This article is part of the Indian Election Series – a partnership between the Australia India Institute and the Melbourne School of Government’s Election Watch project.
It’s often said that in India, you don’t cast your vote, you vote your caste.
Reality is more complicated than what this often-repeated adage suggests, but few would disagree that caste – India’s most pervasive social institution – has a profound impact on Indian politics.
India’s has thousands of jatis, which are social groups whose members tend to intermarry and who are traditionally associated with a certain occupation. They are classified by India’s legal system into three main categories.
First, the Scheduled Castes (SCs), who are also known as Dalits, and make up roughly 17 per cent of the population. Dalits are considered at the bottom of the social order and are traditionally associated with the most ‘polluting’ occupations such as cleaning latrines and dealing with corpses.
At the other extreme, there is a general category, comprising of the upper caste groups that, because of the highly-regarded nature of their traditional occupation (such as temple priests and scholars) and/or their economic or political status have enjoyed a dominant position in India’s social structure.
Within the two, there is the large – roughly 41 per cent of the population – and amorphous cluster of the Other Backward Classes (OBCs), that include jatis who are neither at the top nor at the bottom of the caste hierarchy, but who have nevertheless lagged behind in terms of social and economic development. While caste and class do not completely overlap, by and large people from the lower castes tend to be poorer than the upper castes.
One of the reasons caste shapes political outcomes is the affirmative action policy that reserves jobs in the public sector, seats in legislative assemblies and positions in educational institutions to historically disadvantaged castes belonging to the SCs and OBCs categories. Numerous policies also use caste as a criterion to identify beneficiaries of social protection programmes.
The resounding success of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at the 2014 elections was in no small measure due to its ability to expand the party’s social base (historically confined to the upper castes) to include large sections of the Dalits and of the OBCs, to which Modi himself belongs (as he repeatedly reminded the electorate during the campaign).
Modi’s promise to bring ‘acche din’ (good days) to anyone irrespective of caste resonated with an electorate eager to board the train of India’s developmental story and gave the BJP the first single-party majority in over 30 years.
Had Modi’s government delivered on its promises to bring about rapid and inclusive development perhaps the inherent contradictions of this large and diverse coalition would have not resurfaced.
But the (relatively) poor performance of the Indian economy – particularly in terms of jobs creation and in the agricultural sector – has sharpened social conflict and triggered demands by various caste groups to be included in the affirmative action policy.
Hundreds of thousands of people belonging to peasant castes from the General category protested in the streets asking for reserved public sector jobs and posts in educational institutions or, alternatively, to scrap the reservation system altogether. Several people died in the protests that occurred in the last three years, which even threatened New Delhi’s water supplies and almost cost the BJP the elections in Modi’s own state, Gujarat in 2017.
These demands are not easy to accommodate. On the one hand, granting reservation to these castes on top of the existing ones would further erode the positions available for the General category, which would provoke a strong reaction by other upper caste groups. It would also contradict numerous Supreme Court orders that capped quotas at 50 per cent of the total available positions – a limit that has already been reached. On the other hand, granting reservations to dominant peasant castes within the existing limit, would erode the available posts for SCs and OBCs – a political taboo in Indian politics.
The government tried to break the impasse by passing a Constitutional amendment reserving 10 per cent of the available posts to the ‘Economically Weaker Sections’ (EWS) within the General category. The amendment might not survive judicial scrutiny. In fact, the reservations were originally introduced as an attempt to help uplift social groups that faced social discrimination, and not as a way to help the poorer sections of the society. In any case, it is unlikely that the Supreme Court will take a decision before the next general election.
The political benefit for the BJP – sending a signal to its core, upper caste social base – might be cancelled out by resentment among everybody else. Dalit groups fear that this might be the first step in removing caste-based quotas to be replaced by income-based ones.
On the other hand, EWSs is defined to include whoever earns less than what the top five per cent of the population makes. This means that caste groups that have been demanding reservations fear that the available posts will be cornered by the most affluent – and, usually, better educated – sections of the upper castes, thus further reducing their odds in the competitive General category.
The implications for the general elections are difficult to predict. But one thing is clear. In 2014, Modi’s victory generated enormous expectations especially among the younger sections of the electorate, irrespective of caste, that he could bring ‘acche din’ – and millions of jobs.
After five years, the Indian government has delivered neither.
The Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS), an autonomous research institute at the National University of Singapore (NUS), is a contributing partner to Election Watch. The author can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. The author bears full responsibility for the facts cited and opinions expressed in this article.