Return of the Caste Pyramid? – Saeed Naqvi

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President Pranab Mukherjee and PM Narendra Modi with the newly sworn-in minister Manohar Parrikar. PTI photo
President Pranab Mukherjee and PM Narendra Modi with the newly sworn-in minister Manohar Parrikar. PTI photo

The electoral typhoon that brought Narendra Modi to power in May was in total defiance of conventional caste calculations. Do the new inductions spell a reversal to, well, old trends?

SAEED NAQVI

[dropcap]E[/dropcap]minent TV anchor, Rajdeep Sardesai, has in a recent article drawn attention to the fact that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has restored balance to his Cabinet by inducting Manohar Parrikar and Suresh Prabhu, two Gaud Saraswat Brahmins, as full-fledged ministers.

The electoral typhoon that brought Narendra Modi to power in May was in total defiance of conventional caste calculations. Do the new inductions spell a reversal to, well, old trends? Does Modi aim to pursue RSS’ vision of Hindu rashtra in which the old caste pyramid will be reinstated? Or, am I jumping the gun?

I was tempted to say a thing or two but I hesitate because I have memories of an earlier mishap. My collection of essays published in 1996, when P.V. Narasimha Rao’s term came to an ignominious end, was titled The Last Brahmin Prime Minister?. My friends were infuriated. How dare I make such a casteist prediction? I had done nothing of the sort. The big question mark at the end of the title was inserted at the instance of my late guru and friend, Rishi Kumar Mishra. It was a statement in itself. It was specifically designed to anticipate Atal Behari Vajpayee. Yes, trends then did suggest an end, or at least a temporary suspension, of the traditional premium on Brahmins as Prime Ministers.

Ever since Mahatma Gandhi tipped the scales in favour of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru as Independent India’s first Prime Minister, that has become something of a norm: a Brahmin Prime Minister has been the most durable.

Every non Brahmin Prime minister lasted a year or less — Charan Singh, V.P. Singh, Chandra Shekhar, H.D. Dewe Gowda, I.K. Gujral. Yes, Manmohan Singh’s is an exceptional case. He was a CEO nominated by Sonia Gandhi at a miraculous moment of power she created for herself by an act of renunciation. By the time P.V. Narasimha Rao ascended the gaddi, it was more or less clear that the Brahmin line was coming to an end.

The trend was reflected in the manner in which Brahmins of all hues were rejected in the 1991 elections. If V.N. Gadgil and Vasant Sathe lost in Maharashtra on the Congress ticket, so did Madhu Dandavate on the Janata Dal ticket. As did Ramakrishna Hegde in Karnataka. PV accommodated Pranab Mukherjee, Sheila Kaul, Satish Sharma, V.C. Shukla, Bhuvanesh Chaturvedi, V.N. Gadgil, Naval Kishore Sharma, Jitendra Prasada, in brief, every Brahmin leader, defeated or victorious, in the Rajya Sabha or the party.

This was PV’s last flicker of caste loyalty. The Vice President was by tradition the chairman of the Indian Council of Cultural Relations. PV held back K.R. Narayanan from taking up the ICCR post. The defeated Brahmin from Maharashtra, Vasant Sathe, was accommodated instead. Gen K.V. Krishna Rao remained Governor of Jammu and Kashmir despite controversies because he was of PV’s caste. There has not been a Congress leader more paranoid about the Brahmin’s loss of political power. There I go opening my mouth again in a sensitive caste debate. But let me say my two-penny bit. Having grown up among Brahmins (and others) in the region of UP, I am inclined to the view that Brahmins reared in the area of Triveni, Ayodhya, Kashi, Mathura, Haridwar are much more relaxed about their Brahminism than the self conscious “twice-borns” from the regions.

A masterly sociological study by sociologist Robert Frykenberg establishes a model which is as valid today as it was in the 18th century. During Maratha expansion, Guntur came under the rule of the Marathas, who brought with them their own administrators. Later, the British set up their headquarters at the Fort St George. A British ICS officer posted to Guntur as collector noticed inordinate delays and obstructions in implementation.

Inquiries reached a dead end because files, which would explain the delays, could not be traced. It was all so co-operatively orchestrated that it was impossible to identify the culprit. The exasperated officer approached Fort St George for superior intervention. Here too, headway was not rapid. In fact it was even more tardy. Matters reached the Privy Council in London. Only then was the Gordian knot unloosed.

The Privy Council found that most of the administrators the Marathas brought with them were Desastha Brahmins. When the Marathas made way for the British, the latter retained the middle and lower administrators, because they were brilliant. The British were obviously innocent of their genius for clan networking. This network had spread from Guntur to Fort St George.

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