The Role of Caste in Indian Elections
‘Jaati na Poocho Sadhu ki, Pooch lijiye gyaan’ is a part of a doha (couplet) by an Indian mystic, poet and saint Kabir Das, which directly translates to – ‘Do not judge a saint by their caste, but ask for their knowledge’. Yet, this doha is categorically ignored in Indian elections, when the most-asked question during an election is about the candidate’s surname, caste or religion and not what they have to offer or the values they will bring to the table. From political analysts to voters, everyone has this question on their mind, which is why the candidates standing in an election want to play their caste game right.
So, what do you think of, when you first hear the word caste?
It may be anything, literally. Albeit in the contemporary world, it mostly has a negative connotation attached to itself; being the sole reason for many ills which impair the world’s largest democracy. And, what is the caste system? It is an old social-stratification system that provides a hierarchy of social roles which hold inherent characteristics and, more importantly, are supposed to remain fixed throughout life. Even though Indian politicians didn’t create the mighty caste system, they surely know how to exploit this fault-line, exacerbating the caste animosities to build vote banks. In India, caste (and religion) is something people are very sensitive about and hence political parties face a difficult choice – they try to woo the oppressed castes in order to collect more votes. And in doing so, they antagonize some of the upper castes. Religiosity and tradition expect them to respect the caste boundaries, which is way too tempting to not exploit. A large number of parties draw up their poll strategies on the basis of the constituency’s caste demographic. Messages in the election speeches are tailored to suit the dominant caste of that constituency, and ideological coherence is sacrificed. And that’s why, while making the decision of choosing a candidate to represent them, voters tend to focus on caste and tend to overlook how adequately he/she would be able to represent them and focus on key issues. If a candidate belongs to caste X, his rival belonging to caste Y fields dummy candidates of caste X to divide the opponent’s votes. Caste determines the nature, organisation and working of most political parties, interest groups, and their functions.
The use of caste for gaining political popularity is not a new phenomenon and pre-Independence Indian politics also involved the use of caste, in different ways. The British Imperialists used religion as well as caste for political division of the nation. Unfortunately, even after Independence, India could not stop caste from becoming a factor that would influence politics. Even though the scenario is changing in urban India as voters are becoming more educated and aware about important issues, a large part of India still resides in rural areas, where people are not so much aware; for them, caste still plays a very important role in the election processes. Now, what can be the reason that people prefer to choose someone for their representation who belongs to their own caste rather than choosing someone who guarantees good work, amenities and development? It is because of an emotion – the feeling of belongingness. People tend to have an inherent desire to belong and be an important part of something that is greater than themselves; a relationship that is greater than simple acquaintance. This is a strong and inevitable feeling that exists in human nature. And due to this feeling, people have a strange natural trust that someone from their community, from their social group would be the apt representative for them; that he/she would protect them, provide them with opportunities and take care of them because after all, they belong to one big family, right? Sadly, that is not the case. Most of the times, this trust is taken for granted. Many political parties take advantage of these sentiments and fracture the society in such a manner that they gain from the divisions hence created; not to forget how deeply these divisions can damage the society. Politicians appeal to the sentiments of the voters of their respective caste groups and try to mobilize votes on that basis so as to capture and retain political power. Not only this, politicians have also managed to divert the attention of voters from issues relating to jobs, development, education, etc. by portraying caste as the paramount metric they should keep in mind while voting. The biggest harms of caste being involved in India’s electoral processes? There are many – incompetent leadership, ineffective governance, failed public policies, and most importantly, stagnancy. In a country where more than half of its population lives on less than 2$/day, it becomes highly important to make people realise the importance of proper representation and how it can change their lives. However, people are beginning to understand how such superficial factors are good for nothing and only poison the society at large. As is the case with any social evil, this is something which will require a lot of time and effort to be flushed out from the society, but that doesn’t mean it is impossible at all, right?
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