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Caste and Indian politics May 12, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in history, india, media, politics.

How ironic that on the very same day in two of India’s leading newspapers, two of India’s distinguished journalists of roughly very similar political persuasions ( slightly left of centre or liberal in the American sense) have almost diametrically things to say on the same topic !

Here is Vir Sanghvi of the Hindustan Times lamenting why we have almost never got our Presidents for the right reasons, that even when we got the ‘right’ people ( Kalam/KRN ), we got them entirely for the wrong reasons.

My concern, however, is that when it comes to the crunch, political parties will ignore the merit of individual candidates. Once again, we will look for vote-banks. We will dredge up backward and minority candidates from the mists of time. And as soon as the regional parties get involved, negotiation and wheeling and dealing will take over — specially now that Mayawati has emerged victorious in UP. In the process, the world’s largest democracy will end up with some politically correct monument to caste and communal tokenism at Rashtrapati Bhavan. And we will once again not have a President we can be proud of.

And then there is Shekhar Gupta of the Express about why caste is slowly ceasing to matter in Indian politics.

All three missed a central point, the pivot around which the new politics of India is being built. That the days of narrow, vote-bank politics are now over. You can no longer secure 25-27 per cent vote in a fractured polity and rule a state. You now need to broaden your agenda, invite, entice, and include others too. Because it is logical that a fast-developing, fast-urbanising society should also evolve a more cosmopolitan outlook. It is tired of divisive agendas, of being taken for granted.

Well, are we generalizing from very few cases here. Do people think in sync ? I don’t understand elections because I have never voted. While I can think of arguments now, I haven’t really had an opportunity to follow an election as a voter, weighing candidates and parties and issues. Its just been as an observer and an interested citizen. So maybe I am not never the right person to speak on this issue.

But when I see things being written, I am skeptical. When BJP lost in 2004, it was reasoned that their arrogance and ‘divise’ agendas lead to their loss. But then they came back in Punjab/Himachal, it was attributed to anti-incumbency rather than a vote for Hindutva. When non-congress, non-BJP parties lost in the states, it was explained as people being fed up of smaller parties with unclear agendas. When BSP and SP dominated the UP results, it is explained that India’s federal structure makes it harder to parties and leaders with national appeal. ( I wish I could provide references for these allegations I make, but if you have followed Indian politics and commentators, you know what I am talking about. )

In a country as diverse as India, it might require something dramatic ( war, emergency etc. ) to get voters to think in sync, to vote on the basis of limited set of issues. Just think of the past few general elections and ask yourself what the issues were. Its always something vague, anti-incumbent rhetoric, secular/communal bullshit or its about personalities. Its not about specific economic policies or foreign policy and even a larger vision for the country.

Its unfortunate but true – for a young democracy with a large illiterate socially, economically disempowered electorate in a land that is still trying define its identity as a nation, it might be decades before such a thing as caste ceases to matter in elections. Let us not forget that caste has been around much longer than India did, it ain’t going away any soon.

And if Bryan Caplan is right about such a thing as the rational voter myth, we might never get there. And those we think have gotten there, haven’t either.

P.S: But having said that I will any day live with this system than go down the way of some of our sub-continental neighbors.



1. Niladri - June 9, 2007

Well your right , in the absence of a pan Indian agenda its difficult to get all the voters in sync , however caste is and will remain an integral part of the electoral process in India


2. Sharath - June 10, 2007

Thanks for ur comment Niladri…

Can’t agree more with your what you mention.

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