Indian Politics: Journey from Caste Based Politics to Gender Based Politics

Why caste is still key in Indian politics

It is almost unique to the Indian sub-continent that the rise of low castes, religious identities and ethnic conflicts have been the primary contributions towards shaping the nation’s politics. And as such, towards ‘Identity Politics’ in India. The Indian Political for-front has always been freckled with controversy, owing to the number of people and the diversity they encompass. For instance when Shiv Sagar moved to make Hindi the National language through a PIL, it simply put the wheels into motion for the parties in power. Revolts broke out all along the south, and even a political party was formed-DMK. A shortly after that, ADMK emerged as a splinter. It would seem that considering the key is consensus, a nation as large as ours can never successfully cater to the needs of all. Democracy ensures that the voice of the mass shines through, but in doing so we often neglect the pockets of minorities that might not share such a collective interest. And then there’s the historically subjugated(castes) or the ones that remain simply oblivious(illiterate). Caste, ascribed at birth, is greatly influenced by where one is born. Political lines in India have often been drawn along caste lines; however, this is only part of the story. Caste is often specific to a particular area. These caste pockets create a locally dominant castes. Because of the political structure in India, local dominance can translate into regional dominance. This concentration of caste population has meant that smaller, less influential castes have the opportunity stake there claims in the political power arena. However, if a non-dominant caste is not concentrated in a particular area, then they are not likely to get any representation without teaming up with another caste to increase their influence.

These are problems,that India specifically has because of its unique history and the circumstances of Independence. Moreover, the caste system had .perpetrated into all aspects of life. When something that has been so integrally woven into society is suddenly pulled out, it is obvious that the spill over effect will drip into the next few generations. It is interesting to note that the caste system is most pronounced in the ‘cow belt of India’-namely, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. Here, upper and middle-ranking castes dominate the ownership of land. They were able to transfer this control over wealth into political dominance over the Panchayat decision. The Panchayat is a local government unit that is in-charge of resources disbursement. The dominant caste groups monopolised leadership positions in the Panchayat, thus gaining more opportunities to government contracts, employment and funding. The key players being the likes of Mayawati and the Yadavs, and their primary but arguably constant demand- reservation. In schools, colleges, and other government institutions. The logic of reservation with respect to a history of suppression is always up for debate in India and thus, unsurprising that it features prominently on the political scene.

Initially, Politics in India highly depended on patron-client ties along the caste lines. The caste that one belongs to serves as a strong determinant of his or her voting pattern. In India, different political parties represent the interests of different caste groups. The upper and merchant castes such as Brahmin, Rajput and Kayasth and the rich Muslim groups tended to express their interests through the Congress Party. The agrarian middle class such as the Jats tended to vote for the competing parties. However, caste does not solely determine voting behaviors. Discrepancies occur especially for the upper caste groups. This means that not everyone from the same caste would vote for only one particular party. The upper caste people have more freedom to vote by political beliefs.

Perhaps the most sensitive issue in this regard is the Mandal Commission and its recommendations. The Mandal Commission was constituted in 1979 by the Janata Party government under Prime Minister Morarji Desai. They were mandated to “identify the socially or educationally backward”.

The Commission was set up to consider the question of seat reservations and quotas for people to redress caste discrimination, and used eleven social, economic, and educational indicators to determine “backwardness.” In 1980, the commission’s report affirmed the affirmative action practice under Indian law whereby members of lower castes (known as Other Backward Classes and Scheduled Castes and Tribes) were given exclusive access to a certain portion of government jobs and slots in public universities, and recommended an increase in the quotas. Here, again, it is interesting to note that L R Naik, the only Dalit member in the Mandal Commission refused to sign the Mandal recommendations, as he feared that well-to-do OBCs would corner all the benefits of reservation. With regard to Dalits, B.R.Ambedkar(the father of or Consitution) is the most revered who fought for their rights. In fact, his iconic conversion to Buddhism was followed by thousands of people all over the country.

A decade after the Mandal Ccommission gave its report, V. P. Singh, the Prime Minister at the time, tried to implement its recommendations in 1989. The criticism was sharp and colleges across the country held massive protests against it. Many alleged that the politicians were trying to cash on caste-based reservations for purely pragmatic electoral purposes. A student of Delhi University, Rajiv Goswami, threatened self-immolation in protest of the government’s actions. His act further sparked a series of self-immolations by other college students and led to a formidable movement against job reservations for Backward Castes in India.

With the end of the 1980s, the stage was set for a shift in caste politics. The era of the Congress finally came to an end. This was significant because the Congress party comprised mostly of upper-caste leadership. It is often said that this shift was due to economic liberalisation in India which reduced the control the state had on the economy and thus the lower casts, and partly due to an upsurge in caste based parties that made the politics of lower caste empowerment a central part of there political agenda. It should be pointed out that these new political parties emerged not on a national level but on a village and regional level, and were most dominant in North India.

