What the 2009 elections have made very apparent is that calculations based on caste do not count when it comes to voters. This was hidden from public view from 1990 till the end of the last century because the OBC movement -- led by Lalu Prasad, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan, among others -- gained strength and gave the casual observer the impression that it was caste that mattered above all for voters.
What people overlooked was the fact that the OBCs are not a homogeneous group internally, nor are the castes that loosely comprise the OBC category congenial to one another. This point needs to be kept in mind for all too often it is believed that Gujjars and Jats or Dhanuks and Kurmis are natural caste allies. In fact, if one were to go to west Uttar Pradesh, Jats and Gujjars will not even share a hookah together.
Additionally, in no assembly constituency, let alone a parliamentary one, is there one caste, or even two castes, which can singly or jointly, determine the electoral outcome on the basis of their numbers alone. Any constituency that is of an assembly size will have around 13-14 castes within it, and the size of each caste group is roughly equal. In Bihar, for example, at the best of times, the Yadavs do not exceed 20 per cent of the voters in Madhepura. In other areas traditionally seen as Yadav strongholds, their strength will not be more than 12-13 per cent. Western Uttar Pradesh too has a small number of Jats, not exceeding 8 per cent but the whole area is popularly believed to be the lair of Jat lions.
The reason why it looked as if the Yadavs controlled eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar and the Jats western Uttar Pradesh was that they were the best-endowed in their respective regions: They were the most-literate, were best-networked, had influential connections in the bureaucracy and in politics, and many among them were running police chowkis and village schools. This is what compelled other communities and castes that were not in the same social bracket to depend on Jats or Yadavs, as the case may be.
A large number of the so-called backward castes are still desperately poor and their lifestyle is no better than that of the indigent Schedule Castes (SC). They are not even thinking of getting comfortable jobs in the private sector or admission into prestigious educational institutions. If they seek employment outside agriculture, and most of them do, they would be happy to get one which pays by the month and not by the hour. They realise that for this to happen they need better schools for their children. Which is why, when Mulayam Singh Yadav and Lalu Prasad failed to deliver, these castes turned around and voted for Mayawati in UP and Nitish Kumar in Bihar.
In 2007, Mayawati won extensively in areas of Uttar Pradesh that were not SC strongholds but were OBC strongholds. Indeed, she lost in some areas where there is a strong SC presence. When various caste groups voted for her, they were actually voting someone else out. But they were not voting on the basis of caste. Caste plays a stronger role in village-level elections, but that is to be expected. But if we take a cluster of villages into consideration, the numerical advantage a caste enjoys in one village is soon negated by another. Hence MLAs and MPs had better think beyond caste if they want to come back the next time around.
Dipankar Gupta is Professor of Sociology, Jawaharlal Nehru University and author of 'The Caged Phoenix: Can India fly?'
(As told to Sunil Jain)