Social Justice

Conflict of interests

Print edition : June 13, 2014

September 28, 1990: University students prepare to burn effigies of Prime Minister V.P. Singh and two of his Union Ministers, Ram Vilas Paswan and Sharad Yadav, in Connaught Place, New Delhi. The BJP withdrew its support to the V.P. Singh-led National Front coalition government, which implemented the recommendations of the Mandal Commission. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Dalits, Adivasis and backward castes are pinning their hopes on Narendra Modi to deliver on social justice. Here, tribal people taking part in an election rally in support of Modi in Kolkata on January 28. Photo: PTI

Given the support the BJP gets from the upper-caste population and corporate meritocrats and the clash of interests between caste Hindus and backward communities, Narendra Modi is sure to face difficult times when he takes up social justice programmes.

THE strongest bid for power that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) made before the recently concluded general elections was in the 1990s. It set out to mobilise and consolidate Hindus around two specific standpoints that the Sangh Parivar agreed to in principle—the Ram Janmabhoomi movement and the anti-Mandal agitations. However, both these stances were essentially contradictory in nature if looked through the prism of India’s entrenched caste system.

The Sangh Parivar saw in its Ram Janmabhoomi movement a formidable effort to perpetuate the ethos of Hindutva in the Indian polity and an opportunity to unify Hindus beyond caste and class barriers. But its active participation in the anti-Mandal agitations against the proposed reservation for the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in government institutions and the consequent anti-reservation political posturing of the BJP alienated from its fold a large chunk of the toiling masses who came from the Scheduled Castes (S.Cs), the Scheduled Tribes (S.Ts) and the backward castes. The Sangh Parivar always had a strong tradition of practising Brahminism, which was couched in the larger Hindutva rhetoric, but the political developments of the 1990s, which saw the BJP’s emergence as a national force, foregrounded its upper-caste and anti-Dalit position.

In fact, the BJP made it amply clear that it was not only against the recommendations of the Mandal Commission but was generally against the policy of reservation itself. The French political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot, in his book The Hindu Nationalist Movement and Indian Politics: 1925 to the 1990s, quotes the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh’s (RSS) mouthpiece Organiser: “V.P. Singh threatens to achieve in one year what [the] British could not do in their 150-year-long alien rule.... He wants to undo the great task of uniting Hindu society from the days of Vivekananda, Dayanand Saraswati, Mahatma Gandhi, and Dr Hedgewar....What V.P. Singh through Mandalisation of society intends to achieve is a division of Hindus on forward, backward and Harijan lines....The havoc the politics of reservations is playing with the social fabric is unimaginable. It provides a premium for mediocrity, encourages brain-drain, and sharpens caste-divide.”

The BJP’s anti-reservation position became clearer when it withdrew its support to the V.P. Singh-led National Front coalition government, which implemented the recommendations of the Mandal Commission. As a result, a large section of Dalits, Adivasis and OBCs moved away from the BJP and reposed their faith in various other secular political formations.

The projection of Narendra Modi by the BJP and the Sangh Parivar as a backward caste leader from a poor background, therefore, is a significant break from the party’s explicit Brahminical past. Not surprisingly, in the face of a strong anti-incumbency wave against the Congress party, a strategic “development” rhetoric of the BJP and the deliberate omission of a stark Hindutva agenda, unlike in the 1990s, in the party’s media campaign, a large section of Dalits, Adivasis and OBCs have moved towards the BJP.

Skirting key issues

A concerted campaign by the RSS and the BJP in the tribal areas and Dalit colonies, along with systematic promotion of many backward caste leaders such as Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Sushil Kumar Modi, in the past decade has also made this swing possible. Most political observers believe that the backward caste leader image of Modi as opposed to the dynastic politics of the Congress may have worked in a charged electoral environment.

However, they also feel that the BJP has tactfully steered clear of addressing serious S.C./S.T./OBC concerns. For example, it has kept itself away from talking about structural inequalities borne out of the caste system. This has prevented it from addressing pertinent issues such as feudal exploitation in rural India, strengthening or effectively implementing the existing laws against caste discrimination, and land reforms to do away with the age-old injustices of the caste system.

The BJP manifesto reflects this understanding. While the manifesto seems to address the concerns of Dalits, Adivasis and the people of the backward castes, it does not promise anything concrete. The manifesto, in its section on social justice, says: “The BJP is committed to bridge the gap, following the principles of Samajik Nyay (social justice) and Samajik Samrasata (social harmony)…. BJP is committed to the eradication of untouchability at all levels. A high priority for S.C., S.T., OBCs and other weaker sections would be to create an ecosystem for education and entrepreneurship. BJP will ensure that the funds allocated for schemes and programmes for S.C., S.T., OBCs and other weaker sections are utilised properly. A mission mode project would be made for housing, education, health and skills development.”

For Adivasis, it promises “setting up an entire education network” and providing them housing, water, health facilities and road and energy connectivity.

The only concrete things that the party has promised in its manifesto are the assurances of stopping alienation of tribal land, elimination of manual scavenging, the establishment of a Van Bandhu Kalyan Yojana and a national centre for tribal development, building a network of rural haats, and electrification of more tribal hamlets.

