How caste could swing India’s elections in favour of Hindu nationalists

If Modi wins, he will become India’s first low-caste premier



Five long and increasingly hot-tempered weeks into the process to elect a new government in India, Narendra Modi has directly raised the issue of caste.

The candidate of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the election’s presumed front-runner took to social media to claim his rivals were accusing him of “low-level politics” because he was, in truth, from the lower end of the Hindu social order.

“Some people can’t see the fact that the sacrifice and hard work of the people from the lower castes has helped the country reach great heights,” he said.

While he did not mention them by name, the target of the remarks by Mr Modi, the 63-year-old son of a tea seller, was the Gandhi family, which controls the ruling Congress party.

He has often compared his own hardscrabble upbringing in small-town Gujarat with the privileges enjoyed by the members of the upper-caste Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. He often refers to Rahul Gandhi, the man leading the Congress’s campaign, as “the prince”.

Mr Modi spoke out after Mr Gandhi’s sister, Priyanka, accused him of dirty politics after he broke with the conventions of Indian elections and held a rally in her brother’s constituency ahead of voting there and in 63 other seats across India today.

He told voters in Amethi, an area beset with poverty and poor infrastructure despite its long association with the first family of Indian politics, that they had wasted 40 years voting for the Gandhis and gained little in return.

His comments sparked a sharp response from Priyanka Gandhi that Mr Modi had insulted the memory of her late father, the assassinated Rajiv Gandhi. “The people of Amethi will never forgive him. My booth-level workers will reply to his low-level politics,” she claimed.

Mr Modi then responded again, this time on Twitter. “I belong to a lower caste of society – that’s why they think my politics are low-level politics.”

One of the effects wrought by the growth of India’s economy and its increased urbanisation over the past 20 years has been to erode some of the ridges of the Hindu caste system, which at its most extreme can decide how someone works, marries and worships. The system was seized on and codified by the British Raj.

While caste can still play a dominant role in rural India, for a younger, more educated generation, and especially for those in the larger cities, it is less important. Discrimination based on caste is banned by the constitution.

Yet an attendant, sometimes seemingly conflicting development, has been the growth in the importance of regional political parties, whose support is often based on caste lines. From the anti-upper caste Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu, to the Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in Uttar Pradesh, which draws much of its support from Dalits or “untouchables” at the very bottom of the pile, caste has become incredibly important in local politics.

And at election time it is not just regional parties for which it is a focus.  The Congress party has been busy trying to tie up caste-based vote banks in different constituencies. It is also hoping to win the support of Muslim voters, many of whom won’t vote for Mr Modi because of the killing of hundreds of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 during his first term as chief minister.

Mr Modi criticises Congress for playing caste politics and “manipulating” voters on such lines. But in truth, the BJP has also been busy making its own caste equations, especially in India’s heartland states.

The party has typically drawn support from the upper levels of the caste system, but it has also been reaching out to lower castes, including Dalits. Yashwant Deshmukh, a pollster, said he had detected a sizeable move of middle-class Dalit voters to the BJP.

In states such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, especially, the party has been matching Congress, doing deals with different leaders and fielding candidates from specific castes in constituencies where the party believes it could make a difference.

Mr Modi belongs to a community designated as Other Backward Class, or OBC. If he wins the election he will become India’s first low-caste premier.

Ashok Malik, an analyst, said Mr Modi was specifically targeting two-sub castes in Amethi in an attempt to engineer an embarrassing defeat for Mr Gandhi.

“In the rest of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, Modi’s OBC status is being used to enhance his appeal among various OBC communities,” he added. “If this works, it will add to the upper-caste support the BJP is getting and build a broader social coalition.”

Mr Modi has avoided talking about caste for much of the election campaign, focusing his appeal instead on development and economic growth. “We believe only the issues of development and good governance impact the lives of all citizens of this country regardless of their caste, creed, region or religion,” he told The Times of India.

As such, his rivals accused him of seeking to squeeze a last drop of support by publicly bringing up the caste issue at this late hour. Mayawati, head of the  BSP and a former Uttar Pradesh  chief minister, told reporters: “He is  doing despicable politics in the garb  of this issue.”

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