Cast(e)ing votes: Is a Caste Lens Necessary to Understand Electoral Politics in India?

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In the aftermath of Narendra Modi’s 2019 victory Dipankar Gupta, in an article titled “Caste and Electoral Outcomes: Misreading Hierarchy and the Illusion of Numbers”, made a critique of  what he calls “caste-arithmetic explanations of election results”. He argues that this fallacious methodology continues to be utilised despite being repeatedly proven wrong, because the scholars and pundits who employ it are conditioned by an elitist mindset that sees the Indian voter as a primitive ‘other’ loyal to the ideology of caste. He points out two fallacies in this approach. First, “the belief that the castes that occupy roughly the same status in the Brahminical hierarchy, are natural allies, or can be tuned that way, with a little persuasion”. And second, “the assumption that certain castes numerically dominate certain parliamentary constituencies”. To explain why these assumptions are problematic he makes certain observations about the caste system and how it has changed over time. 

Gupta points out that the fundamental property of caste is “mutual repulsion” (Celestine Bougle 1991: 65). This is because each caste, or jati, sees themselves as being distinct and by their own estimations superior to the rest, with their own mythologies to justify these claims.What this implies is that there are many hierarchies in the caste order and not just the one whose origin myth places Brahmins at the top followed by Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras respectively. This is why it is wrong to assume that proximate castes in the Brahmanical hierarchy would turn natural allies come election season. Next Gupta points out that, when demographics are considered, even in those areas considered strongholds of a particular caste – for example Jats or Yadavs – there is no particular caste that has a majority in terms of numbers and so any candidate must rely on votes from members of other castes in order to win an election.

While making these observations Gupta also notes that with the shifts in economic and political power, particularly the dismantling of the feudal zamindari system, the caste order has also transformed. As a result, the caste system could no longer be enforced by the local elites and simultaneously other caste myths of superiority could find expression in defiance of the local hierarchy. Gupta therefore, boldly declares “the caste system is dead, long live caste identity”. In this new order where caste identity reigns, all castes  are rivals and if they do come together it is for reasons other than caste. Gupta therefore argues that analyses of election results should be sensitive to the secularised economic and social world in order to understand diverse political affiliations between and even within castes.

In a response to Gupta’s paper titled “Why Caste Matters: Reading Electoral Outcomes through the Optic of Caste”, Vishesh Pratap Gurjar agrees with Gutpa’s observations on the transformation of caste and that simple arithmetic of caste is inadequate to explain the outcome of elections but argues that caste must remain the larger optic for understanding Indian elections. He further argues that assertions by other castes of their own superiority does not change how they are looked upon; while it may have encouraged the growth of political consciousness among the lower castes the traditional elites continue to have a hold on power in a way that matters in elections.

Addressing the fallacies of proximate caste solidarity, where Gupta focuses on the lower castes to show that they should not be seen as natural allies, Gurjar focuses on the upper castes to show that castes suspend mutual repulsion and unite given the right circumstances. He further points out that it is not the numerical strength of a caste that makes a constituency a stronghold of a particular caste but its dominance – the power it can exercise. Finally, Gurjar points out that Gupta fails to consider the relationship between Hindu castes and Muslims and, for example, how the BJP and RSS have utilised the lower castes’ myths of their glorious past to win them over by blaming the Muslim Moghuls for their present day misfortunes. Gujar concludes that although the caste system may be dead, the new order of caste identity does not leave behind its legacy and thus there is still need for electoral outcomes to be seen through the optic of caste.


A few other articles related to this discussion

  1. Castes, Communities and Parties in Uttar Pradesh by Christophe Jaffrelot and Gilles Verniers 
  2. Caste Challenges BJP, Editorial 
  3. Dalits, Praja Rajyam Party and Caste Politics in Andhra Pradesh by Sambaiah Gundimeda 
  4. Reservations for Marathas in Maharashtra by Mridul Kumar 
  5. A New Politics of Caste by Praskanva Sinharay 


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