Dialogue October- December, 2007, Volume 9  No. 2


Caste, Politics and Votes in India


A. Surya Prakash*



Nearly sixty years ago Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, who chaired the committee that drafted India’s Constitution had warned that our democracy would be in peril if it failed to ensure the political empowerment of the downtrodden classes. Summing up the work of the Constituent Assembly during the final reading of the Constitution in November, 1949, he said castes are “antinational” because they bring about separation in social life and because they generate jealousy and antipathy between caste and caste. “We must overcome all these difficulties if we are to become a nation in reality”.

        Dr. Ambedkar said so long as people were divided into several thousand castes, we were cherishing a “great delusion” in believing that we were a nation. “The sooner we realize that we are not as yet a nation in the social and psychological sense of the word, the better for us”. Only then would we seriously think of ways and means of realizing this goal he said adding that India would gel as a nation only when we make our political democracy a social democracy as well. Political democracy cannot last unless there lies at its base, social democracy. On the social plane we have in India a society based on the principle of graded inequality which means elevation for some and degradation for others. “Without equality, liberty would produce the supremacy of the few over the many”. How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril. “We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy which this assembly has so laboriously built up” he warned. A year earlier, while introducing the Draft Constitution in the Constituent Assembly in November, 1948, Dr. Ambedkar told the assembly that constitutional morality was not a natural sentiment. It was something that had to be cultivated. “Democracy in India” he had warned was only “a top-dressing on an Indian Soil, which is essentially undemocratic”.

        It is difficult to find a more perceptive mind that could honestly discuss the social and political situation in the immediacy of India’s freedom and draw out the road map for the survival of democracy in the country. There can be no doubt that the creation of a fair and just political system depended on the equalisation of political opportunity in the country.

I wish to tell Dr.Ambedkar, where ever he is now, that to a large measure we have, more by accident than design, succeeded in converting our political democracy into a social democracy.   The formation of regional and caste-based parties and the splintering of major political parties like the Congress Party and the Janata Dal over the last three decades have ensured the political empowerment of many castes and classes which were hitherto in the hinterland of political power. All this has also meant the translation of social diversity into political diversity and brought about a dramatic change in the social composition of our democratic bodies. For example, there were just 12 political parties in the Second Lok Sabha in 1957. This has now risen to 42 political parties in the year 2007.

       The emergence of new parties signify the political empowerment of  neglected groups. Secondly, the Lok Sabha is today a far more representative body than it was a half a century ago. For example in the First Lok Sabha which came into existence in 1952, 51 per cent of the members were lawyers, doctors, journalists and writers. Lawyers had such a big share of seats (more than one-third of the House) that one wondered whether the India of the 1950s was a nation of lawyers. Similarly, traders and industrialists had won 12 per cent of the seats while agriculturists (though India’s economy was mostly agrarian) had just 22.50 per cent of the seats. All this has changed over the years and we now see the occupational democratization of the Lower House of our Parliament. For example, the number of lawyers, doctors, journalists and writers in the Lok Sabha had fallen to 14 per cent in recent years. Traders and industrialists are down to about 2 per cent whereas agriculturists had come to occupy half the seats in the House. Though the Lok Sabha Secretariat does not maintain caste-wise data of members, the rising political empowerment of persons practicing different occupations is an indicator of the growing assertiveness of the intermediate castes and the Dalits and their rising strength in democratic bodies.                                                                                                                       

