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Friday, December 17, 2010

Caste and Electoral Politics

Theoretically speaking caste and democratic political system stand for opposite value systems. Caste is hierarchical. Status of an individual in caste-oriented social system is determined by birth. It has religious sanction by various holy texts, reinforced by priests and rituals. Traditionally, upper castes enjoy certain privileges not only in religious sphere but also in economic, education and political spheres. Customary laws differentiate individual by birth and sex. 'That is, certain rules are harsh to women and Shudras and soft to males and Brahmins. On the other hand, democratic political system advocates freedom to an individual and equality of status. It stands for rule of Law. No one irrespective of status is above law. Indian democratic system under the Constitution stands for liberty, equality and fraternity among all citizens. It strives to build egalitarian social order.
However, politics notwithstanding the ideals in any society does not function in vacuum. It operates within social milieu. Therefore, it cannot be devoid of the prevailing social forces. At societal level, politics is related to struggle for and distributio~io f political power and resources. One of tlie importa~itf unctions of politics is to govern society. his'callsfo r resolving conflict among various interests. It identifies needs of society at a given point of time.
No social system remains static. Social system changes from time to time with tlie changing social, economic and political circumstances. This is also true for the caste system. At the empirical l&el the caste hierarchy lias never been static throughout history. Theoretically, all Jatis are liierarchically placed within a prescribed social status. Some Jatis enjoy high status and some occupy low status. Place of tlie Jaii in the social order in the hierarchy is determined by its ritual status based on the observa~iceo f c ustoms for interpersonal relationship. Some scliolars believe this value system acceptance of one's station in the life is tlie result of previous birth – lias consensus among all Hindus including tlie Untouchables. But it is not true. 'rhough tlie upper castes try to maintain their higher status, tlie middle and lower castes have successfully tried to change their status. Having improved their economic condition, a dominant section of some of the low castes, including the groups, which were at one time treated as u~itoucliables, imitated customs and norms of the upper castes residing in their vicinity. Sociologists call this process as sanskritisation. One also comes across instances of some castes or even individuals who have succeeded in improving their status even without adhering to tlie norms and rituals of tlie upper castes. Acquiring political authority facilitates not only power holder - ruler - but arso his kin and relatives to elljoy higher social status in caste hierarchy. One call cite instances in history, which show that Shudras and ati-shudras having occupying position of power have acquired status of Kshatriyas even without following tlie path of sanskritisation.
According to some scholars, caste system is essentially a class system. It was essentially so in the early formative years. The classes were: Rajanyas or the Kshatriyas, the aristocracy, the Brahmins, the priests, the Vaishyas, the people at large, mainly peasants and traders, and the Shudras, the service communities. There are various theories of the origin of the system. Some believe that the system was created by the Divine Power for maintaining harmony in society. Accordingly, one gets birth in a particular caste because of one's karma o f the previous birth. Others believe that the system has been evolved in course o f time with the development of economic surplus. It came into existence with economic divisions; or the invaders to subjugate the local tribal population created it.
A number of village studies o f different parts of the country carried out in the postindependent period show a certain amount of overlap between twin hierarchies of caste and land. M.N. Srinivas observes, " The village community consisted of hierarchical groups, each with its own rights, duties and privileges. The caste at the top had power and privileges, which were denied to the lower castes. The lower castes were tenants, servants, landless labourers, debtors and clients of the higher castes." Data from two Tamilnadu villages collected by Sivkumar and Sllivkumar in the late 'seventies show that 59 per cent of Mudaliyars (upper castes) and 4 per cent of Palli (untouchable castes) are rich peasants or landlord households. No Mudaliyar is engaged as an agricultural laborer, whereas 42 per cent of Palli households earn their livelillood as farm labourers. A study of six Rajastllan villages carried out by K.L.Sharma in the 'seventies offers a similar pattern'. "Only 12.5 per cent of the lower class .households belong to upper castes, 60 per cent of the higher cIass households belong to the upper castes, 24 per cent of the upper castes belong to the higher class, whereas among the intermediate and lower castes only 6.2 per cent and 1.3 per cent belong to high class respectively."
The Anthropological Survey of India in its Project on "People of India" has studied 4635 communities/castes. The study confirms that the highly placed castes are marked by "(i) a higher position in the regional socio-ritual hierarchy, (ii) better control over land and 'other resources, and (iii) non-commercial relations with other communities of inferior status .... (The low castes) are placed at the bottom due to their : (i) abject poverty caused by less possession of land and less control over economic resources (ii) socio-ritual degradation based on the notion of purity and pollution, and (iii) traditional engagement in occupations which are co~lsidered ritually unclean.
