It’s Caste Politics All the Way

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The gap between the emerging narrative of a new politics and the actual behaviour of political parties suggests that the actual situation is thus far more nuanced than many assume. What has been happening on the ground (or rather in the closed rooms where political deals are struck) shows that the actual players in the political game are far more sceptical than assorted pundits about the inevitability of a new politics liberated from the bonds of identity, political dynasty, criminality, caste and corruption.

Take the issue of caste, which was once a category that only drew the attention of anthropologists but later became very important to Indian politics. Caste mobilization has become an important factor in shaping the Indian politics. Now the popular quip "Indians do not cast their vote but vote their caste" dominates and influence politics and its equations.

There is enough evidence that caste and other forms of identity continue to matter in voting decisions, though in a more complex manner than commonly assumed. It’s a crude fact that elections are fought on caste and community lines and not on issues. Though issues like inflation, corruption, and governance are raised by political parties, ultimately it’s the caste factor that matters the most.

A recent survey by the Centre for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania shows that there are clear caste-based preferences at the national level, especially in the Hindi Heartland. The study does show that caste issues dominate the concerns of voters and still continues to play a dominant part in voter behaviour.

Besides voting, the caste is an important factor, influencing the selection of candidates in elections, appointment of ministers, transfer and posting of public officials etc. The policy of reservation has given further impetus to the role of caste in politics, particularly in the last few decades .The programmes, policies and declarations of political parties are made, keeping in view the caste factor. Different positions within a political party are distributed in terms of caste configurations.

Chief Minister Nitish Kumar addressing the members of backward castes in Rajgir (file photo).Chief Minister Nitish Kumar addressing the members of backward castes in Rajgir (file photo).Even caste has influenced the policy-making of every government. Political parties select their candidates on the basis of caste composition in the constituency. The voting in elections and mobilization of political support from top to bottom moves within the caste frame-line. The caste factor also influences the formation of the council of ministers and making appointments to various political positions in the government.

Caste also functions, as a pressure group in politics. Political bargaining is also done on the caste lines. Caste organisations have emerged to organize caste members for collective bargaining with each other. Even the administration has not escaped the influence of the caste in India. The postings, transfers and appointments of public officials are influenced by caste considerations. On the same line, the behaviour of public officials in carrying out administrative duties gets influenced by caste considerations.

The political leadership in almost every political party emerges and survives in politics on the basis of the support of certain caste groups. Main political parties like Congress and BJP always provide benefits for the different castes and communities through their manifestos. It’s a general practice in almost all the parties that the ticket aspirants have to mention their caste as this would be the main consideration for nominations.

Let's see the impact of caste considerations in Bihar’s politics… the caste conflict in the state came into prominence after 1989 because of the Mandal Commission report. After reaching a high point through ‘Mandalization’, caste factors gave impetus to the issue of reservations for OBCs. The claims of the OBC leaders for power sharing cropped up. Acceptance of the OBC reservation became a state policy, various parties incorporated OBCs resulting in the changed composition of representatives.

These developments have meant that the OBCs within themselves would go for greater share of power," said Pankaj Sinha, a veteran journalist, analyst, and a subject expert. He further added, "The caste consideration based politics in the state is happening for two reasons. One is caste-based identity politics and the other is quota reservations. These developments also bring out a big shortcoming of the entire social justice programme based on reservations."

In the poll bound Bihar’s hopelessly caste ridden society, every political party clearly positioned caste chemistry as its number one priority. No wonder, even the so called proponents of developmental politics like Narendra Modi and Nitish Kumar too have begun to seek votes in the name of caste.


Alok Kumar, Sr. Journalist, Patna.

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