    These statistics indicate the equalization of political opportunity and the rising empowerment of hitherto underprivileged social groups. However what buttresses the statistical analysis is the political ground reality. India has seen the emergence of a large number of new political parties – some regional, some caste-based - over the last three decades and the new parties have made our democracy more participatory. Everyone is now getting sucked into the democratic circus, thus reducing the scope for disillusionment with democracy. Among the new political parties are Ms.Mayawati’s  Bahujan Samaj Party, representing Dalit interests, the Lok Janshakti Party of Mr.Ram Vilas promoting the interests of Dalits in Bihar, the Rashtriya Janata Dal   floated by Mr.Lalu Prasad Yadav to safeguard the interests of  backward castes like Yadavas in Bihar and a couple of  political parties floated in Andhra Pradesh and Assam to safeguard Muslim interests. In addition, we have the Janata Dal (Secular) headed by Mr.Deve Gowda in Karnataka, which has a strong Vokkaliga vote base, the Telugu Desam launched by the late Mr.N.T.Rama Rao in Andhra Pradesh, which has a strong Kamma vote base and the Janata Dal (United) in Bihar which has politically empowered people from castes such as Kurmis and Keoris. There are also regional parties with influence across castes like the Trinamool Congress of Ms.Mamata Bannerjee in West Bengal and the Telengana Rashtra Samithi in the Telengana region of Andhra Pradesh. These developments have helped draw different caste and social groups into electoral politics and ensured them seats in democratic bodies. Though the splintering of political parties and the emergence of caste-based parties has put a question mark of governance and political stability, there can be no denying that the participation of more and more groups across the social spectrum in the democratic process has enhanced the chances of survival of the democratic system itself.  

Apart from backward castes, the growth of regional parties and the end of one-party rule at the federal level and in the states has meant greater participation of people from different regions of India. This is put an end to centrifugal tendencies in states like Tamil Nadu where the people felt that the dominance of politicians from the Hindi heartland deprived them of a legitimate share in political power at the Centre. The end of one-party rule has also meant the advent of the coalition era and political power at the federal level for many regional outfits like the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the Telugu Desam. These developments have put the brakes of anti-Hindi sentiments in the non-Hindi speaking areas and contributed in no small measure to the political integration of India.

But in all this, I regard the success of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in the recent election to the Uttar Pradesh Assembly as the most significant and as an event that has far reaching implications for the future of democracy in India. The success of the B S P in this election symbolizes the political empowerment of one of the most oppressed and disadvantaged social groups any where in the world. It constitutes the bloodless and peaceful transfer of political power from a class of people who were considered to be oppressors to a class of people who were the oppressed. This must truly be the most remarkable story of the triumph of democracy.

Though the Dalits have had reservations in democratic bodies, government jobs and educational institutions, the reins of political power have never been in their hands. Every political party pays lip sympathy to the cause of Scheduled Castes but the levers of power have invariably been with the Hindu Upper Castes and dominant Middle Castes. Therefore, a clear majority in the recent election to the Uttar Pradesh Assembly for the BSP, symbolizes the first-ever clear transfer of power from the Hindu upper crust to one of the most oppressed and disadvantaged social groups in the world. However belated this development may seem, it is certainly a significant milestone in India’s democratic journey over the last six decades and will hopefully minimize the bitterness amongst this section of the country’s population over the tardy efforts of the Indian State to equalize opportunities.

Ironically, though Dr.Ambedkar made the first attempt to politically mobilize the dalits, he met with little success whether it was the Labour Party that he launched in the 1930s or the Republican Party which he founded much later. The idea eventually took off in the mid 1980s, a good 30 years after Dr.Ambedkar’s death when the late Mr.Kanshiram decided to try it out. Mr. Kanshiram, who founded the BSP, prepared the ground for a Dalit political party through the Backward and Minority Communities Employees Federation (BAMCEF) that was established about three decades ago. As this organization grew in strength, Kanshiram took the first step towards formation of a political party when he established the Dalit Shoshit Samaj Sangarsh Samithi (D S– 4) in the early 1980s. DS-4 became a code for Dalit political empowerment and it made its presence felt for the first time in Uttar Pradesh prior to the Lok Sabha election held in 1984. During that election, as the Congress Party rode a massive sympathy wave consequent to the assassination of Indira Gandhi, Dalit youth painted the walls in Eastern and Central Uttar Pradesh with this secret code that stood for Dalit political aspirations and bonding. DS-4 metamorphosed into a full-fledged political party in 1985. Initially the party’s two top leaders –Mr.Kashiram and Ms.Mayawati – focused on consolidation of Dalit votes. Once this was achieved, they roped in the Muslims and the BSP was promoted as a Dalit-Muslim party. This strategy paid off because in the Lok Sabha election held in 1999, the party secured 14 seats and 22.08 per cent of the vote in the state. But, while the BSP had a firm grip on the Dalit vote, it found that it had to share the Muslim vote with the Samajwadi Party. The division in the Muslim vote did not give the BSP the clear lead it was looking for over the Samajwadi Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Its share of the popular vote in the state remained in the 22-24 per cent band, which was inadequate for it to gain a clear majority in the assembly elections.

