‘BJP doesn’t care about Hindus, uses them for votes’: Sasikanth Senthil

‘BJP doesn’t care about Hindus, uses them for votes’: Sasikanth Senthil
The Congress MP from Tiruvallur says that India will never become innovative or creative with the caste system. | Video Credit: Interview by Saba Naqvi; Camera by Dipesh Arora; Production Assistants: Vedaant Lakhera & Kavya Pradeep M.; Editing by Samson Ronald K.; Supervising Producer: Jinoy Jose P.

The former IAS officer and MP from Tiruvallur accuses BJP of “fake majoritarianism”, says the party exploits religious identity for its own gain.

Published : Jul 02, 2024 18:18 IST - 20 MINS READ

Sasikanth Senthil has been a key figure in the Congress’ resurgent performance in the 2024 Lok Sabha election. Though he prefers to keep a low profile, Senthil (45) won his Lok Sabha election from Tiruvallur, a reserved (Scheduled Caste) constituency in Tamil Nadu, by a margin of over five and a half lakh votes, the highest in the State. Senthil has also been actively involved with the Congress “war room” for the general election, which he also helped set up in Karnataka ahead of the 2023 Assembly election.

Senthil, who comes from a Dalit family, studied engineering at NIT Trichy before cracking the civil services exam to become an IAS officer. But he gave it up in 2019 to take up political activism, subsequently joining the Congress. During his swearing-in ceremony as MP, he stood out for highlighting injustice towards minorities, Dalits, and Adivasis, in line with his party’s social justice plank. In this interview with senior journalist Saba Naqvi, Sasikanth Senthil talks about his journey to Parliament, his stint with the civil services and why he quit, the state of Dalit politics in India, and more. Excerpts:

How have your initial few days in Parliament been?

Good. It is very humbling for a person like me because the space that I come from, we would not have dreamt to reach this in a matter of 50 to 60 years. It really matters not only for me but for a lot of people from my community and my village.

You won from the seat of Tiruvallur with a margin of 5.72 lakh, which is the largest in Tamil Nadu. You have cracked an entrance exam, and you have given it up. So, you cannot say it is humbling, you have done all of it and now you are a Member of Parliament. Tell us a little about your background.

I have done all that not without a certain kind of politics. I really feel that it is not only about me and it is not about anybody who are so-called achievers by themselves. You need a certain kind of politics and environment. Given that environment and situation, somebody can prove whatever they can. While growing up, my father used to say that out of the two sons, one is for the house and one is for the country. The one who is for the country, I used to assume that it is me and I have always charted my life like that. Another profound statement he always used to say is that you have to look back at the road that you came from. Wherever I go, I keep thinking where did I come from.

Sasikanth Senthil, Congress MP from Tiruvallur. The former civil servant said that he quit the services to fight against the “fascist government”.

Sasikanth Senthil, Congress MP from Tiruvallur. The former civil servant said that he quit the services to fight against the “fascist government”. | Photo Credit: Dipesh Arora

Where did you come from?

I come from a first-generation Dalit background. It was my father’s generation who sucked up all the issues that they had, but there was a kind of politics working in Tamil Nadu which focused on social justice and we had a great push in education because we didn’t have anything else. With that support, he became a government servant, and then from that point onwards, he always pushed us. So, I come from that visual of my village, my father’s lifestyle and so on. So, that defines me largely.

Being from Tamil Nadu, do the fruits of the Dravidian movement also define you? Did they also enable someone like you?

Yes, absolutely. Without that, we are not here.

You cracked the civil services as a rank holder. Please tell us about that journey.

I did my engineering in electronics and communication from NIT Trichy. I was good with computers and that was the computer era too. Then I got into a good company but something was not working, because I had this in my mind that I need to go back and do whatever is required. At some point, I realised I cannot live with machines for a long time. So I resigned from there and joined an NGO.

I worked with the college for some time and tried to see myself in the social space, which I found was working for me. And then I worked for an NGO on participatory rural appraisal techniques. That’s when someone told me that the government is the biggest NGO and we should try to go there. I saw the civil service, tried applying and in a matter of two years, I cleared the exam.

How many times did you sit for the entrance? 

I cleared it in my third attempt, after two serious attempts. I was the first ranker in Tamil Nadu and ninth in India.

You were in the Karnataka cadre and your last posting was the DM [District Magistrate] of Mangalore. Then you quit.

I quit the service in 2019 in protest. The politics that brought me there: I saw a threat to that from 2002 onwards, when the Godhra riots happened. How can an elected government engage in something like this? From then, I started seeing the other politics that divide people to win elections. I have been closely watching every aspect of that politics.

