Does the decline and the impending collapse of the Congress Party fortunes, which coincide with Narendra Modi’s gate-crashing on to the national stage, signal the end of Brahmin supremacy of India? If the answer is yes, it would amount to a tectonic shift in Indian political sociology.
Since the country’s independence from the British, the Congress Party has insured and managed the political domination of Brahmins through a progressive manipulation of social-democratic ideology and institutions, on the one hand, and a skillful forging of social and political coalitions, on the other.
While this arrangement has been under threat for at least three decades, it has begun to come undone since the late 1990s when an explosion of intermediate caste aspirations begun to overwhelm the political processes, if not the system.
The Mandal job reservations for the backward castes have had a direct bearing on the making of the present political equations, which, ironically, have also put paid to the political entitlement of the Brahminical counter-elite represented by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
Nearly two decades ago, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the political arm of the RSS, sought to steal the mantle from the Congress by rallying the insurgent but disparate Other Backward Castes under the mantle of Hindutva.
The BJP did succeed for a brief “shining” moment in the form of the Atal Behari Vajpayee government, but the stratagem unravelled as quickly, not only because Hinduism is not a viable political construct, but also because caste is truly the “March of God on Earth” – the Hegelian characterization of the State.
L.K. Advani, who built the Hindutva movment brick-by-brick with his tumultuous Rath Yatra, now smarts under the upstart usurper’s whims, reminiscing the time when he, like Aesop’s fabled fly, “sat upon the axel-tree of the chariot-wheel and he thought to himself, what a dust doth I raise!”
After losing two consecutive elections, the BJP’s road back to power has been paved by the tempestuous rise of lower caste Modi, which in turn was made possible, or made inevitable, by the RSS leadership conceding the arithmetic of electoral politics.
That explains why it is countenancing Modi’s characteristically intemperate jettisoning of senior (also upper caste) leaders in the party who are capable of staging a palace coup after the polls. A whisper campaign within the party has consolidated Modi’s hold on the rank and file, precluding any perfidious moves by apparatchiks of the ancient régime.
The RSS, which has traditionally relied on collective leadership, has also gone along with the otherwise anathematic development of personality cult around Modi designed by focus-group driven professionals and publicists. Perhaps, it sees a deeper historical necessity that calls for a “passage to Bonapartism” – to paraphrase a historian’s assessment of the cult of Lenin in the success of the October Revolution.
The RSS’s logic seems to be – if you can’t be in power, at least manage it. That makes sense considering the alternative is a scary counter-revolution of the “lumpen proletariat,” represented by the anarchic and often disquietingly sanctimonious Aam Admi Party, and an assortment of regional parties whose caste and ideological affiliations require an algorithm to untangle.
The fact that these entities are crisscrossing the political spectrum in their bid to ensure their post-election relevance, works to the advantage of Modi, who has happily peaked at a time when fissures have ripped through the alliance of backward castes and the Muslims forged during the Emergency rule of Indira Gandhi.
The politically subversive proposal of job reservations for Muslims embraced by the ever-remorseful Congress Party, not only threatens the interests of the unsolicitious backward castes, but deepens the communal divide, playing into the (this time) unsullied hands of Modi, who is using the occasion to wash off his old Godhra stains. To vouch for him, Modi even acquired towel-ready M.J. Akbar, an invaluable apostate at the hustings.
The possible end of upper caste domination of Indian politics, however, need not be a cynical inference considering that the ascendancy of Modi, who has based his entire campaign on his ability to initiate an economic turnaround, might also signal, at least theoretically, the beginning of the end of caste as a political constituency. The cross-cultural mandate that Modi seems to be garnering could be viewed as capitalism trumping caste and religion – till now, the two implacable impediments to the modernization of Mother India.
While there is much to suspect in the prognostication of pollsters, television anchors and talking heads – all bankrolled by corporate houses that are betting on Modi for the survival of crony capitalism – there is no doubt that a wide swath of young India is invested in the Gujarati Mandarin’s ability to deliver a bright future for them and the country.
If that were to happen, India can finally leave its past behind, or at least the unsavory parts, and really make, what one illustrious Brahmin once called, “a tryst with destiny.”