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Why Caste Matters

Reading Electoral Outcomes through the Optic of Caste

Vishesh Pratap Gurjar (visheshgurjar@gmail.com) is a PhD Candidate, Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Delhi.

A response to “Caste and Electoral Outcomes: Misreading Hierarchy and the Illusion of Numbers” by Dipankar Gupta (EPW, 22 June 2019) analyses the continued role of caste as a medium in electoral politics and the function of caste identity.

A short version of this was published on 29 June 2019 in the Hindi edition of The Print.
 

The elections are over and scholars as well as politicians have begun to argue that this election has proved the end of caste-based politics. This should be a welcome narrative in a democracy, where people rise above their primordial sentiments and elect their public representatives on their individual merit, past performance and their potential to deliver to their constituency rather than simply choosing them on the basis of one’s caste or religion. In pursuit of this ideal of democracy and ethical citizenship, it is natural for us to evaluate the role of categories such as caste after every election.

Recently in the pages of EPW (“Caste and Electoral Outcomes: Misreading Hierarchy and the Illusion of Numbers”), Dipankar Gupta has written an article advising the fast-paced journalists and political pundits to rethink on the central role that they accord to caste in every election analysis. He argued that while emphasising the role of caste in elections, analysts commit two fallacies. One is that they assume that the two proximate caste groups in the hierarchy of caste could easily foster solidarity and vote for one party or a candidate. Gupta on the contrary argues that such a solidarity among castes is not possible because each caste has pride in themselves and also look down upon each other, hence this mutual repulsion among castes becomes a roadblock in their coming together on the basis of their caste ideology. In arguing this Gupta cites his earlier research work which proved that castes like Jats and Gurjars who, even though belonging to similar peasant category, could rarely accord respect to each other.

Similarly, the other fallacy that analysts commit is that they consider one parliamentary constituency to be a stronghold of one particular caste and declare them as Jatland or a Yadavland, whereas Gupta argues that no parliamentary constituency has the majority of one particular caste and a candidate always needs to seek the vote of others in order to win an election. Hence to give primacy to caste while explaining the outcomes in any parliamentary constituency by thinking one caste as numerical majority is to miss on the reality.

Given the experience and knowledge of Gupta, it is very difficult to disagree with him on his observations about the changing situation of caste due to changes in traditional economy. However, we also know that the institution of caste is not dead and buried in history, as Gupta (2019) also acknowledges, “The caste system is dead, long live caste identity.”

I think it is by acknowledging this transformation in the institution of caste that one needs to begin and see how caste prevails in politics or has an impact on the electoral outcomes. While Gupta would hardly disagree that the caste system may be long dead, the politics based on caste identity still thrives and in fact it has been in favour of the traditional upper castes under the rule of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). To prove this point we just need to look at the number of chief ministers, ministers and other important public representatives coming from the upper castes. Not only this, the state machinery and local bureaucracy too have been drawn overwhelmingly from the traditional upper castes in the BJP-ruled states like Uttar Pradesh (UP) (Verniers 2019). Another measure to check the prevalence of caste in politics is that only two members of Parliament who belong to Scheduled Caste (SC) have won from an unreserved constituency on a BJP ticket, whereas the Bahujan Samaj Party fielded 15 SC candidates from the unreserved seats (Economic Times 2019). The above three examples are sufficient to suggest that caste still prevails in our electoral system. It is on this point of prevalence of caste in politics and the condition of Indian democracy that I wish to disagree with Gupta and argue how and why caste should still remain the larger optic for reading the Indian elections, although I agree with him that simple arithmetic of caste cannot lead us to understand the reality of elections.

