When backward is forward

Updated on May 14, 2007 05:20 AM IST
For Psephologists, village India is racked by caste wars and each caste is battling against another in a constant struggle for supremacy and that’s where they go wrong, writes Dipankar Gupta.
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Mark Twain famously said that there are lies, damn lies and statistics. Substitute statistics for psephology and the adage still rings true. But strictly speaking psephologists are not liars but in error. They believe what they say and are always shocked when they get it wrong. The error is not in the stars but in the way psephologists look at Indian society. For them village India is racked by caste wars and each caste is battling against another in a constant struggle for supremacy. So statistics pour out of the psephologist’s machine that announce, for example, that 21 per cent Lodhs voted for the Samajwadi Party and 50 per cent Brahmins for BJP, and so on. In doing so psephologists make three cardinal mistakes, perhaps in the belief that if two wrongs don’t make a right, let’s try for the third.

The first error is that psephologists either don’t realise that there are far too many castes even in an assembly constituency than there are candidates. So even a die-hard casteist voter will, in all likelihood, have to opt for someone who does not belong to the same ‘jati’. There are roughly 20-25 such castes in each constituency and not an equal number of serious contenders for power. So rural voters have to eventually decide on a candidate on matters other than the caste to which he/she belongs. There is just no other option. It is hardly as if there is one candidate for every caste in every constituency.

Psephologists make their second error when they say that each caste issues a kind of whip commandeering its members to vote for one party or the other. According to them, the rural Indian cannot think independently and responds slavishly to the call of caste. This is a ridiculous idea. Anyone who is familiar with village India will know that not only is the bush telegraph more fiction than fact, but so is the idea of a bumbling rural idiot. The everyday village voter is not hopelessly tied to cultural genes. He considers other variables before approaching the ballot box.

As this point is missed out by psephologists, they see no problem in churning out figures like 21 per cent Lodhs voted for the Samajwadi Party and 50 per cent Brahmins for BJP. Even if one accepts these spurious facts, the psephologists should have logically gone on to inquire into whose arms have the remaining 79 per cent Lodhs and 50 per cent Brahmins fled? Why did they vote differently? Surely, these are good follow-up questions, but psephologists never ask them.

As a consequence of the first two errors, the psephologist commits the further mistake in believing that on account of the purity-pollution hierarchy, OBCs like Gujjars and Jats, or forwards like Brahmins and Baniyas, or Scheduled Castes, Harijans and Valmikis spontaneously strike a political accord. So if there is a caste correlation that appears to fit this mould even partially, no further explanation is required.

The truth again is very different. Gujjars are not the natural allies of Jats just because both are clubbed as OBCs rather generously by Mandalites. Jats hate Gujjars and this sentiment is reciprocated. There are Gujjar tales of Jat opportunism and Jats have popular fables of alleged Gujjar cowardice. Similar discords exist between Baniyas, Brahmins and Rajputs as between members of different Scheduled Castes. If there is a single feature that characterises caste relations across the board it is one of ‘mutual repulsion’.

Now we are ready to appreciate why the recent poll predictions were almost entirely in error. None of the psephologists predicted that the BSP would get an absolute majority simply because they fractionated voters minutely by caste. These pollsters would have done better if they had asked on what grounds members of different castes coalesce politically. As the UP election has shown, jati loyalty is not the key. The emergence of a degree of caste correlation with electoral outcome is because economic, social and structural considerations bring otherwise hostile jatis together in caste blocks or clusters.

Mayawati knows only too well that caste battles are fought on shifting sands. It is much better to seek partners who have common enemies and common aspirations, and hang prior enmities. As both upper castes and scheduled castes see the OBC threatening their lives and livelihood, it makes good political sense to get these traditional polar opposites together. This is a truth that Mayawati grasped easily but it escaped the psephologist who is burdened by elitist textbook readings of caste.

As Indian society is just coming out of the natural economy of a stagnant village, there is still the hangover of the past in terms of occupations and secular opportunities. Scheduled castes who were not allowed to own land or train themselves in socially valuable skills are even today at the bottom of the heap. Their aspirations are, therefore, quite different from those of the Jats, Gujjars, Kurmis and Koeris.

These so-called ‘backwards’ still call the shots in rural India because they are educationally and economically better-off than the scheduled castes and, hence, better networked with state agencies and functionaries. As they have greater control over state resources, they corner a larger chunk of its largesse as well. Not surprisingly, they are also the primary sponsors of the pro-Mandal movement. It is widely known that some of the worst thugs in Uttar Pradesh come from the fold of the ‘backwards’, but what should be equally appreciated is that the village-based scheduled castes face the brunt of their violence.

Brahmins and Baniyas matter little to the poor rural Dalits. These so-called ‘forwards’ are physically scarce and politically insignificant in rural India. Land reforms and sub-division of holdings drove the traditional upper castes away from the village. They left behind a vacuum that was energetically filled by the ‘backwards’. It is, therefore, easier for the so-called ‘forwards’ to link with scheduled castes, and vice-versa, today because they have no secular interests that pit them against each other. If each of these three major caste categories, the ‘forwards’, ‘backwards’ and scheduled castes, are politically significant, as in this election, it is because powerful secular interests bind them together. It is caste blocks such as these that function as political actors and not fractionated entities like Lodhs, Kurmis, Brahmins, Baniyas, etc.

In the not too distant future, these large unities might get internally differentiated. This would then prompt leaders like Mayawati to reinvent themselves and find new friends and enemies, with secular arithmetic and caste chemistry as their guides.

But psephologists need to reinvent themselves in a hurry. By insisting on the pre-eminence of caste round the clock during election time they are not only wrong, but also dangerous. Incorrect though they are on every count, they succeed, however, in a somewhat devious way. They are successfully able to pander to popular prejudice by continuously harping on individual caste identities. It is in this sense that they play a negative social role that borders on the subversive.

Dipankar Gupta is Professor of Sociology, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi


    Dipankar Gupta taught sociology for nearly three decades in Jawaharlal Nehru University before taking voluntary retirement in 2009. He has written and edited 19 books on a variety of subjects ranging from ethnicity to on agrarian politics, caste to modernisation. He enjoys writing for the press for he believes that it sharpens his understanding of issues as he is now compelled to write for the non-specialists.

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