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'No constituency in India can be won on caste grounds'

May 05, 2009 17:55 IST
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Do you believe Mayawati is not winning because she is getting votes of her caste?

Are Dalits not voting en masse for the Bahujan Samaj Party? Are Indian elections not won essentially with help of caste-based voting? Not at all, says Professor Dipankar Gupta, who has devoted substantive energy and time in understanding class and caste in India. He is a scholar of political sociology at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

His book Interrogating Caste; Understanding Hierarchy and Difference in Indian Society is a must-read for anyone who wishes to understand India.

After Mayawati won the UP assembly election in 2007, Professor Gupta and Yogesh Kumar conducted the study of her historic win. That study appeared under the title When the Caste Calculus Fails.

While analysing the BSP's victory in the UP assembly elections they said it has been incorrectly explained in terms of caste. Mayawati did use caste, but only as a metaphor to build innovative grassroots alliances.

Professor Gupta's latest book The Caged Phoenix: Can India Fly? among other issues, examines why India's phenomenal growth story has not been translated into development.

In March, just before the election campaign commenced, Professor Gupta spoke to's Sheela Bhatt at his home in Vasant Vihar in New Delhi about current politics and the elections.

How do you describe today's voter? What is he thinking?

Like in the past, today's voters are also segregated. There is a big movement from the villages to the cities, much more than we would like to believe. There are a number of people who live in the villages, but do not work there anymore. At one level there is more urban consciousness than we used to have earlier. But the fact of the matter is that on the delivery front, our governments have not done a good job.

I am talking of simple things like education, health, energy and transport without which ordinary people cannot live. We have not been able to provide for that.

Governments have come and gone, but they have not provided a health budget of 3 percent of GDP and an education budget of 5 percent of GDP as promised. There is no audit of delivery. There is an unspent budget in most departments.

I think today's voters should be paying attention to delivery. Unfortunately, voters are not yet interested in the fact that unless the poor are better off, the rich will not be really rich. For the middle class to get rich or for the upper class to have a certain lifestyle on an enduring basis you cannot have or afford the poor at the bottom of the heap. They also have to come up.

Unfortunately, that is not happening. There is a blockage over there. They are slipping through by coming to cities, coming to urban centres. They are not coming with skills. They are not expanding their skills.

A man who comes to the city aged 21 lives up to 60 at the same level with which he came. I wish young voters today will look at these issues. But, I don't know how far they are.

How do you look at young voters's political beliefs? How do they perceive the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress?

There are young voters everywhere. But what is it in our politics that actually helps the young? To help the young you have to help them in speedy development, in terms of jobs and in terms of an outlook towards life which should help her/him have public honesty.

Politics should help young people to think about the larger welfare of society.

Just putting up young people in politics doesn't help. Even young people can think like old people.

Can we say young people will relate more to Rahul Gandhi than L K Advani?

No, I don't think so. A young face may not have young issues. As far as I see the issues raised by the BJP or the Congress doesn't have specifically anything for the young.

The young could identify with Barack Obama because he promised transparency and honesty which the young wanted to see. He had transparency; he talked of accountability, so the young appreciated it.

Mr Advani has said he will bring development through IT. He has promised to give computers for Rs 10,000.

People are unable to buy even a lamp, why talk about computers? People do not take these promises as promises. You should be able to think about a way to change the system and make it more dynamic.

We don't have leaders who have the exuberance and swing on their side to identify with young voters.

There are leaders like Jayalalithaa and Mayawati who have a magical sway over voters. How do you explain that?

They come and go... come and go. They don't expand their vision beyond their region. The seats Mayawati won in 2002, she lost many of them in 2007. The places she won were not always dominated by the scheduled castes.

In India to arrange for 5 lakh (500,000) people is not a problem. You arrange for lunch and you arrange for trucks, then even I can get you 5 lakh people.

The issue is not their hold on the people. The issue should be what kind of government they are offering to the people.

We can only vote for leaders who are available in the political marketplace. Those people who have money, are corrupt and violent. This is the entry price for politics.

What do we do?

I don't know. I can say only two things. Each one of us should be as professional as possible in our personal lives. I am saying professional... not saying be moral, be holy.

If you are a professor, be a good professor. If you are a journalist, then be a good professional journalist. Live up to the job description as a professional. That would help the country a lot.

Second, we should have a very good audit of deliverables. Many people join politics not because they are corrupt; they join politics because they want to be corrupt. I don't care how bad the man is or I don't care how much he drinks at night. As long as he behaves professionally in public and he delivers what he has promised, he is fine.

