Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 7 May 2024

 Caste comes to the fore in India election battle

Opposition alliance plans first survey since 1931 in drive to galvanise voters against Modi

BENJAMIN PARKIN AND JYOTSNA SINGH PATNA Additional reporting by Andy Lin in Hong Kong · 8 May 2024

India’s opposition political alliance has pledged to conduct the first nationwide census of caste groups in nearly a century if elected in a controversial attempt to galvanise marginalised voters it argues have been left behind by Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata party.

Modi has dominated India’s politics for a decade in part by wooing voters across castes, presenting his party as a unifier of Hindus while stoking mistrust of India’s large Muslim minority.

However, the prime minister’s rivals argue that this has obscured deepening hardship and joblessness among lower caste Indians.

The opposition, a loose alliance of parties known as INDIA, has promised to hold a socio-economic caste census and increase affirmative action and benefits for disadvantaged groups if elected in India’s six-week polls, which end on June 1.

Their campaign builds off a count conducted last year in the vast northern state of Bihar, one of the poorest and most populous. It revealed that lower castes made up a large majority of the state’s population of 130mn and were among its most deprived despite decades of government policies aimed at redressing caste inequalities.

“This is our new revolutionary mission,” Rahul Gandhi, a leader of the opposition Indian National Congress, told supporters last month.

Analysts said the opposition hoped to win over lower-caste voters, who, if the Bihar census is a representative measure, may make up a greater share of India’s 1.4bn population than officially acknowledged.

“This nation is brutally divided on caste and people who have the privilege of being in the upper caste are not willing to jettison it,” said Manoj Jha, an MP from Congress’s Bihar-based ally the Rashtriya Janata Dal. “This caste survey is going to change the grammar forever.”

India’s ancient social hierarchy ranges from the priestly Brahmin caste to Dalits, formerly known as untouchables and now categorised as “scheduled castes”. Other strata in between represent merchants, farmers and labourers. India has sought to abolish caste discrimination by reserving quotas in government jobs and universities for Dalits and later for “other backward classes”.

But until the Bihar survey, authorities had shied away from counting castes out of fear of provoking political upheaval, with the last nationwide data on castes released in 1931.

The survey revealed that lower castes, who made up more than 80 per cent of the state’s population, were disproportionately poor, with nearly half of Dalit families living below the poverty line, compared with a quarter of upper castes.

“The BJP has really succeeded in capturing significant [lower-caste] votes, particularly under Modi,” said Milan Vaishnav, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“The Congress feels that by making this demand it can claw them back to their side.”

But analysts cautioned that the opposition could struggle to convince voters on the merits of a nationwide caste census.

The BJP’s rivals “are doing casteism”, said Kumari Saniya, a 21-year-old engineering student from a privileged caste in Patna, the capital of Bihar, and a supporter of the ruling party. “If you divide people on the basis of caste, that triggers fights among people.”

Modi, the lower-caste head of a traditionally upper-caste party, has sought to present himself as a leader who rises above the divisions of caste to serve India’s poor.

The prime minister has boosted welfare spending for the poor, such as through cash transfers and free food schemes. He has criticised Congress, portraying its calls for a caste census as part of a “hidden agenda” to divide Hindus and have their wealth and benefits “snatched away and given to Muslims”.

But critics said the BJP’s claims to overlook caste ignored the insidious role the system continued to play in modern India. While overt segregation — including “untouchability” — is outlawed, the inequity of caste is often apparent, even in the layout of Bihar’s villages. Different castes live in separate streets in Parsa Bazar, a village on Patna’s outskirts, with the multistorey brick houses of more prosperous groups giving way to the dilapidated lanes lacking lavatories, home to Dalits.

Nishant Kumar, a 28-year-old Dalit, is studying for entry to Bihar’s civil service through a quota. He has been told by his upper-caste ex-girlfriend that her father would never support their marriage.

“If you ask upper castes, they say there should be no caste-based reservations,” he said. “As long as there’s discrimination on the basis of caste, reservations must continue.”

Others said addressing caste inequity would require more than affirmative policies alone. Baleshwar Majhi, a 65year-old Dalit, said benefits such as government jobs were accessible only to those with connections or money for bribes. Whichever party won the election, that reality would not change, he added. “Reservations don’t help,” he said. “The benefits don’t reach the poor.”

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