Reading The UP Verdict: Is India Witnessing The Rise Of A New Hegemon? 

by Abhinav Prakash Singh - Mar 22, 2017 03:53 AM +05:30 IST
Reading The UP Verdict: Is India Witnessing The Rise Of A New Hegemon? A Purvanchal rally (
  • Whoever wins in TV studios and op-ed pages, for the moment it seems that the BJP is comprehensively winning all battles of narrative on the ground

It will be an understatement to say that the result of the Uttar Pradesh(UP) election has stunned the commentators. The unprecedented sweep by the Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP) is the most significant political development in India since 2014 apart from the BJP forming government in the north-eastern state of Manipur. Now that the initial suspense and euphoria over the new government has settled down, it’s time to analyse the results dispassionately. Any political verdict must be traced to its roots in the wider socio-economic and political context. And the UP verdict indeed represents a tectonic shift in the socio-political landscape of the Hindi heartland.

The political hegemony in India has traditionally revolved around mastering three components: caste, class and nationalism. The Congress ruled as a hegemon for decades because it alone got all the three elements in the right mix. Congress was an elite club of the influential urban upper-castes especially Brahmins, which ruled in alliance with the local elites.

These local strongmen kept the lower classes and castes in order who voted where they were told to or were denied vote at all. Also, the Congress carefully cultivated a pro-poor and anti-rich image woven as the utopian narrative of socialism to keep masses in the docks and also to effectively neutralise and confuse the communist parties, which once were a significant political force.

It also succeeded in building a narrative of nationalism, which though rooted even then in the Hindu imagery, projected a secular composite culture. Congress was seen as the party which had not only won freedom for India but was crucial for the stability and preservation of India as an independent nation-state.

The challenge to the Congress came mainly from the Communist parties and the Hindu nationalists represented by the Jan Sangh in the initial years and later from an array of Ambedkarite parties, socialist parties of the Lohia tradition and the BJP. But each of them was limited to contest the pre-eminent position of the Congress as they played upon only one or two components of the hegemony.

Communist parties tried to mobilise people only on the class line while ignoring the social hierarchies of the economic classes. And their stand on nationalism has been ambiguous at best. From open hostility to India as a nation and a unified political entity to grudging acceptance today, puts them at a distinctive disadvantage in the political chessboard of India. Lohiaite and Ambedkarite parties focused only on the caste issue. Even though they do not contest the existence of India, except for the few ultra-radical Ambedkarite groups influenced by Marxism, they have never bothered to articulate their vision of nationalism and mobilise people on it.

Jan Sangh and the BJP in its earlier phase was able to articulate its conception of nationalism, which indeed had a wide appeal among the majority Hindu community. It also tried to tackle the class issue with its version of Socialism—Gandhian Socialism— and Antyodaya but it faded in front of the more radical posturing of the Congress and also due to its hopeless ambiguity.

More importantly, they failed miserably on the caste component, branding any dialogue on caste as an attempt to break the Hindu unity and by extension India. It failed to see what was evident, that the Hindu society was already fractured on caste lines. It severely limited its growth as it provided little space for the caste concerns and aspirations of the non-savarna castes.

It meant that its Hindutva construct to contest the Nehruvian nationalism and caste assertion post-Mandal saw rapid success and decline. It is important to note that the chariot of the BJP came to a halt at the peak of the Ramjanambhoomi movement in 1993 thanks to the electoral alliance of the Samajwadi Party(SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party(BSP), which successfully mobilised people on the lines of representative caste politics.

Later though the BJP did come to power both at the centre and in the state, it was banished from power soon thereafter. And even during its brief stint in power, it certainly posed no viable threat to the Congress hegemony, which had also replicated itself in the smaller regional parties. It was because the BJP was able to master only the nationalism component of the hegemony. It fell short of the class and caste components.

On their part, the Lohiaite and Ambedkarite parties along with other caste-based regional parties could not articulate their politics in the realm of class and nationalism. It meant that they could not emerge as a sustainable national force to challenge the Congress hegemony despite showing early promise.

What has begun to change since 2014 is that BJP has finally begun to master the other two components of hegemony. The rise of Narendra Modi as the face of BJP not only enthused its Hindutva cadre but also excited a wider social constituency due to his Other Backward Class (OBC) identity.

With the conscious push by both the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) to actively work among the Dalits and backward castes to widen their social base, political gains could not be far behind.

Many post-election commentaries have opined that caste has ceased to matter and that India is entering into a post-caste politics where caste-based parties like the SP and BSP will be increasingly marginalised. But this is a misreading of both the political churning and the strategy of the BJP.

BJP has not superseded the politics of the BSP and the SP but has outsmarted them in their own game. The agenda of these parties was to give representation to Dalits and backward castes in the power structure of the Indian state and the public sphere, which was dominated by the forward castes despite being a numerical minority. And they did succeed in what is often called ‘India’s Silent Revolution’ wherein the representation of OBCs and Dalits in the legislature and state apparatus increased steadily over the past three decades.

