Hindu Nationalism and Lower Caste Politics - Transcript

Intro [00:00:02]

This is the Nordic Asia podcast.

Kenneth Bo Nielsen [00:00:10]

Welcome to the Nordic Asia Podcast, a collaboration sharing expertise on Asia across the Nordic region. My name is Kenneth Bo Nielsen. I am a social anthropologist based in Oslo and one of the leaders of the Norwegian Network for Asian Studies. In India, the Hindu Nationalist Party, the BJP, has gone from strength to strength over the last decade. At the national elections in 2014, the party won a spectacular victory, bagging 282 parliamentary seats in a house of 545. Five years later, in 2019, the BJP did even better, winning more than 300 seats and more than 37% of the popular vote. And by all accounts, the BJP remains the favourite to win again next year when India goes to the hustings. What is striking about the BJP at the current moment is not only the level of popular support the party attracts, but also the somewhat paradoxical fact that the BJP, which is usually considered brahmanical and upper caste, also enjoys broad electoral support from many segments of the Indian population, including from the numerically significant lower caste groups. Why and how has Hindu nationalism today become so adept at appealing to and also recruiting people from the lower costs? And what does this mean for Indian politics in the short to medium term? To discuss these questions, we are joined today by Samantha Agarwal, who will soon be Changemaker postdoctoral fellow at the School of International Service at American University in Washington, DC. She works on the rise of ethno nationalist movements and how they are refracted through the political economy of caste with a particular focus on India. Welcome, Sam, and thank you so much for joining the Nordic Asian podcast.

Samantha Agarwal [00:02:08]

Thanks for having me. Kenneth It's great to be here.

Kenneth Bo Nielsen [00:02:11]

I mentioned just briefly now the fact that the BJP is recruiting people actively from the lower castes on quite a large scale and that this is somewhat of a paradox, But why is that?

Samantha Agarwal [00:02:24]

Yeah, that's right. The BJP has managed to not only recruit significant numbers of people from lower caste communities, but it has also become the leading party nationwide among Dalits, who are India's most marginalized caste community. And since about 2004, the BJP has been steadily expanding its Dalit vote share, sort of peaking in the 2019 federal elections when it won 34% of the vote. Now, someone who's unfamiliar with Indian context might think 34%. That means 66% still back other parties or opposition parties. But given that the population size of ballots in India is an estimated 200 million, we realized how truly significant the 34% is. And as you said, you know, Dalit support for the is a paradoxical phenomenon because Dalits have been for many, many years stigmatized, exploited and deprived of vital resources by upper caste Hindus. And the BJP, on the other hand, is widely considered an upper caste party. Members, for example, have historically been disproportionately drawn from the ranks of the upper caste, and the BJP is known to have defended and perpetuated the caste system and caste practices. So, you know, in my work, one of the questions that I'm asking is why would India's most marginalized caste group vote for a party that, at least on the face of it, directly undermines its interests?

Kenneth Bo Nielsen [00:03:57]

Yeah. Your own work on these issues is located in the state of Kerala, in South India. Intuitively, this is somewhat of an odd place to go and study caste and Hindu nationalism. Kerala is usually considered and also spoken about as a place where the ruling parties and these have historically been the left parties on the one hand, and then the Congress Party on the other, where the ruling parties have quite successfully addressed caste and where the BJP has been, one can say, a very marginal political player. That includes today where the BJP actually does not even have a single seat in the state assembly in Kerala. What brought you to Kerala to look into these issues?

Samantha Agarwal [00:04:39]

I mean, you're right. The BJP, which is dominant at the national level, does not have a single assembly seat. Out of all the 140 seats in the state of Kerala, the lone seat that they had won in 2016, in the name of constituency, has since been lost. But, you know, that, of course, is not the whole story, right? Kerala is also a state where the RSS or the parent organisation of the BJP has the highest density of members relative to the population. According to its own figures, it has over 6800 branches, with approximately 400,000 members in Kerala alone. That makes Kerala a place where the has not only the highest density of members per population, but also the second highest absolute number of members in the country. And that's just following Uttar Pradesh. So that shows that the BJP's agenda does have considerable support in civil society in Kerala, but then also in the electoral realm after Modi's first electoral victory in 2014, which was kind of widely seen as a turning point for the BJP nationwide, the BJP made unprecedented gains electorally in Kerala. And so one of the most surprising areas in terms of their growth was how they were able to appeal to marginalised communities who are discontented with the left, which is dominant in Kerala. So in 2016, according to a poll by nearly a quarter of Kerala, Dalits voted for the BJP. And the bulk of those votes actually were drawn from people who formerly supported the left. And this sort of got me thinking, you know, if the BJP can make inroads here in this context, among a population that has historically been the strongest supporters of the communist parties, and also in a state where there's a long history of religious harmony or coexistence, then it can also make inroads just about anywhere. And so studying the BJP in Kerala might actually reveal lessons about how the ethno nationalist movement makes inroads into what I'm calling hostile terrain. And then also, equally, given the fact that Kerala is still a place where the left has sort of held ground, it has kept the BJP at bay and still retains the majority of that vote, despite the fact that its figures are eroding. I think it can also offer us lessons about how state governments and political parties more broadly are fighting and can effectively fight ethno nationalist movements. And also it can tell us about what are the strengths and limitations of how left wing or social democratic parties have or haven't addressed the concerns of lower caste people.

