No longer caste in stone

Some lessons for UP: Class is beginning to flatten jati and biradari in India,and even if a regional party wins,its appeal to identity politics may not be the reason

Written by Pradeep Chhibber | Published: February 23, 2012 3:39:41 am

Some lessons for UP: Class is beginning to flatten jati and biradari in India,and even if a regional party wins,its appeal to identity politics may not be the reason

In 2011,a survey in Uttar Pradesh asked voters whether they preferred leaders who could govern to those with whom they had a jati/biradari relationship. Seventy per cent of the respondents preferred a politician who could deliver public goods and “govern”,and only 20 per cent said that they would like someone from their jati/biradari as a political leader. There were no statistically significant differences in the responses between Hindus,Muslims,Dalits,upper castes,and other backward classes (OBCs).

The findings suggest that voters are tired of identity politics and may prefer to vote for politicians that perform. However,most Indian political parties still award nominations to candidates on the basis of caste and religion. Does ethnic/identity mobilisation still work as a long-term electoral strategy for political parties? We discuss some trends that may point to an answer.

The most significant socio-economic transformation that has occurred in India in the last 63 years is the decoupling of caste from electoral power,class and other forms of hierarchy and political access. This has happened primarily through the reservations policy and market reforms that have allowed some Dalits to be employed in the services sector. Broadly,people in India identify through caste in two ways. First,individuals identify as SC,OBC vis-à-vis the state to get benefits from reservations. Second,individuals identify through jati,which becomes important when personal decisions (like marriage) are made. Alongside inter-caste antagonism there has been an increase in intra-caste antagonism. A.K. Verma’s study of caste in Uttar Pradesh finds that there are 66 sub-castes among the SC and 79 in the OBC. Many of these sub-castes discriminate against each other within their SC or OBC category.

Political parties intentionally confound these interpretations of caste. For instance,the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) broadly mobilises Dalits but relies on Jatav (a Dalit sub-caste) support in UP,knowing that the higher Jatav population in UP can catapult the BSP to an electoral victory. The BJP mobilisation in the early 1990s articulated upper caste angst at being left out of the reservation umbrella after the Mandal Commission reforms that extended reservations to OBCs.

This obfuscation may work for political parties only in the short run. For the sake of argument,let us assume that all citizens vote along caste lines. In a multi-jati constituency where no one jati is a significant majority,inter-jati alliances are necessary to win elections. However,if there is one jati that has a significant plurality (or even a majority),both (or all) political parties competing in that constituency nominate candidates from that particular jati to contest. The votes of the largest jati are then divided and a winning coalition requires building coalitions with other jatis in the area.

How do you stitch together these inter-jati alliances? Through performance or by stressing jati togetherness?

The evidence from UP shows that stressing caste/jati togetherness is no longer as powerful a mobilisation strategy as stressing on performance and delivery of public goods. Data provided by Lokniti shows that for over 300 elections held to the state assemblies since 1967,in almost 60 per cent of the cases (each party in each state for every election was counted as an individual event) no party had a clear social group supporting it. In 30 per cent of the cases,only one party in a state had a clearly defined base in one caste group whereas the other parties were drawing support from many castes. It was only in 10 per cent of the cases that the two competing parties in an election in a particular state had a clear reliance on different castes.

In the short run,a party may be able to stitch together a jati/caste coalition but this strategy by itself cannot provide any party with repeated electoral success. The latest round of general elections in 2009 and last year’s assembly elections have shown that the electorate may be beginning to favour parties that deliver public goods or are focused on performance and governance. Identity politics may work only when it is backed by actual governmental performance.

In the run up to the 2009 election,the BJP categorically and strategically stepped away from supporting Varun Gandhi after his incendiary comments against Muslims,but they did not remove him as a candidate. The BJP was caught in a classic dilemma. If it disavowed Varun it would isolate its fundamentalist cadre base that had aligned with it precisely because it was seen as a Hindutva hardline party. If it went all out Hindutva once more,it would lose those voters that supported it for economic reasons (not necessarily identity). Either way,softening its Hindutva stance and focusing on performance seemed to be the best possible strategy.

In the 2004 and 2009 elections and in various state elections,the electorate has voted in high-performing chief ministers. Nitish Kumar in Bihar has now consistently focused on good governance and security. He has identified quotidian problems,like lack of security,and has solved them ingeniously. Similarly,Modi in Gujarat,dark side firmly in tow,has been grudgingly credited with turning the state around economically. In fact,following the post 2002 backlash against Modi,he has been forced to focus more on performance rather than identity,even though he does still appeal to identity in campaign speeches. In Tripura,Manik Sarkar from the CPM has been credited with trying to boost public services and governance.

After the initial excitement about Mayawati’s ascension,even the BSP was forced to expand their vote base by incorporating other groups and including them under the category of “bahujan”. Mayawati has managed to tweak identity politics for Dalits in such a manner that her personal power and affluence have come to stand for a rise in dignity of the entire Dalit community. She has wooed extremely wealthy candidates who can finance their own electoral campaigns (caste no bar),and,has proved to be tactful at dispensing patronage strategically.

However,Mayawati has also lost many times,and it is clear that without any tangible benefits reaching the people along with the identity message,voters are not going to support the party for much longer. Further,if an ethnic party actually performs then it unclear that it is being supported by voters only because of identity politics.

Parties are forgetting that class is beginning to flatten identity in India and that a female voter in rural India will care more about drinking water,education and security,than she will about religious or caste tensions. The evidence from many states is beginning to reveal voter impatience with rhetorical identity-based mobilisation.

Chhibber and Sirnate are at the Travers Department of Political Science,University of California,Berkeley

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