How migration threatens the Hindutva project | Opinion
Subaltern castes supported the BJP in the hope of upward mobility. That dream looks increasingly elusiveUpdated: Jul 06, 2020 19:20 IST
The Hindutva project that seeks to create a modern nation by a fusion of myriad castes and communities that constitute Hindu society has seen spectacular success since the 1990s. This is driven by long-term trends in Indian society and the polity. Economic growth and the pace of industrialisation and urbanisation have undermined the feudal caste order. Affirmative policies enabling socio-economic mobility for subaltern castes, coupled with the economic reforms, have created a middle- and lower-middle urban class from the subaltern castes that increasingly shares the same space with the upper castes. This has created a new class of Hindu castes which has become a votary of Hindutva.
But the sustainability of Hindutva as a political construct depends on, first, the rapid socio-economic mobility of the subaltern, and second, ensuring representation and a share in power for the subaltern castes. Here, the subaltern component of Hindutva differs from the dogmatic ideological construct because of the emphasis on material and instrumental values, as opposed to purely ideological ones.
Hindutva can only be successful when both these conditions are fulfilled. But the last few years have seen a persistent economic slowdown and weakening of employment generation. The socioeconomic mobility of the subaltern still depends on two factors: Access to education and government jobs and migration from rural to urban centres for employment. The flight of the lower castes from villages to the cities is among the most important phenomena of the past few decades. It is not just about jobs, but also escaping the oppressive caste-based social order in rural India.
The Covid-19 pandemic has essentially reversed this process with millions of migrant workers trekking back to their villages. The gains of decades have been lost in a few months. The persistent economic slowdown exacerbated by frequent policy shocks and deflationary macroeconomic measures were already taking a toll, but the pandemic and lockdown have pushed things over the edge. Low inflation might win elections, but it is a high economic growth rate that strengthens the Hindutva project in the long-run.
In the absence of a sound economic base, government jobs were the most important avenue for those from subaltern communities to further their prospects. The public sector provided the only accessible opportunity for those lacking the social and cultural capital required for private-sector jobs. But government jobs have been declining for decades now because of policy decision by successive governments to freeze hiring even for existing vacancies in order to control the fiscal deficit.
Public employment in India is already among the lowest in the world. It needs to be augmented, not pruned. There were 750,000 vacancies in the central government in 2014 and this has increased, with no serious attempt being made to fill the millions of vacancies in the public sector, universities, and departments both at the central and state levels. Many jobs have been outsourced on short-term contracts with low wages and often with no provision for reservations.
With the avenues of socio-economic mobility closed, representation becomes even more critical for the Hindutva project. One reason why the Hindutva project has grown in recent years is that parties rooted in Hindutva such as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have delivered excellent results through social engineering by giving political representation to different caste and communities. The BJP is the most inclusive and plural party today minus the Muslims.
But this increased political representation in ticket distribution and organisation has not translated into power-sharing. Decision-making positions are still beyond the reach of the subaltern. For example, there is just one BJP Dalit Cabinet minister at the Centre, and that too in the social justice ministry. Even in states such as Uttar Pradesh, there are no notable Dalit Cabinet ministers.
Also, political representation has not translated into increased representation in the institutions where real executive power vests. The case of the posts of vice-chancellors is illustrative. There is a reason why the recent appointment of a tribal woman as vice-chancellor in Jharkhand became a talking point among large sections of Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes and even among Other Backward Classes. The distribution of administrative posts, positions in committees, co-operatives, judiciary, educational and cultural institutions have defied the trend of increasing social representation.
While formidable welfare schemes built around direct benefit transfers have delivered significant improvements at the grassroots, people are pessimistic about future prospects. The reverse migration to the countryside is sure to spark social conflicts if the situation does not improve quickly.
Subalterns are perplexed at the shrinking window of socioeconomic mobility. A large section shifted to Hindutva due to the promise of stability and economic mobility. But frequent policy shocks and the decrease in economic growth threatens to bring about a serious setback to the Hindutva project. Perhaps overcoming the misplaced obsession with a random 3% fiscal deficit target and credit rating agencies, and filling government vacancies to augment State capacity, could be the best and the easiest first step forward.