Come election time and Pundits of every hue (and here I am not referring to a particular caste, please!) are forever busy totaling up the numbers. Totting up the numbers of every caste spectrum there is to examine within a constituency.
As an aside, do you know for instance that there is a Caste Map of India that actually maps the caste equation of every constituency, listing out detailed splits of every caste there is?
And this sells like hot cakes during an election. The base buyer is the Political Party, the individual candidates and of course the Psephologist at large, who is trying to grasp at whatever there is that paints a profile of the political battle-ground.
What is this Caste politics all about? And why should it be there at all? Is it for real? Does it really work?
My involvement in election-strategy work across the last decade tells me it does. It works in Bihar (which has a 90: 10 Rural-urban skew), just as it works in the newly carved out Bangalore Central (which has a 5: 95 Rural-Urban skew). Bangalore Central the Parliamentary Constituency, not the Mall!
Caste politics is not as old as most of us believe it to be. Right up to the elections of the years of the 1970 series, elections were largely fought on issues.
Issues that were truly national and issues that were economic even. Come the years of the 1980"s series, in came the dominant role of the Caste. In many ways the Mandal debate spurred it all on.
Caste is today a major factor in every constituency. Tickets are doled out on the basis of caste. Caste in many ways dictates the 'winnability' factor of many a candidate. Over the last twenty years plus, the dominance of the caste factor in election-day performance is something that has risen its head like nothing else has.
While most thinkers would ideate and say that the Caste factor is all about narrow jingoism and that it is vanishing altogether, the ground reality is totally different.
Caste is consolidating!
Caste today is growing in appeal. Growing in the depth of passion that a voter indicates towards it as well. Every electorate is drawn out today into Caste blocks.
Take Karnataka for instance. Our 5 crore plus population is spread out across the two dominant caste factions of the Lingayat and the Vokkaliga, each sharing a 17 and 15 per cent share in that order. Add an 8 per cent Kuruba vote to that. Garnish it with a Muslim vote of 10%. And divide that into the Shia vote and the Sunni vote.
Add a sprinkling of the Christian vote. Segment it into the Catholic and the Protestant vote. Cover all of this with the umbrella of a 23 per cent Dalit vote, and the delightful dish of Karnataka caste politics is complete.
Every state of the Indian Union is witnessing a resurgence of caste based politics. Why?
In a rather simplistic manner of an answer, it is indeed all a part of the affirmative action syndrome at play at large, particularly with the specific legislative actions that have resulted in the polity that is India over the last two decades.
Every caste block and faction is really looking at the elections as a representative process that throws up leaders who represent causes and issues that are largely skewed in favor of or against the caste blocks at large. The reservation of seats syndrome has deepened the fissure. Allocations of ministries by governments that occupy the seat of power, the allocation of portfolios to bureaucrats on the basis of caste blocks and indeed the entire cascade of governance that follows is a reason for sure.
The reality as I see it on Ground Zero of electoral politics is a simple one. The key fact is this. Caste blocks vote not for political parties, their manifestoes and the debates that ensue. Instead, caste blocks vote for leaders. If the leader is a Vokkaliga, there is swing in the Vokkaliga heavy constituency.
And if there are two dominant Vokkaligas pitted against one another, this is where the votes fracture. And that"s when you need to look at all those dummy candidates your party will put up to fracture the vote of the opponent as well. The fun begins.
Spin doctors of political parties who sit in the back-rooms typically work out the caste equation on their unique low-tech caste-calculators all the time, right up to the date of withdrawal of nominations. The thinking gets deeper and deeper still. If there is caste, remember there is sub-caste as well. The complexity deepens.
Why is caste important in Indian politics then?
When there is no one big issue at hand to vote on, one lapses back to caste. If and when there is, the voter will vote on the issue at large, like in the good old days just about Partition.
If for instance there is a war with Pakistan today, India will dump caste-based politics for that one election, and will vote with its heart in the issue. And then get back to basics.