Kenneth Bo Nielsen [00:07:23]

Could we just stay with the left parties and the communists? Because I'm curious to hear a little bit more about this, because it's true what you say. The left parties have been politically very dominant in Kerala and now for for many, many decades, the approach of the communists in Kerala to caste. Where did they succeed and where did they fail?

Samantha Agarwal [00:07:46]

This is a really complex history which is not well captured in the existing literature. I think there's a tendency to make blanket statements about what the left did or didn't do. Either the left completely failed on caste or it eradicated it entirely. Right. And the reality, of course, is somewhere in between. Yes, the left did implement a number of universal welfare reforms that benefited everyone, including lower caste people. For example, in education, Kerala is widely recognized to be the first state in India to achieve universal literacy. It also has better health care indicators than any other state in India. But it's also true that in the Communist Party's flagship programme, the land reform, which was implemented in the late 60s or early 70s, owing to the way in which it defined beneficiaries as tenants, it excluded the vast majority of Dalits who are not tenants. They were ranked below tenants, they were agricultural labourers. And so while the land reforms did sort of break down the feudal relationship between the upper caste landlords and the middle caste tenants, in a sense leveling the playing field for these two groups. It did not lift Adivasis and Dalits out of the most marginalized position in the agrarian hierarchy. And I do think in the subsequent years the communist parties have strongly worked to improve the conditions of Dalits inadequacies, but it never really did undo this caste based hierarchy. And then equally importantly, because the Communist parties have historically adopted, or at least since the mid seconds, have adopted what we sometimes think of as a class determinist or class first position, it really did fail to seriously address the ways in which caste or caste discrimination was operative within its own ranks and within society more broadly. And so thus, in this inattention to cast, it sort of ended up apportioning more leadership and more symbolic capital to members of the upper caste while equally excluding members of the lower caste. And that is sort of led to this very strong perception that lower caste people have been grossly underrepresented in the party leadership. They've been relegated to the most mundane or arduous party work, etcetera. So there's a sort of widespread perception that sort of get that in my dissertation.

Kenneth Bo Nielsen [00:10:08]

Because this is research you've been carrying out for quite some time now. And as you say now, I suppose that one can to some extent say that this shift of lower caste groups towards the BJP has something to do with, if not the failure of the left's approach to caste, and at least with certain weaknesses in how the left has been thinking about caste relations. But I suppose that's only part of the story. There will be another set of reasons also for why lower caste groups are gravitating towards the BJP as an active choice.

Samantha Agarwal [00:10:46]

