Moustaches threaten Modi's election hopes

The ugly head of India’s lingering caste system has raised yet again, this time in Gujarat state, just in time to throw a wrench into the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) plans for the upcoming 2017 legislative election. While the BJP is expected to win Gujarat, the election nevertheless represents the largest test for the party before national elections in 2019. The uptick in violence against lower caste individuals or 'Dalits' threatens to become a rallying cry for the oppressed minority, one which could spark a protest vote, undermining the BJP’s reputation.

Dalits represent seven percent of Gujarat’s population of 62 million, and comprise some 200 million throughout India. Dalits in turn constitute a significant voting block, one which despite differences in language and locality, share similar experiences of discrimination, thus creating a stronger collective identity than other Indian castes. Alongside the instability and fallout from attacks on Dalits, the location - Gujarat - provides another layer of instability, as it is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state.

Recent attacks against Dalits by higher caste individuals includes: the lynching of a Dalit man for watching a traditional dance, the slashing of a student by a motorcycle duo and attacks on two youths for growing moustaches. Gujarat police have claimed that the slashing incident was staged to garner the student in question media attention, with the victim asking his friends to slash him. These statements have met with suspicion and ridicule, and only add further fuel to claims that the government is ignoring violence against Dalits.

India's moustache movement

In response to the aforementioned moustache-related assault, hundreds of Dalit youth have changed their social media profile pictures to images of them with moustaches: the hashtags #MrDalit and #DalitWithMoustache have become trending topics in Indian social media. India is witnessing its biggest up tick in Dalit violence and subsequent protests since the 2016 flogging, which also occurred in Gujarat. This incident saw four Dalit men tied to a car and flogged for allegedly killing a cow. It later transpired that they had simply been moving the carcass of a cow that had died from natural causes.

The rise in violence has led to calls for political action, with activist Jignesh Mevani stating that “life has become difficult for Dalits. Home Minister Pradipsinh Jadeja should resign before Dalit anger tears Gujarat apart.”

While this kind of violence is in itself abhorrent, any communal violence in Gujarat is a sensitive issue for the BJP and Modi in particular, as he was chief-minister of Gujarat during the 2002 riots between Hindus and Muslims that left over 1,000 dead. Despite being cleared of any complicity by India’s Supreme Court, Modi continues to deal with the events that transpired under his watch. Indeed, on October 5th the Gujarat High Court rejected a plea by survivors and those who lost loved ones to investigate Modi and 57 others on charges of conspiracy.

Consequently, PM Modi and the BJP are trying to pre-empt accusations that they are not doing enough to protect minorities, a criticism that plays right into the hands of the Indian National Congress (INC). Still smarting from its disastrous 2014 electoral defeat, the INC is looking to stage a comeback in 2019, and has sent party vice president Rahul Gandhi on a speaking tour in Gujarat to bolster the campaigns of local candidates.

The INC is hoping that Dalit anger will aid them in the polls, as the INC has traditionally relied on the support of various minorities to broaden its electoral base. Congress is also trying to win back voters disenchanted by Modi’s; failure to deliver on promises, his demonetization efforts and Hindu nationalist credentials, with Nishit Vyas, INC leader in Gujarat’s capital, Gandhinagar describing the PM as “excellent in marketing but a zero in implementation.”

Dalits an electoral headache for Modi

What the BJP fears is a protest vote that surprises pollsters, and it is this very scenario that Paul Divakar, general secretary of the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights references. “What we are seeing in Gujarat is the consolidation of Dalits. Their anger will have a spillover effect and harm the BJP’s prospects,” warns Divakar. This sentiment was recently echoed by former Supreme Court Chief Justice K. G. Balakrishnan, during a speaking event hosted by Vanchit Varg Morcha, an organization spreading awareness among Dalit and other minority communities about the threats to their constitutional rights. Balakrishnan called on Dalit politicians to ensure that “when we speak out, it should be on our rights. Wherever we are and whatever be our political parties, we should sink our differences and speak on our rights.”

As if such sentiments were not enough of a headache for the BJP, similar rumblings are simmering within the Patel caste, which comprises 15 percent of Gujarat’s population. Members of the Patel caste are demanding the kinds of positive action and other benefits enjoyed by other underprivileged castes. Since 2015, the Patel community has rallied around 24 year old Hardik Patel, who has vowed to unseat the BJP. Demonstrations by Patels have fired up crowds of some 500,000, with PM Modi having to send in troops in 2015 after deaths during the demonstrations.

Speaking about the movement’s aims, Hardik Patel has argued that  “The BJP has been forming government with support from our community, but this time we will remove the BJP from power.” The problem facing the BJP is how it intends to counter and / or woo caste-based collective voting patterns without further entrenching caste politics at the same time. The caste system has long dogged Indian politics and decades of effort to separate caste and politics (as seen in the INC’s historical ‘big tent’ approach) still have a long way to go.

The conundrum is that instead of having to put checks on pandering to caste loyalties for votes, events in Gujarat are challenging political parties from the flip side of the caste issue. How do you tackle caste bloc voting in a system designed to dissuade parties from entertaining the notion of collective caste voting in the first place?

Jeremy Luedi is the editor of Asia by Africa. His writing has been featured in Business Insider, The Japan Times, The Diplomat, FACTA Magazine, Yahoo Finance, Asia Times. His insights have also been quoted by TIME, OZY, and the Washington Times, among others.