In 2014, when the person who was seen as the perpetrator of everything became the Prime Minister of this country, which I never thought would happen, I was very apprehensive that this is going to go in a different direction. And for the next five years, I watched them very closely, their demonetisation... every aspect of them. Everything was a copybook of the politics which happened all over the world. History books are full of indicators of what our country is going through.

What is the phrase you would use for it?

I would say fascist. You can say fascist-like politics or populist but I think it is bordering fascism.

In 2019, I was the District Election Officer of Mangalore, conducting the whole election, and in that chair you are a neutral person. But I was hoping in a larger sense that this country will give a different signal. It is when they came back to power with a bigger vote share, I thought that this is the time to fight. I would be guilty of not protecting the politics which made me.

Then they abrogated Article 370 and moved the Army into Kashmir. That was shocking but the idea of resigning came when I saw the whole military keep everybody in the State in house arrest.

Also Read | Sasikanth Senthil, the IAS officer who resigned protesting the ‘fascist’ policies of the Central government, joins Congress

So you actually resigned because of Kashmir?

Yeah, I resigned with Kashmir as a trigger. The entire politics gave a big push to fight against this. In the resignation letter, I wrote very clearly that the government has hit upon the fundamentals of a diverse democracy and I am better off outside fighting this rather than sitting inside.

With your ideology, how did the Congress, which is seen as a status quo party, inspire you?

Initially, I had no idea about political parties. I was bothered about the silence in this country. I thought it would take me at least three years to move around the country and to push people, especially students. I was like a very jittery fisherman who saw the tsunami coming right in the middle of the ocean and who came back to the shore to wake everybody up. I am sure many of us would have felt that. I was apprehensive about the violence because I knew that a fascist government will only have violence as an answer to anything which they can’t fight.

Then they brought in CAA [Citizenship Amendment Act] and NRC [National Register of Citizens]... Anybody who has read Nazi history would know that the first thing [Adolf] Hitler did was to register people and then move them into categories, make differential laws and use it to put them in concentration. So, there was a lot of explaining that had to be done about CAA and NRC and we did that all over the country.

You did this as a member of the Congress?

No, it was all independent. Talking to students, individuals, minorities, and especially the majority to make them understand that you are the actual victims. I was continuously travelling all over the country but mostly in closed meetings and not in open forums.

Then Shaheen Bagh happened, and then they started the Delhi riots. That is exactly what I was afraid about, that they will have violence as an answer. And I knew that the violence will not be perpetuated by the government on people, but people will be pitted against each other. That’s the basic damage any fascist government would do. They will divide people so that the people do the killing and they can just be the observers. Around 150 people were murdered in this and I was running a control room, trying to help people.

How did the Congress journey begin? 

I thought that if innocent people are going to lose their lives, then I should use the political forum, the democratic space, which is still available to fight against them. I went to the Congress by myself because I knew it had the ideological background and the breadth and length to fight them.

Whom did you approach? 

I had a senior colleague who was in the Congress. It was when the Tamil Nadu election [in 2021] started,  I decided to take the formal plunge into the Congress. I organised the campaign in a very formal and logical way. I organised a small war room and then we worked on that. As I started working with the organisation of the Congress, I started falling in love with it. Because for me, every political party has three major steps; organisation, ideology, and leadership.

In the Congress, the organisation is not the leaders alone—it has a huge cadre base. Every village you go to, you will have some 10 Congressmen and women who still believe in empathy, love and affection. So, I started falling in love with that cadre base wherein people think goodness is what they want. So this organisation is giving me that space to move around.

You are talking about south India. In the north, they seem to have vanished.

No, they are still there. The connection seems to have vanished. But in every village, if you just rub their surface, they will say that we are actually Rajiv Gandhi fans, Indira Gandhi gave this house, and so on.

I believe that the ideology of Congress is the Constitution and it is the written manifesto of the party. It is the product of the freedom movement, a movement for equity, which was not just against the British but was also bringing the ethos that we have as the Constitution. So, it was natural for me to take up that ideology and work for it.

Rahul Gandhi, senior Congress leader and Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha. Sasikanth Senthil believes that Rahul understands how India is “beautifully chaotic”.

Rahul Gandhi, senior Congress leader and Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha. Sasikanth Senthil believes that Rahul understands how India is “beautifully chaotic”. | Photo Credit: PRIYANSHU SINGH/REUTERS/File Photo

How do you see Rahul Gandhi today? Is he changing the Congress?

Rahul Gandhi is an extremely good human being. He is very sharp and radical. He believes in humanistic principles. In that way, anything associated with him will change.

One great example is the Bharat Jodo Yatra and it is one of the biggest reasons for our success. The Congress’ language was not rhetoric and big speeches. It was walking. If you have a leader like that who can lead from the front, the organisation will change and it has changed.