Absolutely. I mean, the BJP in Kerala is operating in a political field that has been for many years defined by the left. And so everything it does in Kerala has to be in reference to the left, especially when they're trying to attract former supporters of the left, and something the BJP has been very good at, not just in Kerala, but everywhere, is sort of embedding itself deeply in the pores of civil society, in neighborhoods and interacting with residents and understanding their concerns and the reason for their discontent. And similarly, in Kerala, they do this in caste colonies. So I should say that my fieldwork was predominantly located in what's often referred to as colonies. And these are sort of residential areas where Dalits are in the majority. In many cases, Dalits were as a way of recognizing their exclusion from the agricultural land reforms, given small housing plots in these residential areas. And so the BJP is embedding itself in these colonies and understanding what the main concerns are of the majority of residents that live there. As a sort of alluding to these housing plots that were distributed to Dalits in the context of the land reform were initially a source of security. They have over time because of population pressures, etcetera, have become inadequate to support the social reproductive needs of that with residents. And so that has become a very large source of grievance. And then additionally in the colonies there are a number of sort of infrastructural crises that residents experience. So not just in inadequate housing, but deteriorating housing, poor sanitation and things like that. Sometimes they lack basic infrastructural provisions like electricity or roads like the roads have been deteriorated by weathering and things like that. So and so the way in which the BJP is addressing these grievances and understanding them is they're embedding their own cadres in these colonies. And usually they're actually people who have lived in these colonies, who have grown up in these colonies, the recruiting members from these colonies or individuals from these colonies and turning them into front line providers of housing and sanitation services. So the way in which they're doing that is by either redeploying BJP controlled central government funds, for example, through the Yojana, which is a housing scheme, but then they also serve as middlemen for Kerala state government welfare schemes. And in that process they attribute credit to the BJP or to Modi. I also mentioned the discrimination that Dalits have experienced in the Communist parties. The vast majority of the CPI or cadres that I interviewed talked about this. For example, they talked about how they should have been promoted to higher ranks based on their seniority in the party, but they remained in subordinate positions or they were disproportionately assigned the least desirable party work, like, for example, being made to stick posters. But then also some of them shared more harrowing experiences, such as being made to act as fallmen in cases of political violence, which is people who know Kerala know is endemic to political field. So the BJP sort of takes advantage of this perception. They do this a number of ways, but the primary one is by taking these discontented ballot cadres and making them into office holders in the BJP. So essentially the perception is that the BJP is giving these cadres more substantial representation than they have been afforded in the communist parties. I'm sort of arguing that both of these interventions, both in the sphere of welfare and also in representation, enable the BJP to craft a narrative that the BJP or the Hindu nationalist are more genuine or legitimate advocates of Dalits interests than the left parties have been who they depict as castist and specifically anti-Dalit.

Kenneth Bo Nielsen [00:15:01]

What I find in a sense particularly fascinating about your work and I say this now as an anthropologist, of course, is the way in which you take all this micro detail from the field site that you tell us about just now, and use this Indian case, which many of us may think of as somewhat of an outlier. You make this case relevant to debates that are much larger global debates, you might say, and I say this because I think that you, through this study of lower caste people in Kerala who make at least temporary alliance with the Hindu nationalists, that remains to be seen. Of course, by doing this, you, to a great extent, address a global phenomenon that's quite understudied and not really well understood. And that is how ethnically or racially marginalized groups are drawn to these ethno nationalist movements and parties which espouse ideas about either racial or ethnic or caste supremacy. Could you tell us more about how you see yourself as intervening into these particular bigger debates?

Samantha Agarwal [00:16:13]

I think for reasons that will be familiar to your listeners, there's been a lot of attention, a lot of literature in the past few years exploring why people from ethnically or racially dominant groups, specifically, you know, white workers, they come to back ethno nationalist movements and parties. And so this literature often references Dubois concept of the psychological wage, right? Arguing that white workers tend to compensate for their economic marginality, like leaning into their whiteness or what George Yancey calls white lash, for example. But there's been a lot less attention paid to why both economically and racially marginalized people would turn toward ethno nationalist currents or why they would make alliances with ethno nationalist movements and parties. And there are many such examples that we know of worldwide where this has happened. For example, there are the ethnically and economically marginalized Kurds who have in multiple periods in history, backed the AKP in Turkey, the majoritarian or the Latinos in the United States who voted for the white nationalist Donald Trump, in surprisingly large numbers. There's a number of examples which we can point to worldwide and I think in this context. The growing support for the Hindu nationalists, which is the largest ethno nationalist party and movement in the world among millions of ballots, inadequacies makes India an important case to speak to this larger understudied phenomenon.

Kenneth Bo Nielsen [00:17:53]

You have an article coming out quite soon on these issues in the journal Politics and Society, where you lay out what you're calling a theory of hegemony, referring back to Gramsci, of course. I had the privilege of hearing you talk about this idea when you presented your work at the Madison South Asia Conference last year. What do you mean by this concept, and how does your theory of a Yemeni help us understand not just the Indian case, but also potentially other cases of right wing movement in India or around the world?

Samantha Agarwal [00:18:29]

