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The paradox is too obvious to ignore. On the surface, the issue of development was the overriding theme in the just-conclude parliamentary elections in India, still it is being dubbed as the most divisive election ever. As India approaches the day of election results, the seemingly progressive narrative has been fast degenerating into a very polarising political campaign.

Raking up emotive issues to polarise the electorate on religious and caste lines to win elections is not new in India. Political parties across the board, with very few exceptions, have done it. If religion is used to divide people vertically, caste segregates them horizontally. Many social scientists believe that the very composition of Indian society based on caste hierarchy and religious segregation provides the basis for the divisive political narratives. The genesis of divisive politics goes back several decades. Madhavrao Sadashivrao Golwalkar, one of the founding fathers of the right-wing Hindu majoritarian organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), wrote in the 1960s: “Right from Delhi to Rampur and Lucknow, the Muslims are busy hatching a dangerous plot, piling up arms ... to strike from within.” In a rather sweeping generalisation, Golwalkar also identified three “internal threats” to India — the Muslims, the Christians and the Communists. Golwalkar’s words carry a lot of weight for his disciples in the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is hoping to form the government at the Centre under the leadership of Narendra Modi, who is perceived by many as a polarising leader.

Golwalkar’s imprint was clearly evident when Modi’s right-hand man and a prominent BJP leader Amit Shah recently told a largely Hindu audience during a campaign rally in communally sensitive western Uttar Pradesh that this election was “to take revenge”. The statement instantly ignited a controversy because just a few months before the general elections village after village in this area had been engulfed in mass-scale communal riots, killing nearly 60 people, mostly Muslims, and breaking the age-old social and political bond between Jat Hindus and Muslims. Hundreds of Muslims were forced to flee their homes and many of them are still living in sub-human conditions in relief camps, with minimum civic amenities.

However, Modi and his supporters alone cannot be accused of using divisive themes for electoral gains. Some of the leaders of the governing Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh have indulged in equally, if not more polarising election campaign. A prominent Muslim leader of the state and a sworn political enemy of the BJP, Azam Khan, recently said it was the Muslims and not the Hindu soldiers who had won the Kargil war in 1999 between India and Pakistan. Clearly, Azmi’s statement was seen by many as a desperate attempt to flare up communal passions and shepherd Muslim votes to his fold.

Even the ‘Grand Old Party’ of India, the Indian National Congress, cannot claim to be above partisan fault lines. It has time and again used the communal card to suit its electoral strategy. When the Iron Lady of Indian politics, Indira Gandhi, was assassinated by her own Sikh bodyguards on October 31, 1984, the Congress instantly assumed the role of a majoritarian Hindu party and allegedly looked the other way when hundreds of Sikhs were being attacked and killed by Hindu mobs on the streets of Delhi and other cities. Indira’s son Rajiv Gandhi drew a lot of flak for trying to provide what appeared to be some justification for the riots by saying “when a huge a tree falls, the earth does shake”. He was a reluctant politician who, riding on the sympathy wave, led his party to a landslide electoral victory in the general election held in 1984. The BJP was totally routed.

Mastering the craft of vote bank

Soon the RSS and its affiliates chalked out a plan to bring the BJP out of political wilderness and launched the campaign to build a Hindu temple at the place of a 16th-century mosque in the north Indian town of Ayodhya. As the movement caught the imagination of the nation, the ruling Congress party did not hesitate to appropriate the plank in order to appease majority Hindu voters and allowed the foundation stone of the proposed temple to be laid near the disputed area.

In the caste-divided society, most of the political parties rely on what is known in common parlance as the “vote bank”. To galvanise and polarise their respective vote banks, political parties field leaders with caste or religious appeal. Recently, there was a lot of buzz about the Congress president Sonia Gandhi meeting the Shahi Imam of Delhi’s Mughal-era mosque, the Jama Masjid, asking for his support. And the Shahi Imam obliged.

