hand, Hindutva approach towards the marginalised is neither afflicted by the above hypocrisy nor based on top-down political patronage.
Hindutva aims to share the accumulated cultural capital of an ancient civilisation with the marginalised as a matter of their right, for they have had significant contribution in its making. The social politics of Hindutva is implementing this principle on ground.
There is also some research that indicates that the lower castes have almost completely rejected the cultural Marxist approach of “everything is so bad we gotta raze it back to zero and start afresh”, and instead prefer to be included in the wider Hindu society, and share in its legacies and benefits, even after conversion to Buddhism.
It is also clear that the revolution to destroy existing structures, and the woke culture might put disproportionate costs on them while their more privileged comrades remain unhurt.
The former, in their journey of progress, need the social-cultural capital more than the latter who have already digested and assimilated its benefits.
There is a lesson worth learning from the fact that since the 1960s civil rights movements in the US, the single motherhood, college drop-out and crime rate in the the Black community has shot up to reach alarming levels.
In 2015, 77 per cent of Black babies were born to unmarried mothers - an indicator positively associated with several other deprivation indicators, including a significantly higher risk of such children to be subjected to sexual assault.
This is nothing short of a social crisis that presents a great hindrance to political and economic development of the Black community. Thomas Sowell calls it a result of the “the toxic message of victimhood” spread by the intellectuals.
Also, like BJP, the Opposition can also be questioned on its abilities to manage different groups.
What is Opposition’s response to killing of a Dalit Hindu activist Ramalingam in Tamil Nadu at hands of Islamist groups? How actively does it take up the issue of Hindu persecution in Pakistan - when most of these victims are poor and from the SC, ST communities?
Is there a criteria of ‘good castes’ and ‘good minorities’ like ‘good Hindus’ for the Opposition?
BJP is certainly not impossible to defeat in the polls, as the examples of MP, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh etc show, but the Opposition wouldn’t be able to brand that defeat as the defeat of the new ideas and questions that form the background of the BJP’s rise.