K G Suresh,
Senior Fellow & Editor, VIF
The recent Allahabad High Court verdict banning caste based political rallies in Uttar Pradesh has reignited the debate on the role of caste in Indian politics. The reactions to the court order were on expected lines with the national parties welcoming it and most of the regional parties, particularly with strong caste affiliations, expressing their strong reservations about it.
However, notwithstanding the denials by political parties, caste continues to remain a crucial factor in electoral politics. If most of the regional parties unabashedly exhibit their caste preferences, the national political parties too are equally guilty of perpetuating the caste factor, whether it be in the matter of selection of candidates or projecting party leaders at the regional level. Of course, they often indulge in it under the garb of ‘winnability’, an euphemism for practicing caste and communal politics.
Even those regional Satraps who claim to possess a national vision have never shied away from playing the caste card, whether it be former Prime Minister H D Deve Gowda, who wears his Vokkaliga preferences on his sleeves or the new champion of secularism Nitish Kumar.
Though Kumar often slams his arch rival and RJD Supremo Lalu Prasad Yadav as a politician preoccupied with caste, he himself was one of the first politicians in Bihar to organise a caste-based Kurmi rally in early 1992.
Though they cry hoarse from the roof tops that their utopian ideology does not believe in either caste or religion, the Communists, including the ultra left Maoists, have often identified caste with class and such ‘class wars’ have often ended up in ‘Caste Wars’, as was widely seen in Bihar.
The importance some of the national political parties attach to the caste factor can be gauged from the fact that barely a week before the High Court order, the ruling Congress party had sought a break-up of various castes in all the 543 Lok Sabha constituencies from its state units in preparation for the coming general elections.
According to media reports, in a confidential communication to all state party Presidents, the High Command asked them to submit population figures and caste break-up along with the complete details of sitting candidates and aspirants as well.
In the words of Noted Sociologist Andre Beteille the most important factor contributing to the caste system’s continuation in India is not the traditions of matrimony or occupation or ritual practices of purity, but politics.
Delivering a special lecture at the Gujarat University recently, the Padma awardee identified caste as the “most important political tool for the mobilisation of the electorate.”
While caste has for long remained a divisive factor in the Indian society, it was the British who laid the foundations of caste politics in the country.
Over eight decades back, the then British Prime Minister Ramsay Macdonald announced the Communal Award granting separate electorates to minority communities including Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Anglo Indians, Europeans and Dalits, then identified as the depressed classes or ‘untouchables’.
The depressed classes were allocated a number of seats to be filled by election from special constituencies in which voters belonging to the depressed classes only could vote. The highly controversial move was opposed tooth and nail by Mahatma Gandhi on the grounds that it would disintegrate the Hindu society. However, it was supported by leaders such as Dr B R Ambedkar, with whom Gandhi held prolonged negotiations, leading up to the Poona Pact. The 1932 agreement envisaged that the Depressed Classes shall have seats reserved within the General electorate.
Following the country’s independence, the nation’s founding fathers chose the Parliamentary system of democracy based on an electoral system which unfortunately tended to reinforce caste consciousness, instead of eliminating it and bringing about an egalitarian social order.
In the words of CPI (M) leader Sitaram Yechury, “Instead of guaranteeing equality, irrespective of caste, the electoral system, itself, nurtured the perpetuation of caste consciousness in terms of choice of candidates and the appeal to the electorate.
The implementation of the Mandal Commission report in 1989 by the then V P Singh Government was yet another landmark in India’s caste politics. Regional Satraps such as Mulayam Singh Yadav, Lalu Prasad Yadav and Deve Gowda rode the Mandal wave to electoral glory.
In his book, ‘Caste in Indian Politics’, sociologist Rajni Kothari argued that the process of politics is one of identifying and manipulating existing structures in order to mobilise support and consolidate positions. Where the caste structure provides one of the most important organisational clusters in which the population is found to live, politics must strive to organise through such a structure."
Unfortunately, the appeal of such caste leaders to their following was not to strengthen the common struggle to remove the inadequacies in the existing socio-economic system. The appeal was and continues to be to elect their fellow caste men to power.
While it did bring about limited political empowerment, some assertiveness and a sense of pride among the Dalit and backward classes, nothing substantial in improving their socio-economic conditions including the much needed land reforms have taken place in any of the states where such caste leaders have acquired power and continue to wield wide influence.
Thus for their self interests, these parties and leaders have sustained and nurtured the exploitative caste system, in the process preserving and perpetuating the exploitative order.
The vehement opposition these caste leaders have shown to any rethink on reservation is aimed at not only protecting their vote banks but also preventing any unity among the poor for a common cause.
The decision to go for a caste based census in 2011, following demands by leaders of the ruling UPA and the Opposition parties, was yet another milestone in the country’s caste politics.
To quote Prof Beteille, “It is okay if sociologists include caste in their surveys. But the government should not give its official sanction, its official stamp to this presentation of Indian society.”
Even the Communist parties, who support the quota system, have gone on record stating that caste based reservation cannot be a lasting solution to the socio-economic disparities. In fact, Yechuri had stated once that, “Enough statistics can be adduced to show that despite reservations, the plight of these sections have not substantially improved.” Ironically, the only instance of a caste count in post-independent India was carried out in Kerala in 1968 by the Communist Government led by E M S Namboodiripad.
While the intention of the High Court in banning caste based rallies is indeed laudable, it is unlikely to have much impact on curbing the role of caste in Indian politics in the existing scenario.
It would be naïve to expect the country’s political parties to take a lead in the matter.
Here, it is pertinent to mention the case of the State of Odisha, where caste has never been the criterion for popular choice. Whether it is due to the impact of the universal Jagannath cult or the role played by visionary leaders such as Pandit Gopabandhu Das, Biju Pattanaik or Nandini Satapthy, the politically enlightened electorate have time and again shown their preferences to candidates based on performance and not caste.
Though the Patel community continues to play a key role in the BJP’s success in Gujarat, the overwhelming and repeated support to the Chief Minister, who belongs to a minority caste, is reflective of the changing orientation of the voters in favour of good governance vis a vis caste factors.
Apart from an enlightened choice on the part of voters and good governance on the part of ruling parties, it is also high time to consider whether a system based on proportional representation can be an antidote to caste politics in the country.
Under this system, people would have to vote for parties and not individuals, thereby minimizing appeals on casteist, communal or parochial lines.
The Allahabad High Court ruling has to be taken as a wake up call in national interest.