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Lok Sabha elections 2019: Why caste trumps class in political strategy

. According to the NFHS, the population share of upper castes, OBCs, SCs and STs in India is 24%, 45%, 21% and 9%, respectively.

lok sabha elections Updated: Apr 04, 2019 08:56 IST
Roshan Kishore and Vijdan Mohammad Kawoosa
Roshan Kishore and Vijdan Mohammad Kawoosa
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Caste politics,upper-caste people,Scheduled Castes
Activists holds portraits of 20th century social reformer BR Ambedkar during a protest in Kolkata.(AFP File Photo)

That caste is an important determinant of a person’s class in India is well known. Statistics from the fourth National Family and Health Survey (NFHS) show that the relative share of upper-caste people among the richest 20% is far greater than that of any other social group — Scheduled Castes (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST) and Other Backward Classes (OBC) — in India. The reverse holds for their share among the poorest 20% in the country. Simply speaking, this means that upper-caste people in India are over-represented among the rich and under-represented among the poor. This trend holds even if one looks at their relative shares at the state level. The upper-caste people are over-represented among the rich and under-represented among the poor in all 22 big states. This analysis excludes small states and union territories other than Delhi. (See chart 1)

These statistics raise an interesting question. If upper castes are largely richer and the non-upper castes largely poorer, then what explains the presence of caste politics but the absence of class politics in India?There is no dearth of political parties with non-upper caste leadership and supporters, especially among OBCs in various states. However, most of these parties do not try to create a rich versus poor polarisation beyond the usual rhetoric.

An HT analysis of NFHS data can help address this. A higher relative share of upper-caste people among the rich does not mean rich upper-caste voters outnumber the non-upper caste rich in most parts of India. According to the NFHS, the population share of upper castes, OBCs, SCs and STs in India is 24%, 45%, 21% and 9%, respectively. To be sure, the NFHS estimates are significantly different from that of the 2011 Census. However the Census does not give caste-wise data except for SC-ST population.

An earlier analysis published on March 27 (Why caste numbers can mislead poll predictions) pointed out that there is a significant regional divergence in the population share of various social groups in India. This also has an important bearing on the interplay between caste and class in India. For example, the share of OBCs in the richest 20% households is more than that of upper castes in 12 out of the 22 big states in India. While part of the reason for this is the higher share of OBCs in total population — for example, 71% of Tamil Nadu’s population is OBC, compared to just 1% upper castes — it is also a function of regional divergence in well-being levels across caste groups in the country. Similar differences can be seen in the share of caste groups among the poorest 20% across states as well. (See Chart 2A and 2B, 3)

This divergence has important political ramifications. If the absolute number of the richest OBCs exceeds that of the richest upper castes in a state, then a party catering to OBC groups has strong incentives to cater to the rich from within its social ranks too. In other words, any bias in favour of the poorer OBC or non-upper caste population might trigger a class conflict not just with upper castes but also the rich within the non-upper castes. In an era where elections are becoming increasingly expensive and parties rely on candidates to spend a lot of money — 82% winners of the 2014 Lok Sabha polls were crorepatis, according to a report by the Association for Democratic Reforms — political parties are often looking for a perfect mix of identity (in terms of caste) and money while looking for candidates.

First Published: Apr 04, 2019 08:41 IST