Aggregate data at regional and national level on caste and occupation\land llolding give us a similar picture. Table I presents caste and occupation data collected by the National Sample Survey (NSS) collected in 1952, analysed by K.N.Raj. The data sllows that there is a positive relatio~lshipb etween caste and occupational status. The small and marginal farmers.and agricultural labourers mainly belong to the low or backward castes and ex-untouchable (scheduled) castes. There is a marginal diversification of occupations among the members of low and the lowest castes in rural areas. However, one should not ignore that a small proportion of lower and scheduled caste households are rich peasants who hire labour and produce marketable surplus. According to the survey carried out by Centre for Social Studies, Surat in Gujarat, 10 per, cent of the lower caste and 5 per cent of the scheduled caste households own more than 15 acres of land. The reverse is also true. According to the NSS data I per cent of the upper castes and 12 per cent of the middle castes are agricultural labourers. Moreover it may also be noted that there are a few upper castes in some parts of the country wllose nlajority members do not belong to the upper class. Rajputs (upper caste) of Giljarat are a case in point. Their condition in terms of land ownership and other occupation is not significantly different than many OBCs.
Several castes join together and lau~iclim ovements. Non-Brahmin movements in Tamilnadu and Maharashtra are the examples. Jyotirao Pliule started Satyashodhak Samaj in 1873 challenging Bralitniliical hegemony. In Tamilnadu several peasant castes such as Vellala, Gaunda and Padayachi, trading castes such as Chetri, artisan castes Tachchan (Carpenter), Kollan (Blacks~nitli), and Tattan (Goldsmith), individually and jointly initiated non-Brahmin movement. Tlie movemelit followed several caste associations such as Parayan Maliajan Sablia, Adi-Dravin Maliajali Sablia in tlie ' 1890's. In 191 6 the Non-Brahmin nianifesto was brought out liighligltting doniina~ice of the Brahmins in governnient services and injustice to non-Brahmins who co~istituted a vast majority. Tlie formati011 of tlie Justice party followed in 191 6. The party sent a delegation to Eligla~idin 1919 to present tlie non-Brahmin case before the joint Parliament Co~nmitteew liicli was responsible for preparing tlie Government o f India Bill. DMK is its offshoot. Two factions Valiniyaakkula Kshatriya Sangam of the Nadars fornied Ta~iiilnaduT oilers' Party and Colii~iionwealtliP arty and fought the 1952 elections. Tliey the11 bargained with tlie Co~igress for positions in tlie state cabinet. Scheduled
Caste Federation was formed in tlie forties by Dr. Ambedkar and - the Republican Party fornied in 1956 by Dalit leaders. Tliey primarily remained tile parties of and by the Dalits. harkhalid Party fornied by Adivasi leaders of Biliar, has primarily remained a party o f Adivasis. Baliuja~Si a~iiaPj arty launched by Kansliiram is a party of Dalits ainiing at forming allialice of Dalits, minorities and OBCs. '
After Independences ome caste associations were formed with political objectives to compete in elections. In Gujarat sollie of tlie leaders of tlie Ksliatriya Sablia co~iteliiplated in tlie early fifties to for111 tlie party of tlie Ksliatriyas. Tliey soon realised that they could not muster enougli support to contest elections olily on tlie stre~igtloi f the Ksliatriyas. Similarly, political elite o f tlie Kurmis. Yadavas and Koeris for~iied the Biliar State Backward caste Associati011 in 1947 to contest elections. Tlie plan did not take-off tlianks to tlie resistance o f tlie Congress leaders belo~igingto these castes. Sucli caste associations are asserted with different leading political parties to see that their caste members get party tickets in electioi-1s. Tliese parties i~i i t ial lyre sisted such pressures because of tlie counter pressure from the dominant castes that cotitrolled the party. 'The latter accused tlie former as castiest or comniunal. But as tlie competitio~I among the parties intensify and as the caste association successfully mobilised tlie members for political activities, all parties began to woo leading aspirants of tlie caste who could mobilise caste votes. Sucli political aspirants join different political parties.
As they are primarily interested in gaining political positions for the~nselvesra ther tlian serving social or ritual interests of the caste, they either launcli a new association or split the existing one. For them caste association is among several instruments to gain political power. '
There are three consequences of such interaction between caste associations and political parties. One, caste members particularly poor and marginalised who were hitherto remained untouclled by tlie political processes got politicised and began to participate in electoral politics with an expectation that their interests would be served. Second, caste members get split among various political parties weakening hold of the caste. Third, numerically large castes get representation in decision-making bodies and strengtli o f tlie traditionally dominant castes get weaken. Tliis explai~istl ie rise of middle and backward caste representations in most of tlie state assemblies.
Role of caste in elections has two dimensions. One is of the parties and candidates and the second is of the voters. The former seeks support of the voters projecting themselves as champions of particular social and economic interests, the latter while exercising their vote in favour of one party or candidate whether people vote on caste consideration. And if so, how exclusive is it? As mentioned above different parties acco~nnlodatec ertain castes in distributing party tickets. While nominating candidates parties take into consideration caste of the aspirant candidate and numerical strength of different castes in a constituency.