Rahul Gandhi, as a member of the family, has just taken a position in the government for the first time. Does that mean that we will now see him as a prime ministerial candidate or is it inevitable that the Congress will see him in the future?

I am not a great fan of what is going to come in the future. But I can very clearly tell that he is a leader with all the character and aspects which this country is all about.

Are you talking about finding morality in public life again?

Not only that, you need a certain mind to understand India. In India, we don’t tolerate differences, we celebrate it. We are beautifully chaotic and one needs to understand that. And I think Rahul Gandhi is someone who clearly understands that and can lead everybody towards.

“The BJP and RSS are making the Muslims the new Dalits.”

As a Dalit MP, at what stage are we in our own history as far as Ambedkar’s vision is considered? And what exactly has happened in Uttar Pradesh or Maharashtra, has there been a shift in the Dalit politics or is it impossible to generalise?

I think we were in the right direction until we forgot to do what Ambedkar told us to do in the last speech, that is social freedom. I would even expand that a little and talk about caste as a very important factor. The entire burden of the caste system is borne by the Dalits. It is a graded hierarchy, as Ambedkar says. So, when someone propagates caste, even through a surname, we may not know what impact it has even if they are not casteist. When we do a bit of propagation for that, the burden of that whole caste system is borne by the Dalits because they are at the bottom most. 

As far as questioning the caste system, we have not gone much further. We have kind of stopped some atrocities here and there but largely we are a casteist society. And casteism, patriarchy, etc.: these are all sister brothers, there is not much difference. So, we have to understand the caste system and discuss how it propagates.

Towards what Ambedkar visualised, I don’t think we have gone a long distance but we were in the direction: as long as we thought in a legal, rational system and we moved, we upheld affirmative action, and I am a product of that. But a lot needs to be done to understand the whole nexus. You cannot just address Dalits as such. It is the system. 

Are Muslims even at the lowest in society now? Can we make an equation between communities and caste? 

The problemwith caste is that there is no escape route. Your marriage, love, and everything is restricted. You cannot move out of that space at all. And generations together, you cannot move. You have an occupation associated with you as well that keeps reminding you who you are.

With communalism, there might be escape routes. But with the BJP and the RSS, interestingly I observed that they are actually making the Muslims the new Dalits.

You were in Mangalore, where there is quite a lot of wealth with the Muslim community. Just explain the equations right now.

Wherever the lowest of social strata gathers wealth, there will be violence... Caste and communalism will become stronger. So, this idea of “I am up and you are down” has to be re-established in society through certain practices. The only smart way we found in governance is affirmative action to bring up a community so that it is equal.

But Muslims cannot get reservation, except through caste groups.

Because caste has two escape routes. There is this idea of pollution, which is now being talked about the Muslims. During COVID-19, they brought in this Tablighi Jamaat.

Another interesting thing is that the biggest caste is women. Everything that is there in a caste system is there in women too. They talk about purity, when women can be touched. They cannot have their love life and there is a divine ordinance on how they should behave and everything. So it is all the same. It is all a very intelligent system of hierarchies built.

We have not gone further and will never grow further if we do not deal with this caste system. Also, India will never become innovative or creative with the caste system, because the head that thinks is with someone and the hands that work are with someone else. They both will not mingle. And if you don’t mingle these two things, you will never innovate.

We are good in theory. We are good at many other things but we don’t create stuff. Because this habit of creating is not right, it is not there. So a caste has to be on the head and some caste has to be on the hand.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla after installing the sengol at the inauguration of the new Parliament building, in New Delhi, on May 28, 2023. Sasikanth Senthil believes that if the sengol is construed to be something like a stick, it better go away.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla after installing the sengol at the inauguration of the new Parliament building, in New Delhi, on May 28, 2023. Sasikanth Senthil believes that if the sengol is construed to be something like a stick, it better go away. | Photo Credit: PTI

Do you think we are seeing a transformation: like the Bahujan Samaj Party, for instance, is declining. We have another young MP in Parliament, Chandrashekhar Azad. So are these new voices?

These voices are very important and they come up with the right understanding of Dalit politics. So I’m very happy to see many more youngsters coming up and putting up a system to fight. But it is also very easy to get deviated into some other fights. So that has its own political churning and it is happening. But I would not say that we have come a long way. The society has not come a long way in patriarchy and caste system.

There is suddenly a demand that the Sengol should be withdrawn. Does it represent anything for Tamil people?

I don’t think so. The only thing is that it came from Tamil Nadu. Sengol represents justice.

Does it represent justice or monarchy?

When you have a monarchy and extraordinary power in your hand, it is very important to have that idea of justice, equity and fraternity. It is not just a stick to rule. Ethically managing power is important and I think it represents that. But if it is construed to be something like a danda, it better go away.

