DOI: 10.1177/00323292231183801 ISSN: 0032-3292

Bivalent Hegemony: How Hindu Nationalists Appeal to Caste-Oppressed People in Communist-Ruled Kerala

Samantha Agarwal
  • Political Science and International Relations
  • Social Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Sociology and Political Science

A recent trend has confounded observers of India's political system. Dalits—a population that has historically been deprived of vital resources and socially ostracized by upper-caste Hindus—have increasingly given their vote to the Hindu nationalist movement led by the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP). Why have some members of India's most marginalized caste come to support a party that has preserved caste hierarchies and catered to the socially dominant sections of society? This article explores this question through the case of Kerala, where Dalit support for the BJP is additionally perplexing given the state's history of left-led governments that have implemented far-reaching redistributive reforms that greatly benefited Dalits. Nevertheless, in recent years the Hindu nationalists have made significant inroads among Kerala's Dalit population. Drawing on two hundred interviews and eight months of ethnography, this article identifies two major factors driving Dalits’ defection to the BJP. The first is linked to the communist parties' (CPs’) agricultural land redistribution program which, despite being the most ambitious of its kind in modern India, excluded the majority of Dalits and reinscribed caste hierarchies. The second factor is the cultural discrimination Dalits face while working in the CPs, including being grossly underrepresented in the party leadership. The BJP exploits these grievances by providing representation to Dalit cadres who are embedded in strategic majority-Dalit neighborhoods. These cadres win popular support through welfare brokering and also by constructing a new narrative that portrays the CPs as casteist and the BJP as a more socially just alternative for Kerala's Dalits. This article makes sense of these findings by drawing on Nancy Fraser's concept of bivalent oppression to advance a novel Gramscian theory of “bivalent hegemony.”

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