Caste as Medium

The initial questions that come to mind after reading his piece is, if the system is dead, why is identity still alive? Who needs this identity and why? Is this identity completely bereft of the impressions of the “old” caste system? The answers to the above questions could be found not only by studying the politics of identity in the current times, it requires an inquiry into the nature of changes that have come in the caste system and its role in the formation of identity of the people. Given my experience of fieldwork in an urban village of Delhi, one could see that the caste system has been broken, but the memories of old roles from the jajmani system have not yet been ripped apart. The rituals and practices of marriage still involve the process of employing the services of particular families. Even in 2019, a member of the Nai (barber) household would go to offer his services to the jajman; similarly only a particular family of Brahmins would be engaged to perform the sacred ceremony and the same family of caste historians still do the rounds in the village and make entry of newborns into their record books. Of course, instead of grains, the serving caste members are paid in cash, because the farmer himself does not grow any grains and has become a rentier. The system has certainly been broken, but it has still not provided the anonymity one requires to attain a respectable identity for oneself.

So yes, like Gupta said, these “low” castes could very much claim a Kshatriya status to themselves, but they could never force the other to change the way they are looked upon by them.

This memory in people’s mind partly lives because of the legacy of the caste system itself, since the system did confine people to certain occupations. It has resulted in a huge gap of resources between the “low,” “high” and “dominant” castes. This historical relative deprivation among the castes still persists and also allows people of dominant castes to dictate the terms of social identification. The change in the political system has certainly allowed the growth of political consciousness among the “lower castes,” yet it is almost a fantasy to imagine that the traditional landed elites have completely lost control of local politics. Given my other experiences in the villages of western UP, I found that politics has been only a place where caste plays an effective role very innocuously. The rise of many Dalits and low caste leaders has been successfully withheld by incorporating them into the ruling class, while a large majority of their fellow brethren live in their own conditions of penury and powerlessness. It is here that we find how caste as identity matters in politics and why it remains a potent force to reckon with.

In politics today, caste has emerged as a medium, through which fellow caste individuals get access to the facility of education, local jobs, low health costs, a lawyer when in trouble, and social activists in times of trouble and so on. To add to this networking, we have phones with internet and social media which allow people to associate themselves with other men of their own castes in other places and reflect objectively on their own conditions vis-à-vis conditions of their fellow men in other places. In this sense they have become part of a larger caste–community of their own. So when Gurjars protested in Rajasthan we saw students and fellow caste people take out marches in Delhi. Similarly, in a recent case when a Tyagi man was murdered in Delhi, the Tyagis of western UP and Delhi came together and took out a candle march at India Gate demanding justice for him.

Suspended Mutual Repulsion

Now I want to return to the two fallacies that Gupta pointed out in his piece. On the solidarity of proximate castes, one can see that proximate castes could also get along as has happened recently in this election: not only did the Jats and Gurjars vote together in favour of the BJP, but also the “upper castes” have seen an unprecedented alliance of strength. As much as 61% of the vote of the upper castes has gone to the BJP (Kumar and Gupta 2019). Does it not look like an alliance based on caste ideology itself? Why is there no repulsion among the upper castes? Is the problem of repulsion, a problem of the peasants and the backward castes only? How would Gupta see the formidable alliance of the Brahmins and Rajputs in favour of the BJP?

To my mind, it is as much an alliance of caste ideology as it is of the power-sharing arrangement that has developed among these castes under the BJP rule. Despite getting almost 50% of votes in almost 16 states and union territories (Anuja 2019), we see an overwhelming majority of cabinet ministers and junior ministers coming from two–three “upper castes” only. However, this is not new and such alliance between castes has occurred in the past like during the reign of Charan Singh between the Ahirs, Jats, Gurjars and Rajputs under the rubric of “kisan” and during the reign of Kanshi Ram in the form of Bahujans. Thus, we see castes can ally and suspend (if not forget) mutual repulsion when there emerges a principle of power-sharing among them. This power-sharing gets reflected in the popular slogans of people when they say “ye to apni sarkar hai” (This is our own government), knowing that there are their fellow caste people who get heard and get things done in this or that government. Further, mutual repulsion could also not deter castes to vote collectively for a single party or candidate when a narrative has been stitched such that it provides the ideological canvas for coming together to the mutually repulsive castes. Like in this election as well, the canvas prepared by the mix of nationalism, development and Narendra Modi’s personality cult has brought the mutually repulsive Jats and Gurjars together to vote in favour of the BJP in western UP. These repulsive castes could come together because along with the narrative set by the BJP, it also invested heavily in raising new and non-elite leadership among these castes, who successfully popularised the narrative and brought votes of their own castes into the BJP’s kitty.

