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Caste and Politics in India: A Critical Overview

In 1947, India  bravely chose the system of secular universal adult suffrage in order to allow everyone to participate in the process of governance in one of the  most ridiculously hierarchical societies in the world.

The fascinating conundrum of the democratic system of governance in the world’s largest democracy is epitomized by the fact that, on the one hand, this democratic system has made it possible for historically marginalized and deprived sections of the Indian society to live with dignity and, at the same time, caste continues to remain a crucial social index primarily on account of  democratic politics. Though casteism, in its most rudimentary sense, is dying down in India, it is dismaying to note that Caste has grown  as a voter focal point, at the expense of  competency in important  matters of governance such as education, economics, etc.

 Andrae Béteille, one of India’s leading sociologists, rightly notes, “The Constitution of India created rights but could not eradicate caste from the hearts of its citizens: For many Indians, and perhaps the majority, the habits of the heart are still the habits of a hierarchical society.” Sir Winston Churchill once said, “The best argument against democracy is a 5-minute conversation with the average voter.”

The aforementioned quote explains precisely why caste continues to persist in Indian politics even in 2013: The average voter in India  devotes far more time  to personal matters pertaining to  home, work and worship than to electoral matters, and, as Béteille rightly points out, home,  work and worship are precisely where caste is embedded most powerfully and voting is merely an extension of this caste consciousness.

In fact, the sorry state of affairs is exemplified by the fact that many politicians focus on  tailoring campaign messages to caste concerns and fears. The history of Indian politics and the course that it has taken since the late 1980s is testimony to the polarising impact of the odiousness and viciousness of caste. According to M.N Srinivas,  “The role played by caste in politics is in close approximation to that of a pressure group. ”

In India, the  highest expression of caste-based politics is found in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. In the last few years, the politics of states like  Haryana, Karnataka, etc  has also become caste and faction ridden. The history of independent India is replete with examples of how  caste can be used by a skillful organizer to transform his own caste into a viable political force. Public sentiment about our political system has always been largely negative, and this pessimism has deepened over the last decade.

Now, as never before, there is a dire need to engage in efficient, tenacious and efficacious exercises in order to exterminate the evils of caste from our political system. Politicians must focus on developing new mechanisms and strengthening existing mechanisms for encouraging economic growth, empowering women, reducing poverty, etc.  Election campaigns must be development-based instead of being caste-based.  Various governmental and non-governmental authorities have to implement programmes for promoting education and equality that would usher in modernisation, the most potent tool for combating the evils of caste.

 About the Author

Rahul Bajaj

Rahul Bajaj is a law student student at Nagpur University. He is particularly interested in Intellectual Property Law, Human Rights Law, Consumer Law & Commercial Law. While intellectually interested in the role of entertainment and media in a democratic order, Rahul also appreciates them for their own sake in his spare time.

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