These parties view development programs and rule of law as institutions used by upper caste to control and subjugate lower castes. As a result, these new political parties sought to weaken these institutions and in turn weaken the upper caste domination in the political arena in India. Since ‘rule of law’ was seen as controlled by upper-castes, these new parties adopted a strategy that had to operate outside of this rule in order to gain political influence and lower-caste empowerment.

A positive development emerged through the institution of Education after Independence. The younger generations of all castes have had access to educational resources since the 1980s. The number of the Scheduled and Backward Castes people receiving education increased at a faster rate than that of the upper caste groups. The spread of education to all castes generated democratising effects. Some representatives of the SC and ST groups obtained access to Congress in the 1950s~1960s (1179). Due to their higher education levels, they are less likely to respond to the upper-caste patrons, but to the needs and interests of the lower castes. Thus, the influence of caste in politics was adamant and persisted through generations.

In recent times, however, the Indian Society seems to have matured to the real problems of the world. Decades of Independence have fostered a society that is more humane, just and accommodative of the different needs of people.  As such, new issues have become the focus of attention- particularly, the role of women in politics and their participation in the electoral process. As Mao once rightly pointed out, “..they(women) hold half of the sky up”. Inspite of being intrinsically involved in the Indian independence movement in the early 20th century and advocated for independence from Britain. Independence brought gender equality in the form of constitutional rights, but historically women’s political participation has remained low. Because of legislation, there is now greater representation of women in village panchayats and local bodies. Some of these bodies are even headed by women. But it is alleged that these women are only figureheads and the real power is wielded by their husbands for whom they stand proxy.

All political parties feel the necessity of increasing the number of women parliamentarians and legislators. In this regard, the long-awaited “Woman Reservation Bill” has still not been passed due to rampant opposition for Mulayam Singh Yadav and his party. By virtue of our system of legislature, the passing of the bill cannot be expedited except through due process and such a delay is proving to be chronic. There is lack of consensus about the modality to ensure such representation.

There is an emerging trend among political parties towards an increased outreach among women voters as India’s party system grows increasingly more competitive. This has included the creation of women’s wings in the largest parties. The BJP’s wing is the BJP Mahila Morcha, the INC’s wing is All India Mahila Congress, and the CPI’s wing is the National Federation of Indian Women.

Women’s involvement in political parties is tied to the increasing demand for equal rights. The INC held power until the 1990s. As the INC moved away from welfare politics, other parties arose to challenge the INC using poverty as the center of their agenda. The INC regained power in 2004 with the help of women’s participation. The INC has increased women’s participation by instituting a 33% quota for women in all levels of the party. In June 2009, the INC nominated a women to become first speaker of Lok Sabha, and also supported the election of Pratibha Patil, India’s first female president. Women were involved in the early establishment of the BJP. The BJP has encouraged greater representation of women by developing women’s leadership programs, financial assistance for women candidates. BJP has received women’s support by focusing on issues such as the Uniform Civil Code to extend equal rights to women and men regardless of religion. They have also spoken out against violence against Indian women. The CPI has also supported gender inequality issues including addressing issues of violence through the National Federation of Indian Women.

Women’s participation in political parties remained low in the 1990s with 10-12% membership consisting of women. Indian women have also taken the initiative to form their own political parties, and in 2007, the United Women Front party was created, and has advocated for increasing the reservation of seats for women in parliament to 50%. Women only govern four of India’s political parties. From 1980-1970, 4.3% of candidates and 70% of electoral races had no women candidates at all. As of 2013, it has been reported of the members of parliament 11% were women in Lok Sabha and 10.6% in Rajya Sabha.

In the year of 2014, none of the political parties put up as many candidates, and neither the Lok Sabha the House of the People – nor any of the state legislatures reached anywhere near the 33 per cent level. The number of women ministers is also very small. But, the figures show a drastic increase of compared to the period shortly after Independence. And representation of women leaders at the grassroots level in India is nearly 50%, owing historically to the passing of the 73rdamendment in 1992, which allotted one-third of all seats to women. The panchayati raj, that bedrock of rural government, has fostered more and more women participants and leaders. Additionally, the women turnout during India’s 2014 parliamentary general elections was 65.63%, compared to 67.09% turnout for men. In 16 out of 29 states of India, more women voted than men. A total of 260.6 million women exercised their right to vote in April–May 2014 elections for India’s parliament. In a changing global scenario it would seem Indian Politics are taking a turn for the better. While the change is only crawling along, it is now assuredly definite.


Share your thoughts/queries here!