In the First-Past-The-Post System, whenever there are two major political parties or coalitions and a few smaller parties in the fray, a party or coalition will need around 42 - 45 per cent of the popular vote to secure a clear majority in the legislature. Over the last two decades, the political scene has got crowded with the emergence of several regional and caste-based parties with vote banks big enough to take on the biggies like the Congress and the BJP. This has led to triangular and quadrangular contests and has substantially brought down the percentage of votes needed by a party or coalition to secure a clear majority. For example in Uttar Pradesh where you have four prominent parties in the contest, the threshold could be as low as 30 per cent. Aware of this relationship between votes and seats, the BSP decided over a year ago to enlarge its social base just enough to cross this threshold. Though the party was built on a hate-Upper Castes slogan, Ms.Mayawati offered the live branch to the Brahmins because she perceived the newly-empowered Other Backward Castes as the bigger evil.  The party held several Brahmin Sammelans and laid the ground for the Dalit-Muslim-Brahmin vote base that eventually helped the party in the recent election. It also took BSP’s vote share from the 22-24 per cent band to just over 30 per cent – enough in a quadrangular electoral battle to obtain a clear majority.    

We are indeed lucky to see the transfer of political power in the country’s largest state to the Dalits with our democratic system and Constitution still intact because Maoists and other radical left groups have been tempting Dalits for a long time to join them in wrecking the democratic system. Despite this, the commitment of a majority of the Dalits to the democratic process speaks volumes of the patience and resilience among a people who have put up with some of the worst humiliations that man can inflict on man. Their endurance is indeed remarkable because even in 1949 Dr.Ambedkar had declared that the downtrodden classes were “tired of being governed” and were therefore “impatient to govern themselves”, In his view, the sooner room is made for the realization of their aspiration, the better for the country, for its independence and for the continuance of its democratic structure. “This urge for self-realisation in the downtrodden classes must not be allowed to devolve into a class struggle or class war” he had warned. .

It has taken the Dalits 60 years to get the opportunity “to govern themselves”, at least in one state. Fortunately, the Dalit party has come to power riding on a rainbow coalition. This electoral success of the BSP can have considerable social and political implications. It can now offer to extend this coalition experiment to other states provided the Brahmins and others who are at the top of the Hindu caste hierarchy are willing to work with it to eliminate social inequalities. Apart from Uttar Pradesh, the BSP has been making its presence felt in Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir and Haryana. As we go along, it could set its sights on other states like Rajasthan, Bihar and Karnataka. If this happens, the BSP could become the first “regional” party to acquire a national footprint and unsettle national parties like the Congress and the BJP, which have never factored in the prospect of having another contender for the pan-Indian vote.   

Therefore, willy-nilly we appear to have addressed the concerns voiced by Dr.Ambedkar while drafting India’s Constitution and ensured that political democracy also becomes a social democracy. The flip side of all this is of course fears of   instability but that seems a bit exaggerated if one sees the remarkable manner in which over a dozen or even two dozen political parties have combined to offer the country stable coalitions at the national level since 1998.   


Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

              Astha Bharati