Caste in question

Old arithmetic is insufficient to explain UP politics. A new election demands newer ways of seeing

Written by Gilles Verniers | Published:June 25, 2016 12:02 am
BSP leaders during a meeting at party office for upcoming assembly elections in Lucknow on Sunday. (Source: Express Photo by Pramod Adhikari) BSP leaders during a meeting at party office for upcoming Assembly elections in Lucknow on Sunday. (Source: Express Photo by Pramod Adhikari)

The BJP’s national executive meeting, held earlier this month in Allahabad, formally marked the launch of its campaign for the state elections in Uttar Pradesh, which will be held in March 2017. Three months ago, the Samajwadi Party declared its first list of candidates for the same election, exactly a year ahead of polls. And while those two parties already compete for media exposure, the BSP operates as it is used to doing, under the media radar, covering the ground to mobilise its troops and consolidate its core support base among the Scheduled Castes.

These overtures are the occasion for commentators to analyse parties’ electoral strategies, essentially interpreted in terms of caste or community. Will the BSP retain its Jatav support? Will the BJP consolidate the upper caste vote and score among the lower OBCs? Will the Muslims desert the SP? Every move, decision or declaration of parties and, indeed, of any minor politician, is interpreted as signals thrown to caste segments of the electorate. Thus, beyond the religious connotation, the choice of Allahabad for the BJP’s meeting was, we are told, meant to please the OBCs, the city being the hometown of its current chief, Keshav Prasad Maurya.

The habit of reading UP politics through caste derives from the politics of the early 1990s, when regional parties and the BJP rose through caste-based and religious mobilisations. These parties built for themselves core support bases by mixing identity politics and caste-base favouritism or patronage. These strategies often led them to antagonise entire segments of the electorate for the sake of gaining the support of some. The alignments were clear: Dalits with the BSP, upper castes with the BJP, Yadavs and Muslims with the SP and no one in particular with Congress, which was already on the decline. This narrow version of identity politics led to the fragmentation of the political space and made it virtually impossible for any party to rule the state alone.

In today’s context, these simplistic caste-party alignments are either gone or are utterly insufficient to explain parties’ performances. There is little evidence, to begin with, that “caste hints” or gestures of the kind described above have any impact on voters’ choices, months before an election. But more fundamentally, there are at least five reasons why we should look beyond caste when we read electoral politics.

First, caste politics is a game of few and not of many. Most castes are too small or too geographically dispersed to constitute a core support base to any party or candidate, even locally. Nearly 40 per cent of UP’s castes have never sent a single representative to the assembly. These are essentially non-Jatav SC castes or castes that belong to the Most Backward Class category. They constitute a floating electorate that is generally insensitive to caste appeals.

Second, Lokniti/CSDS survey data shows us that only a few groups vote cohesively for specific parties. These are the groups — Jatavs and Yadavs, essentially — that have both numerical strength and a party of their own. Other groups, including the upper castes, have been splitting their votes between parties and local candidates, election after election.

Third, nurturing a core support base on the basis of caste may be necessary to win elections but surely cannot be enough. According to the 1931 census, the largest single caste — Jatavs — represents 13 per cent of the population. The two other large groups — Brahmins and Yadavs — represent respectively 9.2 and 8.7 per cent of the population. Factor in the fact that not all of them vote and that not all of them vote for the same party, and it becomes clear that campaigning by wooing specific castes to the exclusion of others does not help in winning elections. In fact, in recent times, majorities have been built precisely on the capacity of parties to mobilise voters beyond their core support base, that is to say, across castes.

In the current assembly, the four main broad social groups — upper castes, OBCs, SCs and Muslims — represent each nearly one-fourth of the SP’s MLAs. The BSP’s success over time was built on its ability to consolidate the Jatav vote and induct other castes within its ranks, including the OBCs, who have always had the largest share of representation within the party.

Fourth, we have seen recently a growing differentiation of caste voting along class lines, the richer segments of most castes, barring the Dalits, voting more for the BJP. CSDS survey data again reveals, for example, that among the Yadavs — who remain a core support base for the SP — the richer segments tend to vote more for the BJP. And fifth, we have seen in the 2014 general election and in more recent times how social and religious polarisation can still be used to fragment the political space, to help build majorities of seats out of minorities of votes.

This is not to say that caste arithmetic no longer matters or operates but that it is insufficient to win an election. Caste still determines the distribution of tickets, which in turn shapes the representation caste groups have in the assembly. Ticket distribution is not done following pan-state caste combinations strategies but according to local, constituency-level, circumstances.

The inclusive character that the main parties have acquired in UP derives largely from the localisation of caste politics, which leads them to distribute tickets across the caste spectrum and therefore offer representation to nearly all. The successful parties are those who can, in addition, attract floating voters, by other means than identity politics.

We have seen in recent elections, in Bihar, West Bengal or Tamil Nadu, that the parties in power who offer tangible benefits to voters across caste divisions — to women in particular — get rewarded. This trend supersedes an older trend of incumbency disadvantage. More and more state governments are returned to power precisely because of their ability to effectively distribute public goods while transcending caste divisions. So the question that will animate most voters in the next assembly elections in UP is likely to be: Which party is in a better position to do so?

