Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Taking Caste Seriously – III: Caste, Democracy and the ‘Friends of the BJP’

On the 7th of April 2009 the ‘Friends of the BJP’ organized a political meeting in Panjim. The meeting was a part of the electoral campaign for the soon-to-be concluded general election to the Parliament. In their own words, “Friends of BJP is a subset of the educated civil society that is BJP-leaning, and willing to be vocal about it. We are not part of the BJP. We also do not agree with everything the BJP says or does. It is our belief that at this point of time the BJP is the better alternative.”

I was personally, profoundly impressed by the meeting; the location for the meeting, the tech-savvy presentation, the suave speakers from the ‘Friends of the BJP’. The meeting left one with the impression of a dynamic organization brimming with energy and life, promising a better tomorrow for the country.

This was only a preliminary impression however. Sitting down to evaluate the messages sent out from that meeting, I realized that while there was without doubt a dynamism in the organization, it wasn’t a positive dynamism. The dynamism of the ‘Friends’ was the dynamism of a group determined to lead a counter-revolution and recapture the power that it had lost to the democratic processes of this country. If at all the ‘Friends’ appeared dynamic, it is because the only group we have to compare them to, the Congress Party is in all senses dead. It survives purely on the inertia of the past, and the sheer lack of any serious electoral alternative for India’s voting population. The option between the two parties should be compared to the option between two different poisons. One will agree it is not much of an option!

The first thing that strikes one as we read the Manifesto of the ‘Friends’ is their uneasy positioning vis-à-vis the BJP. “We are not part of the BJP. We also do not agree with everything the BJP says or does” but we do believe that “at this point of time the BJP is the better alternative.” What is it that these ‘Friends’ do not agree with? Reading through their website, one does not find a response to this crucial question, except a suggestion at some point that the BJP may not be the ‘Whitest of the parties’. Let me suggest the other reasons that they may have for this uncomfortable distancing even as they seek to propel the BJP into power; the hate speech that proliferates under their shadow, the hate crimes that maim and kill innocents by the thousand in their regimes, the perverse re-writing of Indian history and political culture to create the subcontinent as a land of gentle Hindus now exhausted by the patient hospitality extended to foreigners (read non-Hindus) that parasitically feed off the land. It is because the ‘Friends’ market themselves as members of “educated civil society” that they are unable to defend these actions of the BJP that are an integral part of its agenda. Since no educated person, or member of a civil society can stand for the retrograde positions of the BJP, these members of ‘educated civil society’ must necessarily glide over this aspect, and focus on the apolitical matter of corruption, where in any case the BJP is one among many.

The ‘Friends’ market themselves as members of civil society, but their speech and positions declare them to be anything but constituents of a civil society. To begin with, there is no express rejection of the BJP’s excesses. More importantly there is a constant harping on the fact that their constituency is ‘middle (class) India’, the urban Indian, the ‘educated’ Indian. As we all now know, these three images that they offer are images of ‘upper-caste’ India. What the ‘Friends’ offer us therefore is a ‘casteist’ vision of India, and of course, the BJP is the best alternative to realize this vision, since unlike the Congress, the BJP is frankly open about this agenda.

The ‘Friends’ continuously stress the difference between the superior ‘us’ and the inferior ‘them’. These inferiors are the rural, the uneducated (in English that is) and the non-middle class. The term ‘middle-class’ in India cannot be defined economically, since it is by and large a broad caste location. A clerk barely able to feed her a family of two children would still call herself middle-class. Why is this? It is because if you are upper caste and verging on poverty, you have ‘fallen on bad times’, if you are bahujan-dalit and verge on poverty it is because ‘they are lazy’. This caste equation that they offer, in keeping with the times, can in fact accommodate persons with dalit-bahujan backgrounds. But only if they are able to, on their own effort, overcome the historical barriers that prevent their entry into this club of the urban, middle-class and educated (read English speaking).

It is because the BJP and the ‘Friends’ stresses this coded language of the club, that they appeal to the middle-class constituents of the ‘minority’ groups in India. ‘We are one of you’ is the message that the ‘Friends’ seek to convey, ‘not like those barbarous, unwashed, unlettered natives who abound in the filth of India. It is our duty to educate (read civilize) them and take India forward’. So as to make a point, the bouquets to the guests at this meeting in Panjim, were presented by two Catholics, both middle class, and almost certainly upper-caste. It is for this reason, that all of Catholic Fontainhas votes convincedly for the BJP. This civilizing mission is common to all the upper-caste elements of all religious groups in India, be it Christian, Muslim or Hindu. They all believe in the need for the lower elements to be educated and civilized, failing which, policed.

The ‘Friends’ does not anywhere speak the language of rights. It speaks the language of governance, or what it calls ‘good governance’. As important as governance is, when governance is divorced from rights, as in the case of the ‘Friends’ discourse, it allows for the emergence of autocracy. The discourse of the ‘Friends’ not surprisingly, given their business school backgrounds, is Managerial. Their vision is not one of democratic negotiation and discussion, but of the management of people, to maximize economic production. There was this hungry man, a couple of millennia ago, in the deserts of Judea who cried out in the face of temptation, “Man does not live by bread alone”. That man was right; democracy cannot be reduced to a system that allows us to achieve higher production and consumption. Democracy is about a spiritual ethic that recognizes rights. The ‘Friends’ however would like us to reduce democracy to a managerial system, a system of ‘good governance’ divorced from other civil, cultural and political rights. This is in keeping the upper-caste vision of the BJP and the Friends where it is only the upper-caste, educated, English-speaking urban denizens of the country that know best. One presumes that the rest of us must just shut up.

The Friends of the BJP present a mirage of dynamism. In reality, their vision is regressive and seeks to undo the liberation of people that the Indian democracy has achieved. As in the Puranic story of the churning of the Ocean of milk, the democratic process has unleashed a number of problems. The solution however lies in more democracy, not a casteist oligarchy.

(Published in the Gomantak Times 13th May 2009)


Abhik Majumdar said...

Excellent analysis as usual. I'm posting a link to this on my Facebook profile.

sukhad said...

Jason, excellent writing great analysis. Such rare qualities for a Goan journo... Like Abhik, I'd like to share it to my FB profile. Good luck...keep writing!

ASingh said...

Abhik pointed me to your blog. Kudos on a well written and incisive article.

I always find it amusing and horrifying (at the same time - says much about my state of cynicism, I guess) when I hear people talk about the 'good governance' brought to Gujrat by Modi, with little to no mention of the state-sanctioned (sponsored?) massacre that he oversaw.

As a counterpoint let's start a discussion on the relative merits and demerits of the alternative(s) to the BJP and the philosophy it represents.

I will be returning for more...

Winnowed said...

Brilliant and incisive! Keep it writing.

Anonymous said...

Well I assent to but I think the post should secure more info then it has.