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'Caste in politics has been a channel of mobility'

May 20, 2009 09:20 IST
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Community and caste are still important in India. If caste was irrelevant for this election then parties would not have taken the trouble to do surveys and calculations on the caste content of each segment of the population and assign candidates to suit each area and its caste composition. Each party has its data bank, which is constantly updated on the detailed caste composition of each segment of the electorate. It is more detailed than any census operation.

Why would the Congress nominate a Bihari to fight elections from a certain seat in Delhi? Why did the Congress go on about Manmohan Singh being the son of Punjab? Why would the Bahujan Samaj Party nominate a Gujjar to fight from South Delhi and the BJP respond by nominating another Gujjar for the same seat?

Does it indicate that caste meant nothing to the parties and to this election? Everyone votes according to certain interests. This could include good governance, low prices and security. This may even dilute caste considerations. But whatever these exceptions or dilutions, the basis of an organisation in India remains caste and community. That is human nature and it cannot be wished away.

Forgetting this does not help us at all. Though caste is treated as a dirty word today, caste in politics has been a channel of mobility. It has meant mobility in politics, just as politics has provided mobility to castes. People forget that the Vokkaligas, Jats, Lingayats, Patels, Reddys are shudras (untouchables). They have been empowered and became part of society thanks to being politically organised. Such empowerment would not have been possible without political organisation on the basis of their caste.

The newer castes which have been similarly empowered through political mobilisation include the Yadavs and Kurmis. That's how we finally got a Yadav chief minister after four decades. It is a phenomenon unique to India. In other countries, people rise economically and socially and then enter politics. But in India, they first get organised politically, become empowered and then rise socially and economically.

In the present election, the Kapus of Andhra Pradesh have found a political platform in the Praja Rajyam party of film star Chiranjeevi. The Kammas had similarly come into the reckoning under the leadership of another actor N T Rama Rao who launched the Telugu Desam Party. And the Praja Rajyam has done quite well for itself.

Merely raising slogans that caste is dead or that it should go out of politics is to ignore the reality. This election was planned meticulously, brick by brick if you like, on the basis of caste alone.

Look further, look at British politics. Even that is influenced by regions and ethnic groups. Indians who have made it to Parliament come from a particular region which is predominantly populated by Indians. Or look at the US. The Black people voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama. If people in these developed countries are not prepared to bury their ethnic, community identities, why should we deny that caste is an important element in our politics? It is better to embrace reality and make the most of it than to delude ourselves.

Ashish Nandy is the author of 'The Romance of the State' 
(As told to Sreelatha Menon)

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