Shrikant Sharma is the Bharatiya Janata Party’s national media convener, and one of its brightest stars. Rooted in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s student affiliate, Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, Sharma was ensured a ticket in Mathura, which went to polls on 11 February, through the backing of the RSS and the BJP president, Amit Shah. Yet, his campaign ran into trouble. This was partly because the BJP’s local unit, which helped elect the actor Hema Malini as an MP in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, saw him as another outsider imposed on them. While this resentment was manageable for a party that still retains some idea of hierarchical discipline, the desertion by its traditional Aggarwal vote bank may prove not to be.
The Aggarwals, who form the backbone of the trading class in much of north India, have been badly hit by demonetisation. In several instances, they are consolidating behind candidates from their own caste. This is visible in the community’s support for Ashok Agrawal, who is the Rashtriya Lok Dal’s pick from Mathura. JN Agrawal, the vice-president of the UP unit of Vaishya Ekta Parishad as well as the Congress’ district general secretary for Mathura, told me, “Demonetisation has achieved nothing. We don’t oppose the idea but Modi should have begun with those directly under him, the bureaucrats. The system that generated black money is still in play.” The Aggarwals, he said, have decided to support, “people from our community from any party that may put them up. We have realised our representation is low; we need to increase those who speak of our concerns in the legislatures.”
There cannot be a clearer example of how the idea of community drives politics, its importance often transcending parties and ideologies. But a false binary is created when it is assumed that this identity-driven politics can be separated from questions of development or policy. In a recent column, the historian Ramachandra Guha wrote, “Why is Uttar Pradesh so badly governed? One reason is that it remains trapped in the vortex of identity politics. In this state, politicians are assessed not on the grounds of what services they deliver, but on the basis of what caste and religious groups they represent or favour. This is strikingly manifest in the press coverage of the recent election campaign in the State, where few reporters have focused on issues of development or governance, reserving their energies instead on understanding what caste fragment was allying with which religious sect.”
But as the example of the Aggrawal community illustrates, it is impossible to focus on development or governance in isolation from caste fragments. Reporters who choose to do so are not doing what they should be: reporting. Instead, they are imposing liberal beliefs on a reality that does not cater to them. Even in urban settings outside the metropolis, identity, to a large extent, has a huge overlap with occupation. A policy such as demonetisation, or any developmental activity, for that matter, will be filtered through caste. The caste-based politics of UP and Bihar today is a much more accurate reflection of society in the two states than the upper-caste dominated politics that once controlled these regions—and catered to select communities—was. In much the same way, this is true of Bengal where Mamata Bannerjee, the state’s chief minister, is far more representative of the reality of the state than the bhadralok ever were.
For reporters, the liberal desire to visualise a society that they would like leaves them with a selective or distorted view. Take the case of the Jats in western UP. What seems to be apparent is that they have largely rallied to support Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal, deserting the BJP, which had greatly benefited from their vote in 2014. From Mathura to Muzzafarnagar, every Jat I spoke to emphasised a different reason for this fact—the BJP’s failure to grant reservation; its inability to help those who have had cases registered against them because of their involvement in the Jat agitation or the Muzaffarnagar riots; the delayed payments from sugar mills; the impact of demonetisation; the disrespect shown to Ajit Singh by the BJP as well as the Samajwadi Party-Congress combine when he could not seal an alliance with either; and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s failure to pay homage to the former prime minister Chaudhary Charan Singh on the latter’s birth anniversary in December.
Some reports—two of which are linked above—chose to focus on the economic motivations for the Jat community’s decision to abandon the BJP while under-playing aspects of identity. But the truth is, as Rajinder Malik, who is going to succeed his father as the head of Gathwala Khap of Malik Jats, told me, “The community was always with the RLD except for the last election. They went with the BJP when it became a Hindu-Muslim election, but otherwise what do the Jats have to do with the BJP, they had nothing to do with the Jan Sangh.” The election in 2014 was an exception as far as the Jat vote was concerned, and was catalysed by an exceptional combination of events, from the frenzy surrounding Modi to the communalisation that came to a head during the Muzaffarnagar riots.
It would have taken an impossible set of concessions by the BJP to retain the Jat vote this time around. The Jat community’s return to the RLD would have, in all likelihood, taken place in the absence of economic factors such as demonetisation and the crisis in sugarcane farming, which various reports cited as the causes for the Jat desertion of the BJP. This is borne by the reports about a meeting that Amit Shah had called on 7 February, with the intent of placating a delegation of Jat community leaders. Of the four issues that the leaders brought up before Shah, none dealt with either demonetisation or the woes of the sugarcane farmers.
The liberal tendency to erase the significance of identity during elections such as these is not restricted to journalism alone. It also extends to academia. An article in the 31 December 2016 issue of the Economic and Political Weekly, titled, “Fact and Fiction about How Muslims Vote in India: Evidence from Uttar Pradesh,” claimed to present “a body of evidence using public opinion and election returns data from Uttar Pradesh to show that the political and electoral behavior of Muslims is no different from that of any other major community in the state.” Such an overarching claim is flawed, more so, because it gets echoed in journalism. A report published on the news website, Scroll.in, makes a similar assertion about Muslims across Uttar Pradesh, based on reportage that is grounded in a single village.
Of course, the claim that the report in the EPW makes is ridiculous to begin with. Not a single major community in the state displays the lack of support for the BJP that is evident among Muslims. A particularly problematic section of the article asks, “Do Muslim Coordinate at the Constituency Level to defeat BJP?” It concludes, “Overall, there is no evidence to support the hypothesis that en bloc voting among Muslims is determined by the BJP’s electoral prospect at the constituency level.”
To reach this conclusion, the authors looked at the constituencies in which the BJP performed well in the assembly elections of 2012. The choice of that particular year for their analysis makes little sense. The BJP won only 47 of the 403 seats in that election, and this result was evident well before the results were released. Obviously the Muslim vote will not consolidate when it has no reason to. When the authors actually went on to look at the elections of 2012 and 2014, they found that the Muslim vote was fragmented in 2012 and it consolidated in 2014. This is exactly what anyone arguing for strategic voting by Muslims would predict. It is absurd to expect the community to behave in the same manner irrespective of what the overall circumstances are. It is when circumstances suggest a reason for alarm—which Modi’s candidacy and campaign certainly did—that consolidation will take place.
The simple fact remains, journalists and academics are better off reporting and analysing the world as it is, rather than trying to reach conclusions that bolster their view of what the world should be.
Hartosh Singh Bal is the political editor at The Caravan, and is the author of Waters Close Over Us: A Journey Along the Narmada. He was formerly the political editor at Open magazine.