Sunday February 19, 2012
Playing the caste game
By Coomi Kapoor
In large parts of India, people do not cast their votes. They vote their castes.
MORE than 60 years after gaining freedom from the colonial masters, and imbibing at the common tap of one-man, one-vote democracy, electoral behaviour seems to have regressed to such an extent that even main-line parties are openly playing caste and identity politics.
Nowhere is this more pronounced than in Uttar Pradesh (UP). The largest state in the Indian Union with over 200 million people – if it were an independent country it would be the fifth largest in the world – is currently witnessing a keen contest to elect its new government.
And the caste cauldron is boiling over with every conceivable political outfit adding oil to the burning fire with an eye on netting the support of various targeted castes and communities.
To understand how far things have degenerated, a bit of history is needed.
To undo the injustice and exploitation of lower castes by the centuries-old Varna system, the Founding Fathers had provided for a quota of 15% for Scheduled Castes and 7.5% for Scheduled Tribes in government jobs and educational institutions. It was to be effective only for the first 10 years of the Republic, and would end in early 1962.
The rationale was that a decade of reservations would help level the playing field by lifting the traditionally weaker sections to a minimum socio-economic standard so that they could compete freely with the rest of the people.
However, the SC/ST reservations have been extended so much that they have now become a permanent feature of the public education and employment system. It will be foolhardy for anyone to presume that they can be done away with in the distant future.
Worse, the questionable scheme of reservations was further extended to more and more sections.
In the mid-80s, acting on the report of the Mandal Commission, then Prime Minister V.P. Singh reserved 27% of public jobs and seats in educational institutions for Other Backward Castes (OBC).
This was distinct from the SCs/STs who already enjoyed 22.5% reservations.
After this, those who were not able to mount the reservation bus even after the OBC quota agitated to be given a share in the reservation pie. At this stage, the Supreme Court stepped in to cap the quota at 49%.
But the excluded castes pressed on for inclusion in the OBC category so that they too could benefit from the 27% quota.
After this, the caste medley became so confusing that the same caste could be treated as an OBC in one state and non-OBC in another.
For instance, the traditional trading class, Banias, are OBCs in Bihar while they are upper castes elsewhere in the country.
Thanks to the Mandal reservations, a new breed of politics centred around the OBCs took hold in North India. This effectively ended the monopoly of the once-monolithic Congress Party.
The Mandal reservations also led to fresh demands from hitherto unrepresented castes and groups for a greater voice in public affairs.
Similar to the SC/ST reservations, the OBC quota too was creamed by the most dominant castes among these categories.
For instance, Jatavs (cobblers or leather artisans) among the SCs and Yadavs (a land-owning class in UP and Bihar) among the OBCs cornered a huge portion of these reservations, causing strong resentment among other sections who felt neglected despite being entitled to their share.
It is no surprise then that these subaltern voices are heard the strongest at the time of elections, with each caste and sub-caste throwing in its own leader.
The atomisation of society on caste lines, no doubt, was encouraged by fierce competition among parties for the votes of various caste and communities.
Till a decade or so ago, only regional parties were most blatant in playing the caste game to win elections.
Now, though, even the two main national parties – the Congress and BJP – are trying to beat the regional parties at their own game.
Therefore, anyone unfamiliar with the caste factor would be flabbergasted to visit UP at this time when it is immersed in a bitterly fought electoral battle, with each party relying on caste rather than on policies, performance or promises.
Traditionally, the UP electorate was divided into upper castes (13% to 15% of total electorate), Muslims (18%), and Dalits (SCs/STs) (20%).
Till about the 1980s, Congress was the dominant party on the strength of a broad rainbow coalition of Dalits, Muslims and upper castes.
Post-Mandal reservations, that coalition has crumbled. Now, in order to regain relevance, Congress too is playing the caste card to the hilt. Rahul Gandhi, leading the party’s campaign, is trying to woo away a section of the Dalits who had shifted en masse to the Bahujan Samaj Party leader, outgoing Chief Minister Mayawati.
Also, Gandhi has dangled the carrot of 9% reservations out of the 27% quota for OBCs for Muslims in order to wean them away from Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav.
All other parties have carefully analysed the caste profile of each Assembly segment before fielding their candidates.
In constituencies where Muslims are in substantial numbers, all parties, barring the BJP, have invariably taken care to field Muslim candidates. Ditto for constituencies dominated by OBCs or upper castes.
But playing the caste game has become all the more hazardous since the broad category of OBC has been further divided into sub-castes.
So, even if all candidates in the fray are OBCs, they can expect to get the vote of those whose sub-caste they belong too.
For example, political parties have pinpointed the Most Backward Caste among OBCs. Given that there are more than 3,000 castes and more sub-castes, this space would not be enough to list even the major castes which have gained prominence thanks to the naked casteist politics in play in the UP poll.
Dalits or SCs are divided broadly into Jatavs and Pasis and Balmikis, etc, OBCs are sub-divided into Yadavs, Lodhs, Kurmis, Kushwahyas, Mauryas, Sainis, Tyagis, Nishads, Kahars, Sonars, Nais, Malis, some of the latter coming in the MBC category.
As for upper castes, there are Brahmins, Khashtriyas, Kayasthas, Rajputs, Jats, etc, with the last named now clamouring for OBC status in UP and in some other states.
While sociologists and caste historians can unravel the age-old caste tangle, there is no denying that the intrusion of caste into everyday life has increased despite modernism, economic growth and information revolution.
The Founding Fathers, who naively believed that Dalit reservations would be unnecessary after a decade, would be turning in their graves if they knew the canker of caste has spread to more and more sections of society.
Of course, there are no takers for an objective economic criterion for jobs and educational quotas which would treat the underprivileged, whether a high- or a low-caste, on an equal footing.