Yeah. Thanks for mentioning my article. So when I first started studying Hindu nationalism in India and in Kerala, I turned to leading theories of hegemony because I think it's pretty clear that the BJP is a hegemonic project nationally. And in Kerala it's really the communist parties who have been hegemonic, and the BJP, which is the sort of hegemonic contender. And so I lean into these theories of hegemony. And while I was digging in, I noticed that leading theory, such as that of Antonio Gramsci, while they had a means of explaining how subordinate class people are recruited or incorporated into these hegemonic blocs or ruling coalitions, they did not have a means of explaining contexts in which ethnic or racial oppression or idioms of race and ethnicity were in some way shaping hegemonic politics. And so in my work, I tried to reconstruct gramscian theories. And I do that using Nancy Frazier's heuristic of bivalent. According to Frazier, oppression is structured along these two axes now distribution and miss recognition. And she says that there are some groups that are marginalized just along one of these axes. But then there are also other groups that experience both types of oppression. And these are what Frazier calls a bivalent collectivity. So they're marginalized along both economic and cultural lines. And according to Frazier, these groups require both types of justice, redistribution and recognition. And in my work I'm arguing that Dalits are a classic example of a bivalent collectivity. And in order to win over any bivalent collectivity like Dalits, hegemonic social blocs or ruling coalitions must pursue both recognition and also what I'm calling racial or ethnic redistribution. And by that I mean redistribution. That takes into account the historic mal distribution that's rooted in non class forms of oppression and show that when political parties and ruling coalitions fail to do both of these things, as in the Kerala case of redistribution without recognition, they risk a fracturing of their base and ultimately potentially hegemonic decline. I'm also arguing that political challengers. That includes right wing ethno nationalist, can exploit the grievances of these bivalent activities to forge new, cross, racial or cross ethnic coalitions. And these right wing Yemenis are also vulnerable to the same pitfalls that leftwing Yemenis face if they fail to address either the cultural or economic dimensions of oppression. So that is my theory in a nutshell. And feel like this theory or this framework provides a starting point just for understanding this larger phenomenon of why ethnically marginalized people tend to support one party over the other, or why they lose faith in certain, maybe hegemonic political parties and why they can be incorporated or attracted to parties that we don't necessarily think of as backing their interests. But that's why we need anthropology and sociology to understand what is actually happening on the ground.

Kenneth Bo Nielsen [00:21:57]

We are approaching the end. And I began this episode by briefly mentioning the spectacular electoral performances of the Hindu Nationalist BJP party in the two most recent national elections in 2014 and 2019. Now, of course, India votes again roughly a year from now. And I don't want to force you into speculating about the outcomes of this coming election. It's still roughly a year away, but it is quite evident, I think, that the BJP's ability to attract lower caste voters will have quite clear implications for the outcome of these elections that are due in 2024 and also for the opposition's chances of denting the BJP's dominance. If we combine the Dalits and the lower Obcs, we are talking about a very, very significant section of the Indian electorate. How important is this group to the electoral success of the BJP looking ahead to next year's national election?

Samantha Agarwal [00:23:03]

Absolutely. I do think that one of the biggest questions for the BJP in this election is going to be how the party reconciles this growing assertion of marginalized caste groups, that is, the obcs and the scheduled castes or ballots with this reaction or antagonism that this generates from its upper caste supporters, and also how reconciles this antagonism with a larger notion that they're trying to promote a unified Hindu society. This is a classic problem that the BJP has dealt with historically. So, for example, in 1990, when the Mondal Commission report was first implemented, the Mondal Commission report was meant to create expanded reserve quotas and government institutions specifically for obcs. It generated extreme and vicious backlash from the upper caste community, and they essentially shut down large parts of the nation and contributed to the downfall of the government. But while the BJP knew that alienating this OBC voter base would be politically risky and it tried to sort of divert attention away from what was going on by intensifying its long running campaign to build a Hindu temple at a site which it claims was the birthplace of the Hindu god Ram. And so this campaign sort of culminates in the destruction of a 16th century mosque and was followed by months of communal rioting. And over 2000 people died. And that was in 1992. But now in the present election, the sort of push for conducting a census and also the demand for the extension of reservations into the private sector are really gaining a lot of momentum. So, for example, the DMK and the Samajwadi Party have now placed these issues at the centre of their electoral strategy. If this discourse continues in this current direction, these will probably be key defining issues in the election. So how will the BJP address this real anger and precarity that's being reflected through these demands for greater quotas that are coming from different corners of marginalised cast communities? And they'll have to ask themselves whether they're going to continue with the current course, which is to advance limited representation and then sort of ramp up its rebrand of the welfare state. Or will that prove to be inadequate? And will they have to make more ambitious reforms that speak to the demands of the middle class and the lower caste groups? And the question will always be how will they balance that with upper caste reaction or with upper caste imaginaries and demands? They will always be sort of a core constituency of the BJP who they'll never want to alienate. So these are going to be core questions. I mean, they always have been core questions in the larger forward march of India, and they will continue to be in this crucial election. That's coming up.

Kenneth Bo Nielsen [00:26:12]

Samantha Agarwal, thank you so much for joining the podcast and for these insights into Hindu nationalist politics and lower caste mobilisation and voting behaviour, and also for putting this particular theme into conversation with bigger, globally resonant debates. My name is Kenneth Bo Nielsen, and thank you for joining the Nordic Asia podcast showcasing Nordic collaboration in studying Asia.

Outro [00:26:42]

You have been listening to the Nordic Asia podcast