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Political change does not equal social transformation

The BJP’s success in the general elections tells us that our aspirations for the future sit easily alongside what we think of as the past. Sanjay Srivastava writes.

ht view Updated: May 27, 2014 02:08 IST
Sanjay Srivastava

The day after the elections, I was talking to an acquaintance in a village in Ghazipur district, about an hour’s drive from Varanasi. Ramesh Yadav (not his real name) runs the very successful ‘English Language and Personality Development Academy’. There is not much to look at in the village: Irregular farming plots, small goods shops, grimy road-side dhabas, a temple and unmetalled roads.

At this time of the year, the earth bakes but still gives off enough dust to cover the shops, houses, the ‘economy-size’ toothpaste tubes stocked by local grocers, and the jalebis and samosas that lie uninvitingly behind carelessly fastened glass fronted cupboards. That which is not dulled by the dust is sporadically coated with the fumes from the heavy truck traffic that uses the highway.

The young people who attend the academy come with hopes of overcoming provincial ‘backwardness’ that is seen to obstruct chances of obtaining good jobs. They come with desires of joining the cultural and material processes of globalisation that they can watch on TV. They seek to overcome the taint of the region to emerge in the light of the metropolis: 95% of students are SCs and OBCs. The two dominant voting blocks in the Ghazipur assembly seat are Yadavs and Rajputs. In the just-concluded elections, the seat was won by a Bhumihar. In the nearby Chandauli assembly seat, Yadav excitedly tells me, the BJP’s Brahmin candidate has won in a Yadav-dominated constituency. “We in Poorvanchal want development,” he said. “We are tired of caste politics. All my educated Dalit and OBC students are fed up with casteism”.

We know by now that the BJP’s success lies in the unsettling of a series of previous settled scenarios. Its share of rural votes (otherwise a Congress monopoly) has seen a dramatic rise, OBC and Dalit voters (previously aligned with regional parties), have given it a massive boost, and, apparently, voters have rejected the habit of favouring tradition (in the shape of dynastic politics) in favour of merit (Narendra Modi’s self-made success).

So, does the overwhelming Modi victory show that caste and casteism (and religious affinity) have declined in significance and that, almost overnight, we have become a nation of ‘rational’ voters? Not at all. What the election result demonstrates is that consolidation of threshold identities: We remain deeply embedded in caste and religious loyalties while simultaneously attracted by someone who promises to improve our welfare without asking us to renounce such loyalties.

We were asked to vote in a caste-less manner but not necessarily marry or break bread with those of other communities. We were asked to think of ourselves as Indians, but conduct our lives as Yadavs or Brahmins, or Rajputs (or, even, Muslims). We were offered the option of occupying the threshold and hence being able to be both in and out, this as well as that, and global as well as local. It is an offer we have gleefully accepted. The BJP has developed a particularly nuanced understanding of contemporary Indian society and put it to spectacular use. In particular, it has captured the mood of the Yadav students: Located between the city and country-side, and seeking ‘new’ personalities but not excision of the old ones. We like arranged-cum-love marriages.

The BJP’s strategic use of new media to reach out to old constituencies expressed a keen understanding that, in India, the new is encompassed within the old, and long-established social structures are not overthrown by the arrival of the new. Only pop-sociologists think like that, political strategists (like market research professionals) know much better.

The BJP’s technical taskforce devised a ‘digital ecosystem’, which sought to counter possible minority hostility through ‘consolidating the majority vote’. New media methods became the means of invigorating old social identities. We also know that the BJP’s strategists in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar made it a point to remember caste combinations at the local level even as their leader talked about ‘vikas’ at the national one. And, a representative of the political polling outfit Chanakya told Hindustan Times (May 17) that “sampling of polls is done as per caste and religious configuration of a constituency”.

What then of claims that we are on the brink of a new world of political and social beliefs? And, that it is economic considerations rather than caste and religion that now hold the key to success in politics? Have modern aspirations of class killed atavistic attachments to caste? Far from it.

Public commentators — whose livelihoods do not depend on winning an election — might think so, but political strategist can hardly afford the luxury of such thinking. If you ask the textile-capitalists of Tirupur in Tamil Nadu about their spectacular economic success, they will tell you about the fundamental importance of caste networks, and the Jat middle-classes of rural western Uttar Pradesh have their own tale of how caste consciousness has helped in the making of their middle-classness.

But let’s go back a little bit for a better perspective: In 1927, the Marathi writer and moral philosopher NS Phadke wrote a book explaining how the caste system was perfectly compatible with ‘modern’ science of eugenics (and hence ought to be maintained). Successful political strategists know what the Tirupur industrialist and the Jat farmer share, and they also know that it is possible — like Phadke – to demonstrate the relevance of the new to matters of the past. They know that our present cossets our past.

There is a wonderful sign at a restaurant in west Delhi. It says, ‘Eat Indian, Feel British, Pay Chinese’. The BJP’s success in the 2014 elections shows that this is more than a catchy slogan. It tells us that our aspirations for the future sit easily alongside what we think of as the past. And that political change is not thing same as social transformation. Future electoral successes will, actually, depend on a party’s ability to recognise the electorate’s positioning on the threshold of Britishness, Chineseness and (most importantly) Indianness.

Sanjay Srivastava is professor of sociology, Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi University
The views expressed by the author are personal