Editor’s Note

The way forward

Print edition : June 07, 2019

The BJP is God's Own Party. Rain gods, less charitable to a vast number of farmers across India, were present in full strength in New Delhi on May 23 to celebrate its victory and were duly thanked by Narendra Damodardas Modi, who led it to victory after devastating the Grand Old Party of India. In that defining moment, Modi redefined caste, shearing it of its inegalitarian, oppressive connotations.

"The general election has left India with only two castes. One will be those who are poor and second those who will work to eradicate poverty."

Thus, the magician hypnotised even seasoned journalists with an illusion—of a society in which castes transcend their birth-based identities and work unitedly for the uplift of the poor irrespective of their castes. It is a fantastic idea. Rather a fantasy in which the castes of privilege and prosperity decide to welcome with open arms their 'Hindu' brethren across the pollution/purity divide and offer to be their trustees. The reality is different, obviously. In India's development path since Independence it has been the so-called upper castes who have benefited most, often at the cost of the so-called lower castes. In a way, one group is the raison d'etre of the other.

Consider this:

The World Inequality Report 2018 points to the growing inequality in India since 1980. In the chapter entitled 'Indian Income Inequality: 1922-2014: From British Raj to Billionaire Raj', it concludes that inequality has risen substantially since the 1980s following "profound transformations in an economy that centered on the implementation of deregulation and opening up reforms…. In 2014, the share of national income captured by India’s top one per cent of earners was 22 per cent, while the top 10 per cent of earners was around 56 per cent. The top 0.1 per cent of earners has continued to capture more growth than all those in the bottom 50 per cent combined."

The top 10 per cent, studies show, come from among those at the top of the caste pyramid.

A joint study by Savitribhai Phule University, Jawaharlal Nehru University and the Indian Institute of Dalit Studies concludes that caste continues to determine the level of education, nature of profession and resultant income and assets that an individual owns. Its lead author, Nitin Tagade, says: "Ownership of assets, be it in the form of land and building, was found to be higher among Hindu higher castes than any other caste in India." Upper castes, Baniyas in particular, are predominant among the 100 Indian billionaires identified by Forbes magazine.

Commenting on the report, former University Grants Commission Chairperson S.K. Thorat says: "Even today, caste plays an important role and the caste hierarchy downward, within Hindus, was found to be poorer. Inequality and discrimination is still faced by populations belonging to the lower castes. This is true for purchase of property or undertaking any business, both of which continue to be ruled by the upper castes."

The conclusion of the World Inequality Report is that policy matters a lot.

It is clear that policies pursued by successive governments have widened inequality and it is the non-higher caste segments that have borne the brunt of it. Modi's policies have been no different. The disastrous consequences of Modi’s demonetisation policy were most acutely felt in the informal sector of the economy, where, many surveys point out, the majority of workers employed are from lower castes and the Muslim minority. Nor did his policies help end the crisis in agriculture, which is the biggest source of employment for the backward classes.

Inclusiveness is not an act of charity on the part of a minority that thrived in a system that excluded the majority economically under a largely untouched feudal structure, and socially under the ideological structure of varna and karma. The most vicious fault line of India cannot be papered over with feel-good phrases. Social tinkering (read engineering) is no substitute for social justice.

Whatever little gains that the lower castes and classes made were the result of the movements of socialism and social justice, which originated about a century ago. Diametrically opposed to the egalitarian vision of these movements was the one propounded by V.D. Savarkar, which wanted to Hinduise India and militarise Hinduism, a religion rooted in caste hierarchy. Combined with this anti-egalitarian outlook of the Hindutva line of thought was its selective xenophobia—against Muslims and Christians, and not against the imperialist Christians who were ruling the country then. Cultural nationalism, a euphemism for majoritarianism, was the counter to the national movement’s anti-imperialist territorial nationalism.

Under Narendra Modi, it is Savarkar's century-old dream that is close to becoming a reality. It is in this Republic of the Right that Hindutva's philosopher-PM seeks to distort social justice and mocks at secularism. And socialism is a bad word to be shunned in the time of neoliberalism.

The way forward for the opposition is to not stigmatise and simulate the enemy at once and pursue the 'softer' versions of Hindu majoritarianism as leaders of skin-deep nationalism tend to do in desperation. The way forward is to reinvent the visions of egalitarianism that sprang up in the early decades of the 20th century almost simultaneously with cultural nationalism, and build people's movements around them.

Often, the moment of crisis is also the moment of catharsis and clarity. In a climate of irrational exuberance, forgetting history is injurious to democracy. Despair is the luxury of the privileged.

R. Vijaya Sankar