Limitations of Caste in elections

Limitations of Caste in elections

Now that Karnataka will be going to polls on May 12, many political analysts and activists take it for granted that the ruling Congress in the state will be ‘easily’ getting another term of five years. Their main reasoning behind this prediction is not the aggressive campaigning by the party’s national president Rahul Gandhi or the  exemplary report card of the chief minister Siddaramaiah. Instead, they marvel at Siddaramaiah’s masterstroke of declaring the influential Lingayat sect  a minority religion, distinct from Hinduism, and recommending the central government led by Narendra Modi to grant his decision the legal recognition.

The theory is that by so doing, the Lingayats, the traditional supporters of the BJP, will move towards the Congress, resulting in the party’s huge victory, irrespective of the facts that under the Congress regime record number of farmers have committed suicide, the state has seen the unprecedented rise in the communal incidents, law and order situations have worsened, and the state capital Bengaluru has been afflicted by severe drinking water shortage.

What this implies is that electoral outcomes are determined by nothing else but the ethnic (caste or religion) or the identity factor. The same argument is also cited in Uttar Pradesh where the newly found bonhomie between the Yadavs (Samajwadi Party) and the Dalits (Bahujan Samaj Party) is supposed to halt the Modi juggernaut in India’s largest state of great political significance. The defeat of the ruling BJP in the recent by-elections in Uttar Pradesh to the duo of Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati is manifested as the shining example of this phenomenon.

Of course, in a sense, predicting elections results or planning electoral victories on the basis of caste and religion is a traditional exercise in India. And once you get the media attention, it becomes “the most important thing” that matters. The assumption here is that the “masses” vote along caste or community lines, and thus, are “captive vote banks” – A Dalit will always vote for a Dalit leader, a Lingayat will always vote for a Lingayat, a Muslim will always vote for a Muslim. But nothing can be more simplistic than this. If masses vote always along caste or community lines, elections would be a simple affair where any caste group, which is dominant and has the numbers, shall automatically win.

In my considered view, the predominant method of predicting voting behaviour in India is highly simplistic, to speak the least.  It has three features — One, create a “halo” around a party or candidate and build a perception that others could buy into easily. For instance, look at the way the family war between the Yadavs in Lucknow was systematically made an event during last year’s assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh to project the then incumbent chief minister Akhilesh Yadav as the leader of the “young” and the flag-bearer of “development”, who had no anti-incumbency issues, by attributing all the ‘sins’ or failures of his government to uncle Shivpal Yadav. In a clever strategy, the media was impressed when taking note of “how thousands of supporters were turning up at his residence in Lucknow (leading to continuous prime time television discussions and analyses in print and social media)”. And when he made an alliance with the Congress, the mainstream media “realised” what an unbeatable alliance it was; with some commentators saying that he and Congress leader Rahul Gandhi drew bigger, and what is more important, more genuine crowds than even Modi, for whom the “paid” crowd came from Gujarat and other states.

The second distinct feature of this strategy is to treat the election as a referendum on the achievements and failures of the Central government — not of the government of the state where the election is held. So during most of the electioneering, campaigns centered on what Modi has done over the past two-and-a-half years in Delhi, not on what the non-BJP state government has achieved in Lucknow or Bengaluru. See the way Rahul Gandhi in Karnataka is campaigning – he is only talking of Modi’s performance in Delhi, not of Siddaramaiah’s feat in Bengaluru over the past five years. In other words, for every problem of the people of the state, responsibility is diverted to the Central government. In the process, efforts are more on making the electioneering a “Modi-hatao” campaign than using it as an earnest plea for a renewed mandate for the state government

The third, and the most important, feature is the “ever-relevant” dictum that winning elections depends on caste or religious calculations rather than on any administrative or development agenda. If one hears and reads the strategies and analyses, victory depends on how many castes are with you on the one hand and how many Muslims on the other. The underlying assumption is that people belonging to a particular caste and religion (Islam) are all monolithic blocks and would vote for parties irrespective of what they said and did.

However, though the old habits and beliefs still persist, the fact remains that all these features have been made irrelevant over the last four years by Modi. In other words, the conventional barometers to study elections have outlived their utilities. Modi has proved the limitations of the often lauded identity politics of caste, creed and religion. As in the 2014 General Election, the results of this election have proved beyond any shadow of doubt that people have not voted on caste lines. And, it is a healthy development. Indian democracy will be much stronger if one votes as an Indian, not as a member of a particular caste or religion. Unfortunately, the dominant sections within the Indian polity, and this includes the intelligentsia, glorify identity politics. For instance, if Yadavs, Muslims and Dalits vote as a block, they laud the phenomenon as consolidation for their respective rights. If somebody opposes this trend, he or she is branded as communal. In this sense, the last Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh and the North-Eastern states rejected this theory and proved that the emerging ph nomenon could be durable.

If Modi has won, it is because of his promise of empowering or aspirational politics. He has appealed to the broad, a very broad spectrum of society. And those aspirations have nothing to do with religion, caste or any other identity. People wanted a change, a change for development and better future. In the process, they have rejected the systematic slanders (that continue even today, thanks to its sustenance by the mainstream media dominated by the so-called Left and liberals) that Modi is a deeply divisive figure.

In fact, there is a corollary to the above point. The more you demonise Modi, the more sympathy he draws from people at the ground level. In fact, in my considered view, if Manmohan Singh was able to renew a popular mandate in the 2009 General Election, it was to a considerable extent due to the personal attack he faced from his principal rival, BJP’s LK Advani, that he was a ‘puppet’ and the weakest Prime Minister of India in history. Therefore, one is surprised why the Congress has not learnt this lesson and Rahul has preferred to follow Arvind Kejriwal in sparing no opportunity to ridicule Modi.

Finally, elections results today have proved that in this country of great diversities, there are spaces for leaders who have the nationwide appeal and who conduct a presidential-style campaign by travelling thousands of miles and addressing public meetings, even if these are for local or Assembly elections. In fact, Modi’s has been one of the largest mass outreaches in India’s electoral history. Modi’s support-base cannot be judged strictly in terms of regional or identity politics. This base, if at all, can be judged vertically in terms of class, not of caste or creed or region. And in this class divide, it is obvious that poor, who are in much larger numbers, had been with Modi. The future elections will prove whether they are still there with him. Modi will be defeated if only they desert him.

By Prakash Nanda

(prakash.nanda@hotmail.com)

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