The Caste system remains an ongoing challenge in India and political parties have struggled to deal with the matter. Other compelling issues remain as India prepares for national general elections in 2019.Image: iStock.
The Caste system remains an ongoing challenge in India and political parties have struggled to deal with the matter. Other compelling issues remain as India prepares for national general elections in 2019. Image: iStock.

“We are here to change the constitution and we’ll change it.”

“Those who, without knowing about their parental blood, call themselves secular, they don’t have their own identity … They don’t know about their parentage.”

As 2017 came to a close these assertions by Anantkumar Hegde, India’s minister of state for skill development, signify the battle that is being waged over how India sees itself as a country. Challenges to the basic tenets of the constitution have become the norm, with several key ministers and leaders from the ruling Bharatiya Janta Party defending the articulation of India as a “Hindu Rashtra” and criticizing “secularism” as a boogeyman for minority appeasement.

With its current majority in the lower house of parliament (the Lok Sabha) and its growing clout in the upper house (Rajya Sabha), pushing for legislation that reflects this belief system has become significantly easier. However, opposition to this idea has come from several quarters, with the basic premise of the constitution proving to be a rallying point for a diverse set of movements.

Critical issue of caste remains unresolved

The largest obstacle to the dream of a Hindu Rashtra has been the caste question that each Indian political party has had to answer, to remain relevant in the country’s political reality. The difficulty has always been to allay the fears of one caste group while protecting the interests of another.

Demands by dominant castes for preference in jobs and education have coincided with atrocities against Dalits and tribal people across the country. Addressing these concerns when the Dalit community mobilizes politically alongside dominant caste coalitions has proven to be a challenge for the BJP even in the prime minister’s home state Gujarat, where the party held on to power by a slim margin.

As the primary plank of the BJP’s election campaign of 2014, tough questions about jobs, agriculture, and taxation have clouded the dreams of a Hindu Rashtra, with the BJP’s own labor and farmers unions (largest in the country) opposing the direction of the economy. A conflict within the party over deregulation of industry and the agrarian crisis has already seen huge union protests and pressure to send India’s chief economic advisor Arvind Subramanian back to the United States.

Proposed labor reforms to improve the country’s ranking on the ease-of-doing-business index have been opposed by trade unions. Tough questions about missed job-creation and skills-training targets have been asked by economists and commentators.

State elections this year face uncertain outcome

Without addressing questions raised by labor, trade and farmers’ unions, winning the eight state elections this year will be a challenge for the Narendra Modi government, which still seems to be of two minds about the direction it wants to take the economy. Further liberalization would risk alienating a huge chunk of the party’s voter base, and a move to increase social security spending and deficit financing would almost ensure that the government misses self-set targets on fiscal prudence and growth rates.

Several states in south and east India have proven to be challenging for the Hindutva project, as it struggles to distinguish itself from a primarily Hindi, cow-belt ideology. Tough questions about Hindi imposition have taken over discourse in several South Indian states with Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Telangana pushing for state legislation to negate imposition of Hindi culture from the North.

Language has proven to be a rallying cry for regional parties to challenge Hindi-Hindu pride associated with the Hindutva project. As a result, the ruling party has failed to capture any state in South India, with the exception of Andhra Pradesh where it contributes four seats to the 103 of its larger regional partner.

As the tussle to define India builds to the National Elections in 2019, key questions about the country’s identity and battles for regional supremacy will be waged this year across eight states, with the ruling BJP attempting to further increase its huge footprint across the nation and the fractured opposition attempting to frame a coherent counter-narrative.

These clashes will set the stage for 2019 and the victor will play a commanding role in defining the Indian identity and shaping the larger Indian discourse.

Vineet John Samuel

The author is a public policy commentator who writes for a clutch of publications, with a special focus on social policy in the South Asian subcontinent.

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