Last week when Dalit protesters blocked traffic on highways and burned public property across northern India, I tweeted that we could be seeing the eruption of months of pent up rage. The Supreme Court’s attempt to dilute the law dealing with crimes against Dalits was just the trigger, in my view, for anger that has been simmering over the past four years. Especially after the Una incident, in which Dalit youths skinning a dead cow were tied to a car and beaten with iron rods by Hindutva vigilantes.
It was not my intention when I expressed this view to provoke abusive tweets from upper-caste Hindu twitterers, but I did. Many of those hurling imprecations at me I recognised as members of the Hindutva gang that attacks me every time I mention the words Hindu or cow in a tweet. Now I know that the word Dalit sets them off as well, and that many high-caste Hindus believe that violence against Dalits is amplified by anti-Hindus (like me), and is a thing of the past. A little research would reveal that hate crimes against Dalits went up nearly 70 per cent in the 10 years between 2007 and 2017.
This is not the only point I wish to make this week. What I want to draw attention to is a peculiar new phenomenon in Indian politics whereby the forces of Hindutva are slowly but surely destroying the Hindu vote. Personally, I do not believe that there is a consolidated Hindu vote bank in the way there is a Muslim vote bank. But, having covered Indian elections for more than 40 years, I can report that caste divisions disappear when there is an idea or a leader that rises above them. This happened in 1977 when the purpose was to get rid of Mrs Gandhi and her son. It happened in 1980 when the purpose was to get rid of the squabbling Janata government. It happened in 1984 when Rajiv Gandhi represented a break from the past. And, it happened in 2014 when Modi promised a new dream.
He sold this dream of prosperity and change without the guidance of his alma mater the RSS. So it is hard to understand why he allowed his ideas about changing India’s economic direction and political culture to become subservient to regressive Hindutva ideas of cows, caste and creed. Whatever his reasons, he took too long to notice that it was not just Muslims who lost jobs because of cow vigilante violence but Dalits and other backward castes. Upper-caste Hindus do not work in industries that defile their ideas of purity but lesser Hindus do. When the lynchings began, they all lost jobs.
This at a time of such acute joblessness that 25 million people recently applied for 90,000 railway jobs. So Hindutva’s crusaders have seriously harmed Modi personally. Cattle fairs report a huge drop in sales, dairy farming has become impossible, the leather and meat industries have virtually closed and restaurant and hotel jobs have also been lost. A serious political consequence is that Hindutva’s warriors could have broken the Hindu vote that consolidated around Modi in the last general election. We saw the first sign of this in recent by-elections in Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh.
Ironically, it is the Hindutva mothership that has noticed what is happening before most political commentators have. So last week RSS leaders gathered in Agra to urge the BJP to work harder to bring Dalits and backward-caste Hindus back into the fold. There is talk of a ‘maha-Dalit outreach’ that starts next week and the Prime Minister in a recent speech emphasised that his government had done more to honour Dr Ambedkar than any other government had. But, is too late to suddenly stop playing the Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan card? Could it now be the only card that is still in play?
The Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh last week honoured five Hindu priests by giving them the same privileges as ministers in his Cabinet. The Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh already wears saffron robes and has at the top of his agenda the temple to Ram in Ayodhya that was his reason for entering politics. If it does get built before the next general election, as promised, we can be certain that Muslims will feel even more marginalised than they already do, but there is every likelihood that lower-caste Hindus will feel the same.
There is no indication from lower-caste Hindus that a mighty temple to Ram in Ayodhya will revive their enthusiasm for a Prime Minister who they voted for because he promised ‘sabka saath, sabka vikas’. It is beginning to seem increasingly as if Modi could be defeated in 2019 not because the ‘secular’ opposition parties will consolidate their votes but because Hindutva has managed to de-consolidate Hindu votes.