Caste is one social reality of India, which is present either overtly or covertly in our everyday lives. Modernity, market, migration and mobility sometimes obscure it for some moments but it re-emerges after some time. Caste is perpetuated and kept alive by both the Hindu Brahmimical system and by the modern democratic electoral processes.
The ruling powers, be it the colonial power in the pre-independence period or the Indian government post-independence, always used caste as instruments of governance both before and after elections, whether it was for colonial census or as statistical measures for deciding development and reservation quotas.
In this process, caste is continually reinforced in our everyday lives. In the present context, when the share in the ruling power is determined by numbers under the democratic electoral-based system, the decision of the Indian government to go for caste census will once again rejuvenate the caste system.
However, it is worth noting that while on one hand caste is a divisive force in social life, on the other hand it has empowered the dalits and other marginalised castes. That is why, while Ambedkar spoke of ‘abolition of caste’, Kanshiram saw caste as a double-edged sword and used it to invert the social pyramid existing in UP so as to empower the dalits.
The assembly elections in UP, scheduled for 2012, will be held at a critical time since both the central and the state governments are going through extremely trying times on all fronts and the question of foresight in democracy is being aggressively raised again and again.
Today when the issues of corruption, acquisition of farmers’ land, inflation, rise in atrocities on dalit women despite the presence of a dalit woman chief minister are sweeping the nation, will the issue of caste be obliterated in the elections? Perhaps not. Caste will continue to remain the chief basis of all the political parties and they will continue to use it to influence politics.
While the two major political parties in the fray in UP in the forthcoming elections, namely the SP and BSP, already have caste as their election agenda, the Congress and BJP will also try to restore their traditional caste bases in UP which mainly comprised the upper castes. In addition they will also try to break the caste bases of the existing parties of UP by forming new caste alliances and associations.
For example, along with the upper castes, the Congress might try to enhance its attempts to woo the non-Chamar dalit castes like Pasi, Dhobi, Dhanuk and Kori. The elections might also witness a conflict among the political parties regarding OBCs. The Congress might try to consolidate the OBC vote by cashing in on the reservations provided to them by its government, while the BJP might try to form an alliance of backward castes and upper castes by bringing in charismatic backward caste leaders like Uma Bharti and Vinay Katiyar and other upper caste leaders.
There might also be a stiff competition between the Congress and the BJP over the votes of the backward castes during the forthcoming elections. Under its new concept of ‘sarvajan’ the BSP might also try to strengthen the vote bank of dalits, chiefly the Chamar and the Brahmin alliance and alongside also try to woo the marginalised castes and Muslims.
A few castes like the Chamars and Yadavs will boldly remain with the BSP and SP respectively but the Brahmins, Thakurs, Patels and Pasis — which are politically ambitious — will be divided into many fragments. The small castes in the Bahujan category may possibly break away from the BSP.
Thus the elections may see the emergence of several new caste alliances and the issues that have assumed huge proportions today will continue to shape the caste-based politics in the state.
The reason for this might also be that the opposition in UP does not have any leader who can go from village to village in UP and turn the issues facing the state, like the land acquisition of farmers and corruption etc., into people’s issues.
The spark that appeared in the Congress due to the efforts of Rahul Gandhi was not ignited because he himself did not remain focused on these issues and make them people’s issues.
Secondly, although the Congress tried to squelch the ongoing issue of corruption it is itself caught in its trap after the central government started facing several charges of graft. In this situation it might not be successful in making the issues of land acquisition and corruption its election issues.
The BSP has also not been successful on the front of governance in UP and is also fighting against various charges of corruption.
In this situation caste will remain the only basis for all the political parties in the forthcoming elections and, like earlier, will continue to influence democracy in UP.
Liberation from caste would only have been possible if the opposition parties had the will power to make the issues of corruption, land acquisition, poor governance, etc. their electoral agendas, which none of them have.