What is the major change you have seen in the last five years?

I see certain awareness of developmental projects. The anti-incumbency factor is not always working and I see it as a positive sign. Earlier, they were voting out somebody and people came to power by default.

There is a greater awareness about politicians, how they are performing on the ground. Let us see if this trend lasts for two, three elections.

Do you find India changing in some big way?

I don't think we are doing anything extraordinarily different. Our exports are hit. Foreign money has been withdrawn and taken out of India. Our internal market is also not very strong. Our workforce is highly unskilled. These things don't change between two elections.

Also, remember voting in an election doesn't represent anyone's political views.

Very often someone votes for the BJP, but doesn't think like the BJP. Many times a person votes for the Congress, but when girls are attacked in pubs for drinking, they say, "bada achcha hua (good it happened)."

To think that voting means everything is wrong. Voting means a small thing. It's a good bazaar. It's a small thing with respect to our commitment to the process.

Do you think in the last five years the United Progressive Alliance has taken India further?

No, there is no change. In fact, some of the changes that I was hoping for from Mayawati have not come through. Like, I thought she will put more emphasis on training skills for the poor. I am not talking of scheduled castes. Mayawati won in UP because of the poor in all castes. I am waiting to see deliverables to the poor by her.

How do you look at her leadership?

I think with the power base that she has, she could have risen above caste. She gave an indication that she might. But as far as I can see she has not been able to.

She called the bluff of the OBCs (Other Backward Classes). This is something she successfully did. OBCs were basically positioned on the Mandal Commission report. I thought if she could apply brakes there, then it would have a cascading effect in other parts of the country that will see that the OBCs are really a paper tiger.

So far, that has not happened. I wanted to see how she handles the OBC reservation issue. She said she will give reservations to the poor. Let us see.

How do you see Rahul Gandhi as a political force?

He has yet to become a political force. He has all the support, backing and positioning. As of now, he is not a political force. I think so far they don't have a specific agenda.

What you are saying will only enthuse people. What you are doing will create an appeal. See, young people in villages want a job in the cities. What are you doing about that?

Is Narendra Modi doing that?

What are you saying!

In Gujarat, 93 percent of the labour is still in the informal sector. The numbers of skilled labour in Gujarat has not gone up in the last 20 years. The ratio of main and marginal workers remains the same.

Gujarat's progress from 1980 to 2007 is the same. The biggest jump Gujarat made was between 1960 to 1980. It is not that Gujarat is a miracle state.

Modi has done very well because he has been able to use Gujarat's advantages and he has made some advances. People thought he may not be able to make it because he was just the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh type. But he has been able to do a good bit of management.

He has not lost the advantage. He has capitalised on what Gujarat gave him. He has kept Gujarat's image in more or less the same advantageous position as it was earlier. He has done something else that is very interesting.

After the riots, because of the attacks on Gujarat from outside when people said the government is anti-Muslim, Modi turned it around and said they are attacking Gujaratis, so they are attacking me. This is something that Gujaratis fell for. He showed himself as a reluctant secessionist.

'I don't want to be against the country or the government but they are against us. They are putting us down,' was his message. This is what Jyoti Basu also did in West Bengal. That is what made Bengalis protective of Jyoti Basu. He gave the impression that from 1965-1966 onwards the Centre was treating Bengal like a stepson. This is the same thing that Modi has done.

Do you think one day Modi will become a pan-Indian leader?

Not on current form. He doesn't have it in him. He doesn't appear a pan-India leader at all. People of the country won't vote for him. He won't get the 11 percent (Muslim) vote straight. You take that 11 percent out, then you can imagine it is a very tough job.

What does Modi have to offer? Why should I vote for him? He may be trying, going around and talking to people. He may be playing down the anti-Muslim part.

In the Gujarat 2008 exhibition he gave a special kiosk to the Memons, but the hurt of the 2002 riots will not go.

Do you think Sonia Gandhi is now completely Indianised?

When Sonia Gandhi first came into politics I saw an Italian who has come to Indian politics. Over the years, maybe the way she has conducted herself, maybe due to her linguistic skill, I am not sure, but now I don't see her so much as a foreigner.

Now, I see her as a politician with whom sometimes I agree with, sometimes I don't.

The foreigner thing doesn't bug me anymore. It used to bug me when she started off.

Maybe she is very public, she speaks Hindi, whatever it may be, but that foreign element is no longer distracting.