 

The writer is assistant professor of Political Science at Ashoka University, and co-director of the Trivedi Centre for Political Data

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  1. K
    K SHESHU
    Jun 25, 2016 at 12:48 pm
    Vote caste was synonymous with vote cast few years ago. Now, the parties have gone further. Every party is fielding candidates of all important castes including Muslims. Even rightist parties are trying to woo voters of all castes.
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      Anil Maheshwari
      Jun 25, 2016 at 5:44 am
      Interesting and relevant observation regarding the system of "cast your vote to your caste". Uttar Pradesh is a unique case. Muslims consute about 25 per cent of the potion and not a single Muslim was returned to the Lok Sabha from this state in the last Lok Sabha elections. The writer is correct when says that the permutations and combinations of caste alone is not enough to win the race. Devi Lal performed miracle in Haryana way back in 1986 begging as many as 85 seats for his coalition in the house of 90. He succeeded gly because he was able to bring even the BJP and CPM under one umbrella and mobilising 36 castes. Perhaps the BJP succeeded in the last Lok Sabha elections in UP by begging 75 out of 80 seats by repeating the Devi Lal's formula. It seems that the successful experiment of roping in unrepresented castes (40 per cent as per this brilliant article) is being repeated in the coming Vidhan Sabha elections.
      Reply
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        Arun Shankar
        Jun 25, 2016 at 7:39 am
        UP must vote for either the BSP or the Congress, so that the outrightly communal SP and BJP are kept at bay. In seats where the BSP is a strong contender, vote for it. In seats where the Cong. is strong, vote for it.
        Reply
        1. R
          Rajesh
          Jun 25, 2016 at 5:25 am
          I dont think so. I am pretty sure UP is still a state where caste/religion is one of the most important electoral issue for the voting public. I wish it wasnt, but it is. You can always see the difference when compared with other states. UP has historically been a backward state for precisely this reason. Just watch the election campaign its going be nothing but "we are secular, they are communal" and other nonsense.
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          1. P
            Pankaj
            Jun 25, 2016 at 5:39 am
            Or it could be that. Looks muslims are going to spread their love jihad?
            Reply
            1. R
              Ram Kumar
              Jun 25, 2016 at 7:16 pm
              Why are we allowing the East India Company Trojan Horse Gilles Verniers to write articles in our newspapers dissecting our internal politics? But then again, we were colonial minded enough to allow the Italian Sonia hi to become our dictator. So this should not surprise us.
              Reply
              1. C
                Chotey lal
                Jun 25, 2016 at 7:06 am
                It is correct that only caste equation can not win election but still plays a significant part. Now more Jatavs, Yadavs and OBCs are getting educated so do their thinking. A yadav milkman will vote SP but a Yadav MBA will think twice before voting SP. also all those who suffered and felt unrepresented from any background would vote against the ruling party. All kamchors, goons, thugs who thrived during SP government will vote and campaigne for it ensuring other like minded people to unite and vote for alt;br/gt;change. Akhilesh government will get majority Muslim support as usual creating fear even in minds of Yadavs, all people in UP know that Akhilesh government will look after Muslims ignoring all others including Yadavs.
                Reply
                1. R
                  Ram
                  Jun 25, 2016 at 5:29 pm
                  Bihar elections recently held were again caste based. Otherwise what made Nitesh join hands with Lallu Yadav? Their desperate attempt to revive mandal reservation issue, using RSS chief's speech somewhere in a different context? Even last week Lalu was making big noise about reservation issue with UGC appointment for proffeor level posts which dosent exist so far, as reservations are followed in central universities at entry level, that of istant prof. Kurmi leder, Nitesh also is raking up caste based census issue to exploit caste further. Recent Bihar election was Lallu's win of mixing mandal with muslim votes.
                  Reply
                  1. R
                    Ram
                    Jun 25, 2016 at 5:34 pm
                    Most of the reasons given in the article are logical. Although many vote for the caste, the final win does't depend on caste alone. BJP won 75/80 shows tactical voting by certain communities also failed when most castes voted for development, change and clean image of NaMo.
                    Reply
                    1. S
                      satish
                      Jun 25, 2016 at 10:29 am
                      what did congress do for last 60 years that they need another chance? vote any party except congress
                      Reply
                      1. S
                        sundar
                        Jun 26, 2016 at 4:35 am
                        Would be interesting to know how much the caste factor makes a difference between genders. We do know as Gilles says that the richer across most castes tend to become more right wing. How about the women though? Do they vote on caste lines or based on cl or based on who offers sops that help the family and kids or who promises better law and order (women clearly care more as they are targeted in lawless states) or who promises prohibition? As in the USA do they tend to reject women candidates more (Hillary's support among women is considerably lower than among men). Would love to see some analysis on this by Gilles or a Pratap Bhanu Mehta. And for all the trolls out there, as a political analyst in the USA said, "You are enled to your opinion but not your facts". Let the numbers speak for themselves. What you make of them is up to you but don't troll the person who asks for numbers or the one who provides them.... Keep it civil if you can...
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                        1. P
                          Prateik
                          Jun 25, 2016 at 6:56 am
                          Indian Express promoting casteist.
                          Reply
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