Locus of Consolidation

On the second fallacy, while Gupta is right that no single caste could bring victory for any candidate, he forgets that a constituency does not become a stronghold of any particular caste because it has numbers. Rather, it becomes so due to the dominance that this caste enjoys in the area. It is the power of any caste to muster money and muscle power in favour of their own candidate by using caste as a medium that makes an area a stronghold. From arranging cars at low costs, getting trusted men to campaign, utilising the material and social wealth of a caste and having caste-men in the local media are few important things that work well to ensure the dominance of any caste in a particular area. It is such a dominance that has forced both the parties in 2019 to put up a candidate of same caste in many constituencies like Faridabad, Baghpat and Muzaffarnagar. Does not it prove that even if a caste does not have numerical majority but is dominant, avoiding them will cost a fortune?

Third and most important, Gupta in his article does not tell us anything about the relations that the Hindu castes have today with the Muslims. Just because all the caste communities have voted for the BJP, it does not mean that caste does not explain electoral outcomes anymore. Rather, it should provide us the ground for searching the reasons that allow for all castes to bandwagon in favour of the BJP. The role that religious divides have played in aggregating the votes of various castes needs to be looked upon (Sardesai and Attri 2019). The BJP–RSS has been working for a long time to bring unity among various castes; among the lower castes they have utilised the caste tales of the glorious past in order to convince them that the present misery of low status is one of recent origin during the reign of the Islamic rule in India (Gudavarthy and Suthar 2014). Thus again, we can see how the BJP has utilised the resources of caste tales to weave a comforting narrative by simply laying the blame of low origin in the caste system on to the Mughals. New leadership from these castes has been deployed to convince them to believe in the new narrative. Thus, again, caste acts as a medium in democracy.

The death of the “caste system” has itself given rise to a new politics of caste identities that may seem casteless but actually draws on the legacy of the caste system. And, second, instead of understanding the behaviour of caste within the Hindu fold, I think it is time to understand the electoral behaviour of any caste vis-à-vis its relations to the Muslims along with the Hindus. The caste today plays its role in relation to both the religions instead of just one in the old times.

References

Anuja (2019): “BJP Secures 50% or More Vote Share in 16 States, UTs Together,” Livemint, 27 May, viewed on 5 July 2019, https://www.livemint.com/elections/lok-sabha-elections/bjp-secures-50-or....

Economic Times (2019): “17th Lok Sabha: In Many Ways, the New Lower House will Break Old Patterns,” 25 May, viewed on 5 July 2019,
https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/elections/lok-sabha/india/17th....

Gudavarthy, Ajay and Sudhir Kumar Suthar (2014): “Politics without Opposition,” Hindu, 9 October, viewed on 5 July 2019, https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/politics-without-opposition/articl....

Gupta, Dipankar (2019): “Caste and Electoral Outcomes: Misreading Hierarchy and the Illusion of Numbers,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol LIV, No 25, pp 24–28.

Kumar, Sanjay and Pranav Gupta (2019): “Where Did the BJP Get Its Votes from in 2019?” Livemint, 3 June, viewed on 5 July 2019, https://www.livemint.com/politics/news/where-did-the-bjp-get-its-votes-f....

Sardesai, Shreyas and Vibha Attri (2019): “Post-poll Survey: The 2019 Verdict Is a Manifestation of the Deepening Religious Divide in India,” Hindu, 30 May, viewed on 5 July 2019, https://www.thehindu.com/elections/lok-sabha-2019/the-verdict-is-a-manif....

Verniers, Gilles (2019): “The Return of Thakurvad,” Outlook, 29 April, viewed on 5 July 2019.

Updated On : 23rd Aug, 2019

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