Caste leaders also ~nobilisedth eir followers on caste lines so that they could sllow tlleir strength. In the fifties wherever caste associations were able to ~naintainth eir unity and did not formally align with ally one party they appealed to their members to vote for their caste fellows irrespective of their party affiliation. In Rajastllan Meenas were asked "Do not give your daughter or your vote to anyone but a Meena." Similar slogan was used in Tamilnadu: " tlle Vanniya vote is not for anyone else". But wherever caste association aligned with a particular party the caste leaders asked caste members to vote for that party. The Kshatriya leaders of Gujarat in 1952 elections asked Kshatriya voters that i t was their Kshatriya dhar~nat o vote for tlle Congress because it was "the great institution and working for the develop~ne~oltf t he country". In the subsequent elections as the caste leaders split some Ksllatriya leaders appealed, " It is our pledge that tlle Ksllatriya of Gujarat vote for tlle Congress, and not for anyone else." The otllers appealed that it was tlle dllar~nao f t he Kshatriyas to vote for the Malla Gujarat Janata Parisllad (a regional party). Tl~ougtlh~e re is a trend among the caste members to vote for a particular party, there is never a co~npletee n bloc caste voting. Some castes identify with a particular party as their party. It was expected that it would protect their interests. Jats in Western UP identified Lok Dal as their party just not only because tlle leaders of the party were the Jats, but also the party raised the issues concerning the peasants. But'all the Jats did not vote for the party because there were some who were traditional supporters of the Congress, or they perceived their interests differently than other jat peasants which the Jats predo~nina~ltalyre .. In UP 5 1 per cent o f t he SC voters voted for the BSP in the 1998 state asse~nbly elections. 18 per cent voted for the BJP. Tlle vast majority of the BSP SC voters belonged to poor strata and of the BJP from the middle class. While a~lalysingtl le election data, Pushpendra observes, " Occupationally, the BSP's voters are mainly u~lskilledw orkers, agricultural and allied workers, artisans, and small and marginal fanners. Perso~lse ngaged in business and white collar jobs constitute only 2.6 and 1.6 per cent of tlle ESP voters (in LIP)."
In the National Election Survey of the 1972 carried out by Center for tlle Study of Developing Societies a question was asked, " What was your considerations for voting this candidatetpartytsymbol?" For a very insignificant ~lu~nboefr respondents (less tlla~l 1 per cent) candidate's caste was the main consideration. Some of the respondents might have voted for personswho llappened to belong to their caste. But it was not caste voting. They voted for tlle candidate not because hetshe was of their caste irrespective of his party and ability. Tlley,voted for himther because hetshe was the candidate of the party to wllicll the respondent felt closer for variety of reasons including the feeling that the party would "protect histher" interests or the party had done good work for tlle people like himther. Or, they were in touch with the candidate who might have helped them or they feel that he would help them when they need. Their primary consideration is their perception of their interests. In a given alternative partiestcandidates they consider as to who would serve their interests better than others. If the candidate happens to be of their own caste and his/her party is the party, which they identify as theirs, they vote for himther. If they feel that the candidate belongs to that party wl~icl iis either not able to serve tlieir interests or liostile or insignificant in electorate politics, tliey do not vote for that candidate even if he belongs to their caste. That is tlie reason why several caste leaders lose the elections in tlie constituency predominantly beacause of tlieir caste members at one time or anotlier when they change the party or their party loses popularity. Therefore there is no one to one relatiorisliip between candidate's caste and that of the voter's caste.
Politics does not function in vacuum. It operates in society in which it-is_influenced by social forces. Politics influences social forces and change tliern. If political institutions and political leaders make conscious effort in intervening in social forces tliey call infli~encea nd bring clianges in social order and relationsllip to a considerable extent. Democratic politics in lndia has been influenced by caste but it also changed the traditional caste system and its values. Wliile participating in electoral processes at different levels structure and functions of caste has changed. Its traditional aspect of purity and impurity has been co~isiderablyw eakened. Caste has provided i~istitutional. niechanism to tlie poor and t radi t io~ial lyd eprived groups for political participation. Caste has been politicised to pursue economic and social rather than ritual coricerli o f t he members. I n that sense it is a democratic i~icar~iat ioonf c aste. But tliis process has reached an impasse and caught into vicious circle. Political leaders use caste consciousness for ~nobi l isat io~biu t do not pursue vigorously, e c o ~ i o ~ nai cn d social proble~nstl iat the majority ~ n e ~ i i b eor sf tlie caste face. Caste framework lias its ow11 limitations. It is divisive and hierarchical. This is a challenge before tlie caste-oriented politics.
Lecture notes prepared by Biju P R,Assistant Professor in Political Science

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