Prime Minister Narendra Modi receives a memento from Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar at an election campaign rally ahead of Haryana Assembly elections, in Kurukshetra. As part of its national strategy, BJP has reached out to sub-castes which were neglected by the previous govts (Photo: PTI)
Prime Minister Narendra Modi receives a memento from Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar at an election campaign rally ahead of Haryana Assembly elections, in Kurukshetra. As part of its national strategy, BJP has reached out to sub-castes which were neglected by the previous govts (Photo: PTI)

BJP and caste equation in Haryana

The ruling party has navigated through Haryana’s complex caste dynamics to emerge as the state’s dominant political force, and looks all set to return

“There were governments for special castes in Haryana. When a government came, it used to work for one caste... Manohar Lal Khattar government became such that there is no caste, this government is the government of every resident of Haryana," said Amit Shah at the launch of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) campaign in the state. In a state riddled with caste politics, the BJP’s strategy has been to seek broad-based support and generate a new social coalition - and it is a strategy that seems to be working.

For decades, Haryana’s political economy has been dominated by the Jats, a landowning community who account for around 20 to 25 of the state’s population, according to survey estimates. That changed in 2014 when the BJP’s Manohar Lal Khattar became the state’s first non-Jat Chief Minister in around two decades. Khattar’s victory was a result of several factors but most notably of a deliberate BJP strategy to secure the support of the less dominant castes among the other backward castes (OBCs) in the post-Mandal era of politics.

Khattar, who belongs to the Khatri caste, a minority Punjabi community within the broader upper caste umbrella, has helped the BJP secure significant support from non-Jat castes (much like Devendra Fadnavis, another minority upper caste, was able to secure the non-Maratha vote in Maharashtra). This strategy extended beyond the selection of chief ministerial candidates.

“While the Congress used to favour the Chamars, an SC community, in government recruitment and other matters, the BJP reached out to the other groups such as the Valmikis and the Dhanak (weaver) community, which were neglected by the previous governments," said Dr Rajendra Sharma, a political scientist at Maharshi Dayanand University.

This strategy of wooing sub-castes within a caste group that have not enjoyed as much heft as other sub-castes within that same broad group also mirrors a broader national strategy of the BJP to exploit the inequalities within broad caste groups, in an attempt to coalesce the less-dominant sub-castes into a broader social base for the party. In many such attempts, upper caste leaders such as Khattar have provided the glue for such coalitions as they are perceived to be able to bridge the conflicting and sectarian interests of intermediate caste groups.

As a result, in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP secured more than 70% of the vote share of both non-Jat upper caste votes and OBC votes, according to data from Lokniti, a research program at the Center for Developing Societies (CSDS). And even though the party is looking to move beyond Jat political dominance, it still managed to woo 50% of the Jat vote share in the 2019 LS polls.

In just a decade, the BJP has emerged as a major political force in the state. In the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP secured only 12% of the state’s vote share. In the 2019 elections, this had soared to 58%. The BJP’s surge has come at some cost for the other major players in Haryana politics -- the Congress and the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD). Both these parties saw their vote share decrease in the 2014 assembly election and then slump in the recent general elections.

The BJP is now establishing its presence in all corners of the state, including the western districts of Hisar and Bhiwani with a significant other backward castes (OBC) population and the northern districts with a significant scheduled caste/tribe (SC/ST) population. And ahead of these state elections, the party seems to be sharpening its caste strategy. For instance, in its election manifesto it has promised collateral-free loans to SC households.

BJP’s prospects have been boosted by the central government's actions in Kashmir
BJP’s prospects have been boosted by the central government's actions in Kashmir

The BJP’s ability to overcome the Jat versus non-Jat dichotomy has also been aided by Haryana’s economic transformation. Over the last decade, economic clout of the Jats, a primarily land-owning community, has come down as agriculture output has declined and land use shifted towards industry.

Yet, industrial development has perhaps made Haryana more vulnerable to the recent economic slowdown, with Haryana being a major hub for the auto industry, which has been hit the hardest in the current downturn. The auto industry employs roughly a fifth of the state’s factory workers, according to data from the Annual Survey of Industries.

Despite its industrial heft, unemployment remains a major issue, especially among the youth, the 2017-18 official employment survey conducted by the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) showed. The state recorded 20.7% of unemployment among 15 to 29-year-olds, higher than the national average of 17.8%.

However, this unemployment is unlikely to have any political ramifications. Unemployment did little to stem the BJP sweep in the general elections and is unlikely to hinder its performance in the state elections - especially when the opposition, Congress and INLD, have been hurt by infighting and defections.

Finally, BJP’s prospects have been boosted by the central government's actions in Kashmir. Haryana, more than other states, is deeply tied to India’s security forces. In a study published earlier this year, the political scientists Paul Staniland and Drew Stommes showed that, after adjusting for population, Haryana contributes relatively more to Indian security forces and has suffered disproportionately more in terms of fatalities compared to most Indian states.

Unsurprisingly, the BJP has made this a central message of its election campaign. “It is because of the support of people of Haryana that the Union government..was able to abrogate Article 370 and 35-A in Jammu and Kashmir. So many soldiers from Haryana have laid down their lives to protect Jammu and Kashmir," said Shah. More than caste or jobs, this could be the message that resonates the most with Haryana’s voters.

An earlier version of this story included incorrect data in the chart on ex-servicemen in Indian states. This has been corrected

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