Similarly, one of India’s most powerful women politicians, Mayawati, who lords over the Dalits (formerly known as the untouchables or outcasts) vote in Uttar Pradesh, has mastered the craft of vote bank politics. In the early 1980s, her mentor and an astute politician, the late Kanshiram, started organising government employees from the Dalit communities and later launched the Bahujan Samaj Party to fight against the “domination of high-caste Brahmins”.

In the Hindu caste hierarchy, Brahmins come on top followed by the Kshatriyas or the warrior class and the Vaishya or the business class. At the bottom of the rung come the Dalits, literally meaning the downtrodden. In the classical sense, the Brahmins represent the educated or the clergy symbolised by the vermillion mark (the tilak) that the Hindus wear on the forehead. The sword (talwar) symbolises the Kshatriyas, the balance (tarazu) used by shopkeepers to measure provision is the symbol of the business community or the Vaishyas. And the shoes (joote) are used as the symbol of the Dalits who used to skin dead animals to make shoes and earn a living.

Kanshiram used these symbols in a very catchy slogan that summed up his political message: Tilak, tarazu aur talwar — inko maro joote chaar. Roughly translated it would read — the vermillion mark, the sword and the shopkeeper’s balance deserve a beating with leather shoes. In other words, Kanshiram called upon the Dalits to be aggressive and assertive to defeat the upper caste hegemony. Slowly but surely his party made inroads into the Congress mass base amongst the Dalits and considerably marginalised the Congress. The Dalits mobilisation ensured the victory of Kanshiram’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which later came to power in Uttar Pradesh.

Maverick leader Lalu Prasad Yadav is probably the only politician to match BSP’s creativity in the department of sharp sloganeering. A rather funny phrase in Hindi — bhura bal saaf karo — is attributed to him, which was meant to pitch Lalu’s loyal backward caste voters against the so-called forward castes. Roughly translated in English it means ‘shave off the brown hair’. But in Hindi, it carries a crude political appeal: ‘Uproot the forward castes i.e. Bhumihar, Rajput, Brahmin and Lala’.

The RSS loathes this bitter rivalry between different castes because the saffron leadership thinks that it creates impediments in the way of achieving a unified and strong Hindu society. It was because of this complex caste dynamics that the BJP had lost a very important state assembly election in Uttar Pradesh, held immediately after the demolition of the Babri mosque, when the Samajwadi Party and the BSP forged an alliance and united their respective Yadav and Dalit vote banks against the Hindutva party.

The BJP would love a scenario where it could develop its own Dalit-backward leadership to neutralise powerful caste satraps (like Lalu, Mulayam, Sharad Yadav and Mayawati) and bring their mass base to its Hindutva fold. Over a decade ago, the BJP had tried what was known as the “social engineering”, by electing a Dalit (Bangaru Laxman) as its president, but the experiment could not really change the party’s pro-upper caste image.

Sure-shot winning formula

Out of power for ten years, the BJP this time has not left anything to chance. As part of its two-pronged strategy, it has highlighted the caste identity of its prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi to project him as a backward-caste leader. In his speeches, Modi himself has accused the rival Congress party of criticising him because of his caste. On the other hand, BJP has forged a pre-poll alliance with the powerful Dalit politician from Bihar, Ram Vilas Paswan, hoping to gain from it.

Before I conclude, allow me to take a little detour and talk about what was, at one point of time, the Congress party’s sure-shot winning formula in Gujarat. The Congress won election after election on the strength of a caste-religion alliance known as KHAM — an acronym for Kshatriyas (the warrior caste), Harijans (Dalits), Adivasis (tribespeople) and Muslims. Modi’s political success lies, among other things, in the fact that, after the Gujarat riots of 2002, he not only managed to break the KHAM alliance, but also convinced the first three castes (KHA) to rally behind him under one broader Hindu identity.

As the country waits with bated breath for the final results of a bitterly-contested election spread over five weeks, the next big challenge for the strategists of the BJP and Modi (and in fact the RSS) would be to replicate the Gujarat formula across India to bring different castes under the broad umbrella of Hindutva — irrespective of whether the outcome is favourable to them or not.

Rajesh Joshi is Editor, BBC Hindi radio.