It is interesting that the Samajwadi Party MP [R.K. Chaudhary] has written to remove that in place of the Constitution.

I would surely agree because I know what the Constitution is. I don’t have an interpretation there. I would certainly agree with that.

Would you agree with the proposition to replace the sengol and put the Constitution back? 

When there is this Constitution, which is a written, legal, rational thing, I value it much above any kind of symbolism. Today, I see in many churches, people have put the Preamble; in many houses, I’ve seen the Preamble. I’m very happy to see that. Because there is no interpretation over that, why do we fight, what does it represent, let’s write it down. That’s the whole idea of a progressive society, right? Let us not work on somebody—a philosopher king, let us write down how they will operate.

Also Read | The changing face of Dalit politics

I want to know what did the Congress war room achieve? Because the Congress did not have a good structure in the Hindi belt. It has performed better, especially in some seats in Uttar Pradesh in an alliance. The numbers have gone up. Can you tell me what were you trying to achieve in the war room?

I would not first of all, call it a war room because we are not doing any war there. We are trying to connect to a lot of cadre people. But this whole change in voting behaviour is not just about the connect centre, it is about leadership, it is about the narratives, the leaders.

How important is the booth management? That is where I always felt that the Congress was weak as compared to the RSS-BJP cadre.

It is important, but it alone cannot operate. You need a narrative and the organisation. That is when the organisation and narrative, along with the right communication, will actually influence voting behaviour. So it has to operate on an equal level. The Congress was weak in that space, and we tried to balance it this time.

But I also have to say this, that Lok Sabha elections are largely narrative elections. What is the narrative that the leader is going to give?

So, what was the narrative as you understood at this time?

This time we were very clear, at least Rahul ji was leading the narrative. And he had excellent clarity in what the narrative should be. And more than that, what it cannot become.

What was it? Please tell us what you saw.

So the BJP had a narrative on the lines that we expected—polarisation. That is the narrative they sell. They work on the fear in a voter’s mind. That “Ye hoga toh vo hojayega” types. We wanted to go perpendicular, not at all parallel in any way to them. Perpendicular, dissecting the livelihood issues, dissecting employment, dissecting women’s empowerment, and we proposed five guarantees—everything affecting a family.

I know the guarantees because you were part of it in Karnataka. I have seen those and you were happy, but the point is there has also been a lot of criticism that can they be afforded? Is the Karnataka government being able to pay its bills?

Yes, Karnataka is paying it, and we have thought over it. It is not being done without a thought process.

I believe that the Prime Minister actually picked up the idea of “Modi Ki Guarantee” after the Karnataka election’s “Congress Ki Guarantee”. But it did not work, it boomeranged on them.

Let us rewind. A year before he was calling it revadi. He was making fun of it, and then he took the word himself, as usual without any shame, and then used it as Modi Ki Guarantee. But the problem is he never told what that guarantee was.

So, you felt that it was the economic issues or was it the caste census? Or was it that he would take away reservation?

The primary line is the economic issues. Now, there is another line that BJP themselves had given in our hand, that they are not going to wait, they are going to change the Samvidhan [Constitution]. And then the whole idea of “400 sau paar”. People could easily understand that these guys are going to do this. Now, they are giving a brand of majoritarian politics saying that “Hum Hindu hai, hum Hindu ka he problem horahe” [We are Hindu and these are the problems we face]. So, India is the only country where even this majoritarian line is fake. In other majoritarian countries, there is real majoritarianism.

Why is this fake? 

Because, in other majoritarian countries, you have undue advantage for the majority and then the minority gets a very tough deal. Here in India, the majority itself gets a rough deal from the BJP and when I ask for caste census, who am I asking for? I am asking it for the Hindus. And the vast majority of the Hindus are going to get benefited out of that. Why wouldn’t the BJP not want it?

Why do they not want it?

Because they care a damn about Hindu and Hinduism. They only use it as a tool to gain votes. In their hearts, they are casteists, and they are casteist people sitting on the higher echelons, trying to flummox the rest of the caste system to make [them] believe they have actually won.

But Narendra Modi is OBC.

Yeah, but he does not care about OBCs. He should have been fighting for the caste census, why is he not? So he is this opportunist who is just mil-ofied [collaborating] with the upper echelons and trying to utilise the whole fake narrative of Hinduism, Hindutva, to gain votes, that’s all.

And after they gain votes, their actual enemies are these OBCs, SCs, STs—I do not think they have much to do with Muslims. They do that so that they get votes. But after that, they have been only destroying the lives of whatever affirmative action this category of Hinduism got. That is why I say India is the only country where Hinduism [and] this whole majoritarian politics is also a fake majoritarianism.

Saba Naqvi is a Delhi based journalist and author of four books who writes on politics and identity issues.

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