So, if at all she becomes prime minister of India, will she be accepted, more or less?

I am not sure. I think, right now there is no leader in the country who has a pan-India presence, which is why Manmohan Singh is the best bet.

You are doing some research on the voting patterns of Muslims. In Indian elections, we always talk about the Muslim vote bank.

The Muslim votebank does not work. Fatwas don't work. You can still talk about the Muslim factor in a certain fashion, but the caste factor you cannot talk about at all.

There is no constituency -- I repeat -- no constituency in the country where a caste on their own numbers can win an election!

I have done the study, I know. In western UP, which is called Jatland, where there is a concentration of Jats, we saw that the Jat factor alone is not enough.

In Muzzaffarnagar, do you know how many Jats are there? Only 8 percent. In Madhepura, only 18 percent. The Marathas are 34 percent in Maharashtra, but they are divided from amongst the Maoists to the Shiv Sena.

No constituency in India can be won on caste. It is empirically and logically impossible. If you are a diehard casteist, I challenge you to vote in a village anywhere above the gram sabha level only on caste basis. You cannot, it is nonsense. I have written about it.

There is no winning formula. If there was a formula, do you think politicians would lose? Would they face anti-incumbency? Would they run pillar to post to win an election if caste votes were just enough?

Nobody wants to work for the poor and for the people. Still, you want a ticket. So what you say to your party is that I have got my caste people with me, some argue for other castes. You may get a ticket on the basis of caste, but not the vote.

Since journalists hang around politicians, they think caste is everything.

Mayawati's victory has been incorrectly explained in terms of caste. Nothing works in Indian elections. It is different things every election.

In the last UP assembly election, the level of lawlessness changed the mood and poor OBCs were fed up with rich OBCs. Mayawati is not winning on the basis of her 18 percent caste votes. My study proves otherwise. She has lost in places where the scheduled castes are dominant. I did a study in 2007 in Maharashtra, UP and Bihar.

We are not casteist. It is not possible. There are 15 castes in my constituency, how can I vote on caste grounds?

The Muslim factor may still work, but the caste factor doesn't work. But here too if a Muslim leader has not done the job, they shift to a new leader and he or she may not be a Muslim.

Number two, fatwas do not work.

My study includes all the elections after 1990.

Mayawati did use caste, but only as a metaphor to build innovative grassroots alliances. Her victory demonstrated that the concerns of other communities mattered as much as those of the Dalits.

There is no simple correlation between caste and outcome. The electorates are too large and the social interests too diverse for any simplistic caste calculations to hold. Caste is an important factor, but only one of many.

To explain everything in terms of caste robs voters of their secular credentials. Caste cannot logically vote as a block.

Are we becoming modern enough when we go to vote? Are we still voting out of fear or always driven by some emotion, as many BJP leaders claim? Is there any fundamental change in voters?

Basically, people are bad. What makes them good is the law. They think on caste grounds, on regional, family and on kinship grounds. These are a natural tendency. Not just Indians, across the globe, people I have looked at all talk in the same way.

What makes people good is the citizenship. This factor does not work easily. It is always under threat because this natural human tendency to see things in terms of caste, race, ethnicity, language and religion.

What we do is that we make culture as an expansive variable as if it is nature. We keep hearing... Bengalis are naturally like this, Punjabis are just like that, Blacks are like this. This is the way we think.

That is why democracy is always under threat in every society. To make democracy stand the most important thing is to make sure nobody breaks the law. I don't care if someone is racist, but he cannot practice it. That is what democracy means.

My question is: Are we changing? Are voters changing?

So far? No. Give me two elections more, I will let you know.

Are you hopeful about India?

Not yet. Look at the composition of the work force, look at agriculture and industry.

Only three million people work in IT and ITES. That's all. Only 2 percent of Indian household own cars. That's all! What are we talking about? We don't see the entire picture at all.

We are very good at denial. We don't see things we don't want to see. That's why we react to Slumdog (Millionaire). We don't want to see poverty, so, no poverty! But that's not true. We haven't done anything. I am not hopeful.

In fact, as I get older, I am getting more angrier because I find things are getting worse than better. Some parts are getting richer and richer. But I want India to be developed.

Why do people have to go to private hospitals and spend money? Why can't they go to government hospitals? The last big government hospital in New Delhi was AIIMS. Around that there are hundreds of private hospitals. If a person has an illness he worries about money first.

How can you say India is doing well? How can you say that? I am very angry with India.

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