BJP’s backward classes strategy starts to pay dividends in South
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) recently turned a municipal election into a national one and succeeded in making inroads into a bastion of the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS), the party in power in Telangana. This Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC) election mattered to the BJP for several reasons. First, the party uses any opportunity to anchor itself in a region that has so far resisted its dominance. In recent state and national elections, the BJP had already set foot in Hyderabad. It received 18% of the votes in Hyderabad district in the 2018 assembly election and 34% in the general elections the following year (27% in Secunderabad and 42% in Hyderabad).
Second, Hyderabad is not only a bastion of a former ally of the BJP – the TRS – but also the home base of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen (AIMIM), which rattled the BJP in the recent Bihar election. Taking the fight to AIMIM’s home turf provided an opportunity for the party to send some strong signals to its Hindu base. The campaign for Bhagyanagar, the BJP’s proposed new name for the city, was one such.
The BJP made impressive gains in this election, winning 48 seats against four in 2016. The TRS lost its majorly, slipping from 94 seats to 56. AIMIM retained its base by winning 44 seats in its historical strongholds and the Congress was left with a measly two seats. While the TRS remains ahead and in control of the GHMC, its vote share is identical to the BJP’s (there’s just a 0.3% difference).
Beyond its symbolic aspect, this election mattered to the BJP for a third reason, which has to do with identity politics. This local election provided the BJP with an opportunity to test in the South a strategy that has yielded positive results in the North: the mobilisation of non-dominant backward classes. In the general elections, the BJP distributed only three tickets out of 17 in the state to Other Backward Class (OBC) candidates, against eight tickets to Intermediary Castes (mostly Reddys); six seats were reserved. Two of the three OBC candidates won their seat. In the municipal election, the party banked on the mobilisation of Most Backward Classes (MBCs) who are notoriously under-represented in Telangana politics.
Since the bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh and creation of Telangana in 2014, nearly half the seats of the Telangana assembly have been won by intermediary caste candidates, nominated by all major parties. While backward classes represent 50.7% of the population (according to the 2010 Srikrishna Committee on Andhra Pradesh’s bifurcation), their share of representation in the assembly has decreased from 19% in 2009 to 14% in 2018. Among them, the Munnuru Kapus form the largest group, but they barely make for a quarter of all OBC MLAs, who belong to a large array of smaller groups. This leaves a large segment of the population without descriptive representation, a space that the BJP now seeks to occupy. According to the Srikrishna Committee, 41.2% of the population of Hyderabad is Muslim and 34.9%, OBC. Muslims tend to be concentrated in the central (and older) part of Hyderabad and in the South of the city. This is where AIMIM won its seats, while the BJP won its seats in the rest of the city and in the Secunderabad territory.
The BJP’s strategy involved mobilising the diverse smaller segments of the city’s large backward classes, largely ignored by the TRS and other parties. That is reflected in the social profile of the candidates. The BJP gave 26 of its 149 tickets in these elections to MBC candidates. This may not seem much but it sent a clear signal to the many voters who belong to those small groups. Eight of them were elected, alongside 17 other OBC candidates. In Jubilee Hills, the city’s richest ward, a BJP MBC candidate won against a Kamma candidate, fielded by the TRS.
The TRS also fielded many OBCs but fewer MBCs in comparison. The BJP’s OBC candidates belong to 11 different groups, against seven for the TRS, which predominantly give tickets to Goud and Munnuru Kapu candidates.
Tickets are not the only way to woo support. Ahead of the campaign, the BJP and the RSS worked hard to build and consolidate support among MBC groups such as Kurumas,Kummaris,Vadderas, Viswakarma and Chaattada Srivaishnava, and among larger OBC groups such as Gouds, Mudirajs, Yadavs, and Padmasalis. The RSS conducted many caste-based functions, held in RSS schools by functionaries who belonged to similar groups. They promised each group representation against their effort to canvass their caste members across the city.
The BJP also appointed several MBCs in prominent party positions, including the state President and the State Organising Secretary (both also belong to the RSS). It also succeeded in getting upper and intermediary castes candidates elected, including 14 Reddys. This ability of the BJP to combine support from traditional elites and a collection of small and marginal backward groups has become a trademark of its electoral strategy. The difference is that the BJP does not necessarily shun locally dominant groups, but also gives priority to marginalised segments. This differs from the Northern situation, where non-dominant OBCs get representation but remain marginalised within the BJP.
One important implication of these observations is that caste is at the centre of the BJP’s southern strategy and that reading the progress that the BJP makes in the South through a purely communal lens is insufficient. Obviously, folding backward identities into the Hindutva mould is part of the story. But the BJP also develops a language of caste-based mobilisation that imitates the forms of mobilisation that regional parties used to perform in the early 1990s. The BJP seeks to expand its presence in the South by offering representation to communities that have been historically marginalised and form a significant share of the electorate.
Gilles Verniers is Assistant Professor of political science, Ashoka University, and Co-Director of the Trivedi Centre for Political Data. Surya Rao Sangem is founder, BC Times, and a Hyderabad-based political analyst. Kiran Kumar Gowd is a Research Scholar in the Department of Political Science at the University of Hyderabad. Views are personal.