In the wake of a court order that prohibits politicians from pandering for votes in the name of caste or religion, political observers are accusing India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of polarizing a caste-conscious society for electoral gain.
On Monday the Indian Supreme Court barred political parties and independent electoral candidates from using religion, caste, race, community or language to attract voters.
In the ruling, which is widely expected to dent rampant election campaigns run along caste and communal agendas, the Supreme Court said any candidate or campaigner found garnering votes on such grounds would face disqualification.
The court said it made its decision “to maintain the purity of the electoral process.”
But government critics and political analysts blamed the nation’s governing coalition led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist BJP of exploiting a centuries-old caste and religious divide that underpins Indian society for political mileage. They gave examples of recent announcements by the ruling party in Maharashtra state, where elections are due in April.
Last week, the BJP announced it would set up an independent ministry in Maharashtra to look after the welfare of members of the state’s Other Backward Class (OBC), a collective term used to classify castes that are socially and educationally disadvantaged.
The decision to establish the new ministry – expected to happen within three months – was taken considering the large OBC population in Maharashtra, state Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis said. OBC members make up more than 40 percent of the state’s 114 million people.
Although officially secular, Hindu-majority India is socio-economically stratified along classifications by caste, with Brahmin (priest) communities figuring at the top and Dalits (manual workers) at the bottom of Hinduism’s caste hierarchy.
Dalits, a historically marginalized community also referred to as Scheduled Castes (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST) and OBCs has been given quotas for government jobs and admission to schools.
Just days before announcing the new OBC ministry, the BJP placated the state’s dominant Maratha caste community, which had taken to the streets to demand inclusion in the OBC category, by laying the foundation of a multi-billion rupee statue of Maratha warrior king Shivaji in the Arabian Sea.
“These are all tactics – an eyewash … a case of stoking identity politics,” Mumbai-based political commentator Rakshit Sonawane told BenarNews.
“There was no need for a special ministry [for the OBCs]. There already exists an independent government body to look into socio-economic issues of the OBCs,” he said.
Hari Narke, a Pune-based political analyst, said that although the setting up of a ministry ostensibly to look into the welfare of OBC members was not surprising since many other states have similar departments, it drew suspicion.
“The timing of BJP’s announcement of the new ministry clearly indicates that it is trying to sharpen divisions in an already vitiated caste-riven atmosphere,” Narke told BenarNews.
The agitations carried out by the politically powerful Maratha community had sparked counter-protests by the state’s OBC community, which complained that the category was already overcrowded with more than 355 castes.
“The BJP is trying to cash in on this anger of the OBC community as this group is the biggest vote bank in the state. And it would not be wrong to state that this vote bank is veering toward BJP,” Narke said.
But Shravan Deore, founder of the Maharashtra Other Backward Class Organization, denied that the OBC community was falling prey to BJP’s “electoral tactics.”
“We all know the announcement of the new ministry has been made to grab a major chunk of the vote bank. I will not be surprised if more such announcements are lined up and if Modi himself lands here for campaigning,” Deore told BenarNews.
‘Nothing to do with’ polls
The BJP, however, denied that its politicians were playing the caste card.
“Our party has been concentrating on the OBC section for the past several decades. And we have a good base among backward communities. So the question of trying to appease this section does not arise,” Maharashtra’s BJP spokesman Madhav Bhandari told BenarNews.
“The ministry is being instituted so as to centralize the implementation of welfare schemes for the OBC community effectively. It has nothing to do with forthcoming polls,” he said.