The caste ticket

Sukumar Muralidharan | Updated on April 12, 2019

In the name of the game: Elections are being fought in classic coalition terms, with caste understood as a political sub-group   -  RAJEEV BHATT

Knitting together India’s many political subcultures, represented as castes, is key to democratic success

Caste is the unspeakable reality that also happens to be the great unavoidable in the Indian electoral scene. Early in his campaign, Prime Minister Narendra Modi called for the ostracism of everybody who talked caste. The government existed to serve all, “irrespective of caste, creed and other factors”, he pronounced while laying the foundation stone for a memorial at the birthplace of Ravidas, medieval poet-saint and icon of Dalit identity

Guru Ravidas had worked for a social order free of “discrimination on the basis of caste”, Modi said, and that had been precisely what his government had been working towards under the slogan of “Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas”. A few weeks into the campaign, Modi was not quite so scrupulous about narrow invocations of identity.

No castes were mentioned, only numerical aggregations: As when he derided Opposition leader Rahul Gandhi for choosing to contest from a seat where the “minority is in the majority”, since he had no credentials to recommend himself to the majority.

Modi’s political fraternity has battened on the assertion that India will achieve its true glory only when the distinctive culture of the majority achieves true efflorescence. What they are unwilling to concede is that the majority is constructed by both the coercion of unwilling groups and the co-optation of others with a promise of political power.

Anthropologist Balmurli Natrajan has spoken of the paradox of “caste without casteism” that is a feature of the Indian social landscape. When mentioned in public discourse, casteism is as with Modi’s Varanasi speech, seen through the narrow legal lens of discrimination. To grasp its full purport, though, casteism has to be seen as a set of “monopolisation strategies”, which could bring into focus its “gainful effects and social functions” — that is, “who gains from casteism and how?”

Writing on the issue in 1955, before the linguistic reorganisation of the political map gained official blessings and legitimacy, BR Ambedkar warned of the dangers of each state becoming the playground of a communal majority. This was the political equivalent of the sociologist MN Srinivas’s academic theorisation, drawn from extensive fieldwork in his native Mysore, of a “dominant caste” in every village, which could create cross-territorial alliances to consolidate an electoral majority across the state. Ambedkar distinguished between a “political” and a “communal” majority, the latter a creation not of politics but the ascriptive circumstances of birth. It would be unchangeable by this very circumstance, while a “political majority is changeable in its class composition”.

This may have been an overreading of the power exerted by any single caste grouping that lacked a numerical majority but had the economic and social power to make other groups fall in line. Caste coalitions have been the rule in electoral mobilisation and dominant formations have varied in terms of internal cohesion and durability.

Caste has a juridical identity only as “class”. The special measures sanctioned for certain “classes” were transformed through a constitutional schedule, into a system of affirmative action for identified castes and tribes. Today, by decreeing that citizens who suffer economic deprivation would gain special attention in terms of public employment, the Modi government has begun what could be an end-run around the juridical construct of caste.

Electoral strategies, though, remain firmly premised upon creating caste coalitions to ensure pluralities — though rarely outright majorities — in particular constituencies. A party purporting to represent the Nishad caste of eastern Uttar Pradesh recently caused a flutter by walking out of its alliance with the BJP and teaming up with the SP-BSP alliance, which promises a consolidation of Yadav, Dalit and Muslim votes in the state. The newly forged friendship was altogether brief. Miffed at being denied what it saw as a fair allocation of seats to contest, the Nishad party walked out and re-entered the embrace of the BJP.

Elections are being fought in classic coalition terms, with caste understood as a political sub-group. Governing arrangements that emerge out of these electoral contests would display some elements of consociationalism — that is, government through elite cartels representing distinct sub-groups. Fragmented but stable democracies, according to Arend Lijphart, theorist of consociationalism, are typically run by elites from different sub-groups who share a commitment to maintaining “cohesion and stability”.

An important caveat in the case of India, would be the tendency for governing coalitions to be exclusive, merely because of the paucity of material benefits that could be shared from the exercise of power. A further distinction is the absence of a democratic culture within each political sub-group. As the choice of candidates for the current general election shows, dynasties are now entrenched at various levels, because parties are weakly institutionalised and political office is an assurance of high returns.

Consociational forms of democratic governance have a chance of success only if political parties are successful in projecting themselves as organised representatives of political subcultures. In their absence, the descent into tribalism and the violence of political exclusion would be the inevitable outcomes.

Sukumar Muralidharan   -  BUSINESS LINE


Sukumar Muralidharan teaches at the school of journalism, OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat

Twitter: @sukumar_md

Published on April 12, 2019

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