Caste identities in Delhi Assembly stay uniform
One aspect of the Aam Aadmi Party(AAP)’s strength lies in its ability to mobilise across caste and classes in Delhi and to provide access to public goods and services without discriminating any particular group or community. There is an electoral premium in India for chief ministers and government who do not engage in community-based targeting at the exclusion of certain groups.
In fairness, this has been a feature of Delhi politics for long. In his book on Delhi politics before the AAP (Changing Electoral Politics in Delhi: From Caste to Class, 2013), Sanjay Kumar details how major parties’ support bases have always cut across social and economic cleavages, poorer segments of various castes voting preferentially for the Congress and more affluent segments of various groups voting preferentially for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The question this article asks is whether the inclusive character of Delhi politics, and of the AAP in particular, extends to political representation and, therefore, to Delhi’s political class. To answer that question, we look at caste data about MLAs and candidates to state elections, collected by the Trivedi Centre for Political Data.
An upper caste dominated landscape
Upper castes make up roughly 30 to 35% of Delhi’s voting population and since 1993, have held on average 45% of the seats in the Assembly. Their representation briefly declined to 37% in 2008, in the third term of Sheila Dixit, but surged again in subsequent elections, alongside the rise of the AAP.
Among them, Brahmins represent the largest chunk of MLAs, around 15% of the seats. Banias come second and Punjabi Khatri, more associated with the BJP, third.
Among the intermediate castes and the OBCs, only three groups find representation, to the exclusion of every other backward group. Jats frequently make up above 10% of the seats while Gujjars and Yadavs roughly constitute another 10%.
Muslims’ representation is stable, owing to their geographical concentration in a limited number of seats, and SC representation does not go beyond the number of seats mandated by quotas. Sikhs’ presence in the assembly has fluctuated through time.
In the current assembly, half of the assembly’s 70 MLAs belong to the upper castes. 40% of the AAP’s MLAs are upper caste and of the eight BJP MLAs, all but one are upper castes. Besides SC MLAs, Banias represent the second largest group of MLAs, well represented within the AAP and the BJP. Jats follow with 13% of the seats.
A comparison of the caste distribution of the three main parties’ candidates reveal some variations. Nearly one AAP candidate out of four was Brahmin, against 15% for both the BJP and Congress. The Congress and the BJP fielded more Punjabi candidates (mostly Punjabi Khatris), while those did not find much representation on the AAP’s candidates list (6%).
The three parties nominated similar number of Jats (around 15%) and Gujjars (3-5%). Yadavs did not find much place in the BJP roster. Both Congress and AAP nominated five Muslim candidates.
What is the significance of these descriptive statistics, particularly in a state that is not reputed for divisive caste-based politics?
The first observation one can make is that all the groups represented in the assembly are groups that have some demographic importance in the city. Delhi has a large population of upper castes and pockets of concentration of various communities in various parts of the city.
That being said, all these groups are somewhat over-represented by virtue of the exclusion of every other group. Many inhabitants and aspiring politicians in Delhi do not belong to any of these particular groups or castes and find no place in major party politics.
Third, when parties claim to not discriminate or differentiate between candidates on the basis of caste, it tends to produce assemblies that are heavily skewed in favour of traditional elites or of traditionally dominant groups, such as Jats, for instance.
It is particularly visible among the AAP candidates, nearly half of whom being upper caste and nearly half of that half being Brahmins. The caste agnosticism professed by the AAP comes along a representation heavily skewed towards traditional elites.
So, on the one hand, it is well known that the AAP, as a party, has adapted itself to the political and demographic landscape of Delhi and considers caste an important factor in candidate selection. Demography matters, as indicated by the fact that a comparison of the caste identity of MLAs in 2008 and 2020 reveals that the current and then representatives belong to the exact same caste in 52 seats. If one looks at the 43 seats the Congress won in 2008, 30 of the current AAP MLAs in those seats belong to the same caste category.
In other words, the AAP rose by emulating the caste strategies of its opponents, by reproducing their sociology, and even added a greater extent of upper caste preferentialism by advocating caste blindness. This is part of the process of the AAP becoming a conventional Delhi party, rather than an organisation disrupting the rules of the electoral game.
Gilles Verniers is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Ashoka University, Co-Director of the Trivedi Centre for Political Data and Senior Visiting Fellow, Centre for Policy Research. Basim U Nissa is Research Fellow at TCPD. Data collected by Basim U Nissa during the campaign.