But there was an inherent contradiction in this politics of caste representation: the very success of this politics created conditions for its obsolescence. It happened in two ways.

Firstly, the very success in challenging the forward caste dominance by the OBCs and Dalits spurred the demands and aspirations of further democratisation of the representation along caste lines within the OBC and Dalit fold. The new power equation under Lohiaite and Ambedkarite politics since the 1990s was dominated by the numerically stronger and comparatively resourceful castes among the OBC and Dalit fold. This invariably left out the other castes, who were either too weak to successfully assert themselves or electorally ineffectual due to the smaller number or wide regional dispersion.

Here it is important to note that what is often called caste politics is actually politics of representation at its core. It’s an attempt by the excluded castes to become ‘visible’ to the state via socio-political mobilisation so as to participate in the democratic and development process heralded under the post-colonial state.

The process inaugurated by the Lohiaite and Ambedkarite politics came to a dead end when they became a vehicle of dominant castes within the OBC and Dalit fold to advance their interests. It led to discontent among other castes, whose aspiration of representation in political power and state apparatus were thwarted. This caused them to search for an alternative and it is here that their aspirations overlapped with the goal of BJP to expand among Dalits and OBC castes.

What BJP has done in the UP election is a massive feat of social engineering by drawing in the non-Yadav OBCs and non-Jatav scheduled castes by ensuring substantial representation in the party organisation and the ticket distribution.

Also, a less noticed phenomenon is the alienation of even those Yadavs and Jatavs who didn’t belong to the core region of the BSP and SP, the western UP and Mainpuri-Etawah belt. This intra-caste discontent about the concentration of power on a regional basis has not been adequately captured in the surveys and analysis but was potent enough to cause some swing in the voting decision. All this was then reflected in the massive voting by these social groups for BJP, which even obliterated the core votes of the SP and the BSP.

Second, the success of Lohiaite and Ambedkarite politics in bringing the erstwhile excluded castes into the political mainstream and resultant socio-economic mobility meant that the distance between them and the forward castes narrowed. The acquisition of political power by these castes directly undermined the old power relations in the society and enabled them to escape the old form of oppression and discrimination to a large extent. The social assertion of the subaltern castes in UP in the past two decades is an extraordinary development in modern Indian history.

This process was coupled with the rise of a new middle class from these castes, firstly due to reservations and then economic reforms. It meant the emergence of a new class of Hindu castes sharing similar aspirations and worldview and increasingly conscious of its Hindu identity as the old caste antagonism diluted if not disappeared.

It is this constituency that became a vocal supporter of the Narendra Modi-led BJP in 2014. And it is here that the BJP disrupted the traditional parameters of political hegemony by introducing ‘Vikas’ or development as its fourth component.

The plain fact is that despite the criticism of the developmental model espoused by the BJP, it remains the only vision on the horizon. Its focus on development articulates the aspirations of young India, of the small towns and villages, who above all want a functioning public infrastructure, good governance and jobs. And to them, BJP today is the default option as the SP, BSP, Congress and the new media creation on the block, the Aam Aadmi Party(AAP) are thoroughly discredited on the development front despite their recent attempts to position themselves on the right side of the development discourse.

Thus, the BJP today has not only mastered the three traditional components of political hegemony in India but has also disrupted the model itself by adding one more component to it.

A Purvanchal rally 
A Purvanchal rally 

The debate on nationalism may have been won by the liberals and the anarchist Left in op-eds and TV shows of the increasingly discredited mainstream media, but the BJP has won it amidst the masses. For the masses of India, nationalism is not a negative construct but a positive one as there is a fundamental difference between the exclusionary concept of nationalism in the West and the nationalism in India, which rose as an inclusionary construct during the anti-imperialist struggle.

By siding with the campus anarchists and flirting with the ultra-left in the name of freedom of expression during fiascos like JNU and Ramjas, the opposition parties ceded all space on the nationalism front to the BJP. All public may not agree with the concept of Hindu nationalism, but they see BJP as the only political force steadfastly standing up for the territorial integrity of India.

Also, by focusing on the effective delivery of policy measures like ensuring LPG cylinders, Jan Dhan Yojana, toilets, low-cost housing, electrification and big disruptive measures like demonetization, BJP has re-positioned itself as the champion of the economic underclass. Its massive thrust on the agrarian sector including the promise of loan wavier means that it now has a firm hold over public perception as the party of the masses. And we have already seen how it was able to master the caste dimension of Indian politics by merging Mandal and Kamandal. It is a given that the BJP will apply the lessons learnt about caste politics from the Bihar debacle and UP triumph to other parts of the country in the coming years.

Hegemony is power with legitimacy. And today, BJP not only wields considerable power as the ruling party at the centre, in several states and local bodies, its mastery over the core components of political hegemony means it is increasingly seen as the natural party of governance.

It is not far-fetched to say that India is witnessing the rise of a new hegemon, which will decisively shape its destiny for the time to come. Whether its longevity and impact rival that of the Congress? The answer to that lies safe with time.

Abhinav Prakash Singh is an Assistant Professor at the University of Delhi.

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