This neglect of issues concerning Dalits and Adivasis in the manifesto and its electoral campaign, observers feel, reinforces the fact that the party still firmly depends on its upper-caste support, both in terms of manpower and resources. It has not promised anything that could potentially antagonise its upper-caste supporters.

However, any welfare measure for Dalits/Adivasis is intrinsically redistributive in nature, which means the state actively participates in distributing excessive resources of the rich for the benefit of the poor. Anti-caste advocates feel that for the BJP to make any significant improvement in the lives of marginalised communities, it has to substantially invest in them. “If you are really talking about economic development, the government has to neutralise the impact of tremendous inequalities by giving clear and decisive entitlements and that can only be possible if there is participation and ownership of Dalit and Adivasi communities in the economic development,” said Paul Divakar of National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights.

Other anti-caste activists feel that the BJP government at the Centre needs to employ a twofold legislative and programmatic strategy. Legislation that would give statutory status to schemes such as the Special Component Plan and the Tribal Sub-Plan and ensure reservation in the private sector, including educational institutes, needs to be introduced. Simultaneously, existing laws such as the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act and the Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act should be strengthened with adequate amendments. And on the programmatic side, activists feel that the government should ensure that every landless person gets some land and free irrigation so that they become economically independent.

Undoubtedly, the BJP has over the past two decades been articulating concerns of Dalits, Adivasis and the OBCs. However, it remains a political party driven primarily by the energies of upper-caste people. Therefore, many political observers feel that despite raising such concerns, the top leadership has failed to contain exploitation of the marginalised communities on the ground where perpetrators are often upper-caste members. For example, this correspondent noticed that in Bihar’s many sites of caste massacres, feudal lords who were accused of presiding over the genocides were BJP activists. This is also the trend in many areas of the Hindi heartland.

The BJP’s Scheduled Caste Morcha chief Sanjay Paswan, however, told Frontline that anti-caste policies would get the required support from the BJP government in the present political context. He advocated a major overhaul of the affirmative action policies. “We are of the view that reservation benefits should cease for the third generation beneficiaries and income levels of S.C./S.T. families should be kept in mind. We also advocate a shift from a rights-based approach to an entitlement-based approach.”

He claimed that the BJP received around 75 per cent of the Dalit votes in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, and now, it is the turn of the party to work for the vulnerable groups. “The broad thrust of our policies will be to ensure a life of dignity with prosperity for Dalits, Adivasis, and the OBCs. The major concern of the poor is not employment but employability. That is why I have proposed that 50 decimals of land should be given to them for agriculture or any other occupation and 10 decimals for housing,” he said.

Asked whether this would be possible in a scenario where Modi has received unflinching support from the upper castes, he said: “Mr Modi will have to reconcile with this situation and put his energy behind the upliftment of the vulnerable groups.” He admitted that problems could arise, given the large upper-caste base of the BJP, but expressed confidence that the RSS was quite clear about implementing these reforms.

However, Dalit and Adivasi activists view the proposed overhaul of the reservation policy as an upper-caste strategy to deny Dalits and Adivasis their legitimate rights. “Right now, there is no need to tinker with the constitutional provisions. Caste discrimination is based on birth and not on income levels. Until vulnerable groups achieve an equal space in our society and economy, reservation is necessary,” said an activist on condition of anonymity.

In fact, immediately after the BJP’s victory, such upper-caste prejudice that is congruous with the Sangh Parivar’s understanding of affirmative action has started to manifest itself in the form of online petitions, small-scale meetings and informal discourses, where the demand of Modi’s supporters is to either reduce or stop caste-based reservation.

Corporate interests

Some anti-caste intellectuals believe that it is not only the upper-caste base of the BJP that may prevent the government from focussing on social justice but also the blind pursuit of a corporate-led model of governance. “I agree with the BJP that there should be an entitlement-based approach ( bijli, sadak, paani) but that should be along with a rights-based approach. In most circumstances it is projected as if one approach needs to be advanced in lieu of the other,” said Amitabh Behar, executive director of the National Foundation of India, an organisation working for a just and equitable society. A selective entitlement-based approach fits easily into a growth-based model as opposed to a rights-based approach, which neoliberal economists have consistently opposed and dismissed as a populist measure.

There is a feeling among many that a blind replication of corporate-driven governance may further aggravate the situation of vulnerable groups. In many of his speeches, Modi has proudly declared “minimum government, maximum governance”, which would mean lesser public expenditure. In that context, battle lines will be drawn not just in areas like food and shelter but also in areas where questions of jal, jangal, and jameen (water, forests, and land) arise. Natural resources have been the prime target of corporates, mostly at the cost of millions of lives,” said Behar.

Such fears may not be misplaced as large-scale land acquisition by the government for private industries and a disastrous record of rehabilitation in the past decade have negatively impacted the poor. In all probability, the BJP will stand divided on the issue of affirmative action in the days to come, given the support it gets from the upper-caste population and corporate meritocrats. Undoubtedly, there is a tussle in terms of understanding social welfare measures within the party leadership. In such a scenario, Modi is sure to face difficult times ahead while wading through these inherent contradictions within the BJP that are manifest in a larger conflict of interests between caste Hindus and backward communities. From being a party that withdrew its support for the V.P. Singh government over the issue of reservation to one put in a position where it shoulders the responsibility of implementing social and economic welfare schemes for marginalised communities, the changing facets of the BJP are something political observers will definitely be tracking.

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