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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 45, New Delhi, October 26, 2019

Changing Caste-Class Equations: Emergence of a New Politics in India

Monday 4 November 2019


by Kunal Kumar Yadav

The emergence of new caste-class equation in India is a phenomenon which needs serious attention and an indepth analysis. The movement of the lower castes’ affiliation towards the cultural narrative has given a new direction to the political process in India. Caste, as it was seen a decade earlier, has completely changed its structure and interactive mechanism. The new prosperity which has come to India in the post-liberalisation, post-globalisation phase has completely changed the interacting mechanism of one caste group with another. Earlier, caste was synonymous with class in the society and an upper caste almost always belonged to the upper class also. But the changing caste-class equilibrium in the 21st century has given a new direction to the political behaviour of the so- called Homo Hierarchicus, in the words of Louis Dumont.

The analyses of the 16th and the 17th Lok Sabha elections essentially point towards this new phenomenon. Before these elections caste was a direct indicator of the political behaviour of the masses and most of the regional political parties banked on the caste affiliation of the masses for general and State elections. The voters of a particular caste and religion were seen as the vote-banks in India which almost always voted on the caste lines. The Congress, the Left and other regional political parties, like the RJD, SP, BSP, BJD etc. were the chief beneficiaries of the vote-bank politics. Caste and political behaviour were always entangled and any deviance was a far possibility. The caste loyalty almost always changed into political outcome in a very predictable manner due to the governing economics of power and resource- sharing factors. Voting for own’s own caste was considered to be the most rational behaviour by the caste communities. Caste almost always determined the way to power and only through the caste loyal political behaviour, the individual members could maximise their share in the social pool of resources.

But, in the 16th and then the 17th Lok Sabha elections this logic of caste-based political behaviour was completely shattered, at least in the Hindi heartland, where the caste rules. Regional political parties, like the RJD, SP and BSP suffered major setbacks; these traditionally rely on vote-bank politics. The BJP, which is a national political party, was the major beneficiary of this demise of the vote-bank caste-based politics. The BJP’s political agenda revolves around cultural nationalism and during the 16th and 17th Lok Sabha elections, combined with the narrative of development, created a miracle. The politics of cultural nationalism, which is essentially Brahmanical and an extension of upper-caste political narrative, was somehow neutralised by the politically neutral narrative of development. Narendra Modi, as the brand ambassador of development, projected himself as a ‘Vikas Purush’ which was ontologically neutral in terms of caste politics. The RSS projected Narendra Modi as a Hindu leader, coming from a humble background and a backward caste with a promise of development for all. The ontologically neutral projection of Narendra Modi in the popular imagination of the people worked well and people, irrespective of their caste loyalty, found a connection with the cultural nationalist development politics of the RSS-BJP-led Narendra Modi’s leadership.

Moreover, the caste-based political behaviour, which worked so well until the coming of Modi at the national level, suddenly changed its course and found its new manifestation in the cultural nationalism-based development politics of Narendra Modi. The essentialist assumptions of caste got diluted with the nationalist discourse and this produced a marked change in the political behaviour of the people. The question of prosperity, development and corruption-free governance, as promised by Narendra Modi, was a great attraction for the voters irrespective of their caste and class. The growing level of living and prosperity of the people also changed the paradigm of discourse within which the political narrative of caste-based political behaviour was interpreted. The emergence of a new middle class incorporated people from different caste backgrounds and their political aspirations were unified due to their class position irrespective of their castes. This new middle class found an instant connection with Narendra Modi, who came from a humble background but rose to the top ladder of power on his own. This great branding of Narendra Modi by the RSS and the big media houses of India created a charisma which unified people from different caste and class backgrounds to vote for the Modi-led BJP Government.

The caste-class equation has changed considerably in the last five years. The essentialist assumption of the caste which is opposite to that of the fluid and open category of class is binding well together in the last five years. Class has considerably changed the social facts which determine the narrative within which the caste functions. With the rise in the income of the lower caste people, their social status has changed with increased material wealth. Access to better capabilities and functionings has dramatically changed their bargaining capacity in terms of power. Their access to government and government services has increased and the political articulation of their new aspirations doesn’t fit with the old paradigm of caste-based politics. Their demand for better standard of living, better roads, better education, better health services  and better governance needs a government which can deliver. The old caste loyalty in terms politics has been seriously questioned by the caste members themselves and they are looking for a leadership which can address the question of good governance. Caste, which had different concerns a decade ago, has changed its internal narrative in the light of new class position and now the political discourse of this new caste-class is driven by the question of good governance. The old rhetoric of traditional vote- bank-based parties has become redundant in the face of the changed political narrative of the lower castes. The BJP has recognised this new political narrative of the lower castes and it now frames its new political discourse in the light of the aspirations of this new emergent lower caste-based middle class.

This changed political narrative of the lower caste-based middle class has given rise to a new kind of politics in India and the political parties are adapting their political manifestos according to it. The sooner the political parties will adapt to it, the better will it be for them. This is a new India with new political aspiration.

The author, a Ph.D in Political Science, is at the Centre for Political Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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