Well before he became a Mahatma, Mohandas Gandhi had advocated that every Hindu follow the hereditary profession of his caste. Later in life, he realised how crippling the system was, and wanted it destroyed, “root and branch”, by Brahmins marrying “untouchables”.
In the seventh decade after independence, intermarriage is more common than it was, but caste has proved far tougher to uproot than expected. And political parties, however inclusive, have used this to their advantage.
While some observers like sociologist MN Srinivas consider the increasing influence of caste in politics detrimental to democracy, others like American political scientists I Rudolf and SH Rudolf feel it is essential to advance the political process.
In their book Modernity and Tradition, they say caste politics in India has reduced the distinction among social groups and has brought about political equality among members of different castes.
Whatever you believe, caste compositions bring out the mathematician in even illiterate voters. And psephologists try to sum up the jaat ganit (caste arithmetic) for political parties to capitalise on, subtly or blatantly.
“The caste factor has without doubt defined the performance of the parties in the past elections,” said Badri Narain of the Allahabad-based GB Pant Institute, an expert on dalit issues.
A term that is widely being used to mean caste mobilisation is social engineering.
The Bahujan Samaj Party is widely credited for applying to win dalit votes in Uttar Pradesh, but Tamil Nadu had applied this formula in the 1960s with an allegedly anti-Brahmin formula.
Barring tribal states and communist bastions, the caste factor plays a crucial role from distribution of tickets to outcome of polling.
The more dominant a caste, higher is its share in power. Haryana, for instance, had 13 out of 20 governments led by a Jat chief minister because Jats account for 25% of the state’s electorate. Catering to non-Jat voters helped form the other seven governments.
In adjoining Punjab, politics revolves around Jat Sikhs, Hindus and Banias. But political parties are aware of how potent 32% scheduled caste communities are in the state. Rajasthan too has 55% backward castes and 21% upper castes on either side of the spectrum.
Caste politics is nowhere as animated as in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. In these two states, a candidate is chosen on the basis of caste configurations in a constituency.
BSP chief Mayawati had prior to the 2007 assembly elections in UP said: ‘Jitni jiski sankhya bhaari, utni uski hissedari (seat share should be proportional to population)’. It helped her party, viewed as ultra pro-dalit, win over Brahmins and other upper castes.
Mayawati’s practicality is reflected in the choice of candidates for Mandate 2014 by various political parties in Bihar.
As on Tuesday, tickets were given to 45 candidates from extremely backward castes and mahadalits (downtrodden) who together form more than 40% of the state’s population.
Yadavs, a powerful backward caste, have been nominated in 22 seats while Muslims have only 14 candidates despite accounting for 16.5% of the state’s total vote percentage.
But population figures can be misleading. For instance, Yadavs constituting 13% of Bihar’s population play a decisive role in four seats (Saran, Patliputra, Madhepura and Khagaria) constituencies while Paswans – they are classified differently from 21 other SCs – with 4% population dictate terms in six (Gaya, Jamui, Sasaram, Gopalganj, Samastipur and Hajipur).
See PDF: How caste holds the key in Lok Sabha elections
Dalits are more decisive in UP. They decide the outcome in 36 of the state’s 80 parliamentary seats where their voting strength is more than 20%.
In the tribal states of the northeast and central India, caste takes a backseat. In Jharkhand, half the Lok Sabha seats are reserved (five for STs and two for SCs) leaving little room for casteist or ethnic manipulations.
But the permutations come into play in the non-reserved seats such as Dhanbad, Ranchi, Koderma, Jamshedpur and Giridih where the upper castes influence the voting pattern and stand a better chance of being nominated.
Across the seats, the 12% Muslims go for ‘strategic voting’. In Himachal Pradesh too, tribes play a significant role in the Mandi seat.
But the bottomline is: most Indians do seem to vote their caste while casting their votes.