regular-article-logo Thursday, 20 June 2024

The subaltern speaks

Late resurgence of Lohiate politics being driven by a changed political economy stifling the economic prospects of both the dominant as well as the non-dominant backward and marginalised castes

Asim Ali Published 27.05.23, 05:42 AM
Ram Manohar Lohia at Allahabad

Ram Manohar Lohia at Allahabad

V.D. Savarkar is unquestionably the most influential political thinker of the Hindu Right. If Rousseau is considered to be the philosophical founder of post-revolution France, Savarkar now occupies that status for the republic of ‘New India’, guiding the spirit of the new Parliament which is set to be inaugurated on his birthday.

But who is the most influential political ideologue from the side of the Opposition? Arguably, that space increasingly belongs to Ram Manohar Lohia or, more precisely, Lohiate socialist politics. We mean Lohiate politics in a broad, substantive way, in terms of the increasing political viability of a congealed backward caste-class alliance against the upper caste-led and middle class formulated hegemony of the Bharatiya Janata Party. The difference from 50 years back is that Nehruvian “vested socialism” (in Lohia’s words) has given way to Hindu nationalist ‘crony capitalism’ as the dominant pole pushing disparate political actors into this emerging counter-alliance of the excluded.


The Congress’s victory in the Karnataka polls is, after all, what one would call in the Hindi belt a classic Lohiate alliance. There is a remarkably neat caste-class overlap in the Congress’s electoral mandate: an interlocked polarisation of the backward Ahinda communities and poor, less educated voters.

Of course, the Congress’s mandate under P.C. Siddaramaiah builds on the progressive roots of state politics, more specifically, the political legacy of D. Devaraj Urs. Surely, such a progressive coalition seems inconceivable in the Hindi belt where Hindu nationalism enjoys a ‘common-sensical’ dominance of the public sphere.

Admittedly, such scepticism is well-founded. The force of Lohiate socialism as a comprehensive framework had already started to wane in the Hindi belt by the early 1970s. A receding socialist camp was either subordinated or got merged in the mid-1970s into the potent stream of farmer politics represented by the Lok Dal party helmed by leaders such as Charan Singh in Uttar Pradesh and Devi Lal in Haryana. This caste-agnostic farmer politics was the politics of the challenger elite castes of Jats and Yadavs wherein upwardly mobile farmers merely sought to assume the dominance of the old upper caste elite. The socialist space further shrivelled into the narrow Yadav-Kurmi-led caste coalitions of the 1990s in the post-Mandal phase.

Why did Lohia’s aggregative backward class politics fail in UP while broad coalitions of the backward classes succeeded in Kerala and Tamil Nadu in not just capturing power but also transforming the political economy in favour of their constituents?

Firstly, there was a cultural constraint. The political scientist, Prerna Singh, located the answer in subnationalism in a book, which partly argued that a progressive, vernacular sphere allowed challenger elites (such as Nairs and Ezhavas in Kerala, and Chettiars and Vellalars in Tamil Nadu) to forge wider networks of solidarity of the marginalised against the ‘outsider’ Brahmin elite. Although Lohia sought to articulate a similar opposition between subaltern ‘Hindi’ and elite ‘English’, it hardly made a similar impact because of the historical evolution of the Hindi public sphere as a vessel for upper caste-led Hindu nationalism.

Second, there was a constraint of political economy. The challenger elites of South India — the middle peasant castes — had acquired a measure of economic capital by the time of Independence. Therefore, the challenger elites sought to forge broad, pro-development coalitions with the upper segments of middle castes, filling up the urban professional and entrepreneurial base, while the poor mobilised through social welfare. In northern India, the urban professional/entrepreneurial base was monopolised by the (numerically larger) upper castes. The newly rich middle castes of Jats and Yadavs found it more beneficial to establish dominance over the impoverished lower castes than to mount a frontal challenge to the dominance of the upper castes.

If Lohiate politics is seeing a late resurgence, it is being driven by a changed political economy which is stifling the economic prospects of both the dominant as well as the non-dominant backward as well as the marginalised castes, leading to a shared resentment, if not yet a shared agenda.

In fact, the Congress of today seems to have revamped into a neo-Lohiate formation. Three out of four Congress chief ministers belong to OBC castes, the fourth started out as a poor milkman. The Congress stands upfront with the Mandal parties in demanding the caste census and endorses the principle of a fair division of economic resources among communities in line with the share of the population. Mallikarjun Kharge leads the Congress as the third Dalit president of the party. The Bharat Jodo Yatra emphasised the economic anguish of those left-behind from the ‘Adani-Modi’ model of economic development.

But can this socio-economic message work nationally? This week’s CSDS-Lokniti national survey provides some preliminary straws in the wind: 41% of the people claim to like Rahul Gandhi, of which 15% claim to have developed this affinity because of the Bharat Jodo Yatra. Rahul Gandhi has also clearly emerged as the leader of the Opposition with 34% opting for him as the principal national challenger to Modi. The survey also found that the Congress has climbed to 29% of the vote share (an additional 10% from 2014), while the vote share of the BJP remains stable at around 39%, indicating that the Congress is eating into the Opposition space. Some of these votes are probably leached from declining parties such as the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Janata Dal (Secular); this is a rare recovery of the Congress’ space.

The massive farmers’ movement of 2021-2022 had first signalled a shift by forging “new solidarities across class, caste, gender, religion and regions” as the sociologist, Satendra Kumar, observed, discursively moving beyond middle-caste farmers and including the concerns of Dalit labourers. After all, the dominant peasant castes of the Hindi belt have been mired in an economic crisis for close to a decade. As Christophe Jaffrelot has shown using Indian Human Development Survey data (2012), the income of the bottom 60% of Jats, Patels and Marathas stood much lower than the average income of the non-dominant OBCs in their respective three states and substantially less than the Dalits (except for Jats of Haryana). Worse, the OBCs and Dalits had made rapid gains in education and salaried jobs as compared to them. The crisis only became worse in the Modi years, seen in both new reservation demands and the dominant caste backlash to the BJP in the assembly elections of Haryana and Maharashtra. Meanwhile the rural wage growth boom of the United Progressive Alliance years has virtually stagnated. As Jean Drèze has documented, the growth rate of real wages between 2014-15 and 2021-22 was below 1% per year for both farm and non-farm workers. Therefore, the class interests of different OBC groups might slowly be coalescing, witnessed in both the Samajwadi Party-Rashtriya Lok Dal coalition in UP as well as in the Grand Alliance in Bihar.

The CSDS poll indicates that the 2024 election is still pretty close, with 43% favouring a third chance for the Modi government as opposed to 38% who oppose it. But who are these 38% and what kind of platform can potentially unite these disgruntled voters?

Consider a few more statistics from the same poll. One, only 35% respondents claimed improvement in their economic condition over the last four years. Two, contrary to the aspirational neo-middle class voter captured by the Lokniti survey in 2014 favouring growth over redistribution, today 57% people support subsidies as essential for the poor. Third, 46% believe that the government has failed on farmer issues, 45% on corruption, 57% on price rise, while 36% believe that government policies have only favoured the wealthy.

The Lohiate spectre of bottoms-up subaltern discontent hangs over the Modi regime. This cannot be wished away with the rarefied bluster of vishwaguru or New India.

Asim Ali is a political researcher and columnist based in Delhi

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