Saturday, March 8, 2014

Caste as Myth: Towards an 'Updated' Political Analysis to Understand Voters’ Behaviour in Bihar

A scene of voting in progress in a Bihar village during Assembly Elections, 2010
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My point of reference is my native state of Bihar, which is undergoing some kind of social and political churning before the Lok Sabha elections of 2014. As per the common and traditional wisdom, socio-political analysts of all hues and of all levels seem to be trying to make the sense of it all from the caste configurations of the state. After all, Bihar has the dubious distinction of being known as a ‘caste-conscious’ society where it is presumed that voters vote as per their caste affiliations.

But it appears that Bihar, and for that matter India, need political analysts who can look at the broader political discourse that impacts the micro political and electoral strategies. Recently, when the renowned Sociologist Prof. Dipankar Gupta suggested on CNN-IBN that political parties may put candidates keeping caste configurations in mind, the voters ultimately are not able to vote only on the basis of caste. It is so, Prof. Gupta argued, because even if they wish to, since there are generally candidates of different castes in the fray, they have to ultimately vote beyond caste considerations. 

Prof. Dipankar Gupta
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His analysis sort of went off the mind of Rajdeep Sardesai, who simply could not understand such a nuanced sociological interpretation of electoral politics, and he hurriedly dodged it to carry on with his run-of-the-mill discussions on ‘runner-of-the-mill’ poll surveys. I think it is time that younger political analysts look beyond caste to analyse elections, because there are deeper considerations at work which they might be missing only because they have been nurtured on the belief that voters vote only according to their caste/community/religion.

In her paper titled Studying Elections in India: Scientific and Political Debates, Dr. Stéphanie Tawa Lama-Rewal, a research fellow in the Centre for the Study of India and South Asia (CNRS-EHESS, Paris), currently on deputation to the Centre for Social Sciences and Humanities, refers to the work of the political scientists Amit Ahuja and Pradip Chibber, to underline the different motivations for the act of voting among different classes of voters and states:
Ahuja and Chibber identify three broad social groups, defined by three distinct ‘interpretations’ of voting. They argue that ‘differences in the voting patterns of opposite ends of the social spectrum exist because each group interprets the act of voting differently’. Thus the act of voting is considered as a ‘right’ by the groups who are on the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum—the ‘marginalized’; as an ‘instrument […] to gain access to the state and its resources’ by those in the middle of that spectrum—the ‘State’s clients’; and as ‘civic duty’ by those at the top—‘the elite’ (Ahuja & Chibber 2009: 1-9). [Ahuja, Amit; Chhibber, Pradeep (nd) ‘Civic Duty, Empowerment and Patronage: Patterns of Political Participation in India’, on 21 November, 2009)]
Dr. Stéphanie Tawa Lama-Rewal
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This emphasis on class motivations explains what Prof. Dipankar Gupta tried to put forth in terms of the role of castes in Indian elections, and the same view point is presented more analytically by the noted political analyst, Yogender Yadav, thus in his article , Six Myths About Indian Elections, under the sub-heading for one of the ‘myths’  ‘Indians Don’t Cast Their Votes, They Vote for Their Castes’:INDIANS DON'T CAST THEIR VOTE, THEY VOTE THEIR TE
It is true that caste is one of the major determinants of voting behaviour in India. In certain situations when voters are extremely polarised, it appears to be to the sole consideration.

But the fact is that caste is not quite the sole consideration.

It is certainly untrue that defeat and victory for political parties in elections can be explained by a few caste or community groups switching sides from one party to another.

The reason many feel that caste is powerful is because we use the phrase "caste based vote bank" to mean many things.

A caste vote can also be a vote against a candidate of a voter's own caste in favour of a party considered closer to their caste.

So if a person belonging to the Yadav caste in Bihar votes for a Congress party candidate because the candidate is a Yadav himself, it is an example of caste voting.

If the same person were to vote for a candidate belonging to the Bhumihar caste put up by the regional Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) - which largely represents the Yadav caste - it would be also an example of caste voting.

The evidence on caste voting suggests that caste tends to be a major determinant, specially among the large, visible and powerful caste groups.
The caste-vote trend is towards voting for a party that is considered to be close to their caste or community group.

But the fact remains that most voters in most constituencies in India do not have a simple option of voting along caste lines.

Either they have more than one candidate from their own caste or they have none.

They simply cannot vote according to their caste. There has to be a consideration other than caste for almost three-quarters of the voters.

Caste provides us with good information on the initial affiliations of social groups. But across two elections, the increasing votes for one party or defeat of another is not explained by castes changing sides.

When a party goes up in popularity or declines in popularity, it usually wins and loses votes across castes.
            (emphasis mine)

Prof. Yogender Yadav
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Then to get back to Stéphanie Tawa Lama-Rewal, (who studies the functioning of democracy in today’s India through two main themes: the political representation of groups in that democracy; and urban governance) we need to ponder also on the basic complexity and concern of Indian political and electoral reality, which relates to the concentration of power among the few privileged. She refers to a paper of Suhas Palshikar and Sanjay Kumar to make the point that despite the perceived rise of the marginalised communities in political power structures, the ground realities have not changed much. To quote:

They conclude that ‘comparison across social sections shows that a broader entry of the underprivileged into the political arena is much more limited, even today, than the entry of the more privileged social sections’ (Palshikar & Kumar 2004: 5414). [‘Participatory Norm: How Broad-based Is It?’, Economic and Political Weekly, 18 December, pp. 5412-17.]

This should egg the political analysts to ponder that while the political leaders may have their vested interest in keeping the political discourse caste centric without disturbing the fundamental political power structures that exist, the political/electoral analysts, on their part, need to, and have the obligation to, go beyond the same to open up new perspectives on ground realities of voters’ motivations and behaviour. A more thorough examination on this line will bear out that contrary to the belief that the caste/community considerations prevail over Indian electoral process (this is being said about the electoral process and about the democratic process as such), actually speaking, caste/community affiliations and assertions have to bend before the greater electoral dynamics. This should be, however, made clear here that this does not mean that caste-system and caste discrimination do not exist or electoral dynamics are not caste-oriented, rather it may only mean that despite that being the case the electoral process requires a strategy beyond that.

--Kumar Vikram