The caste factor in Indian elections

Published: April 27, 2013
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The writer is a columnist. He is also a former editor of the Mumbai-based English newspaper Mid Day and the Gujarati paper Divya Bhaskar 
aakar.patel@tribune.com.pk

The writer is a columnist. He is also a former editor of the Mumbai-based English newspaper Mid Day and the Gujarati paper Divya Bhaskar aakar.patel@tribune.com.pk

How much principle should one have in politics in India? The high-minded and moral party is usually punished by the voter for acting on principle. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) refuses to reconcile with the Lingayat leader BS Yeddyurappa in Karnataka. The Congress refuses to reconcile with Jaganmohan Reddy in Andhra Pradesh.

In both instances, an ambitious man charged with serious corruption wanted to become chief minister. Both Yeddyurappa and Jaganmohan blackmailed their parties and broke them when they stood on principle and refused to give them power. And in both instances, the voter has disagreed with principle. The BJP lost a recent local body election after its vote was split by Yeddyurappa’s party and the Congress, too, lost after its votes were split by Jaganmohan’s party. In both instances, the defeat came after a significant chunk of the caste vote left with the leader.

The Indian voter picks his party confessionally, and will side with his caste. Corruption, governance, anti-incumbency and other such epithets are superficial for the most part and applied on top to justify what is essentially a success of community agglomeration by the party.

The voter doesn’t care about corruption and demonstrably corrupt people can return to power in India. The history of elections in Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar shows us this quite clearly and to look for other justifications is to be blind to reality.

The other aspect is to what extent issues matter in an election. We in the media would like to believe that it is policies, ideologies and governance that are the deciding factors. To recognise how removed the voter can be from all this, let’s look at two of India’s most cultured and literate states.

Next year’s general election in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal will exclude the two parties competing for government, the Congress and the BJP. Neither party will have many, and perhaps even any, seats from here.

These are two of India’s largest states and in both, it is totally irrelevant to the voter whether the Congress or the BJP rules from Delhi and whether or not Narendra Modi or an Italian woman becomes prime minister. Tamilians will vote for parties that are formed on the basis of linguistic and regional chauvinism and are caste based. In our largest state, Uttar Pradesh, which has more people than Germany, Britain and France put together, the two main parties will not be running to form the government in Delhi either. Here again, the Congress and the BJP will be more or less irrelevant. It will be Mulayam Singh’s Samajwadi Party and Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party that will pick up seats in parliament depending solely on how good their caste combination is.

Naturally, parties in India are supremely aware of this and their politics are conducted so as to have as wide a caste base as possible. Even the Hindutva party is actually a party of only select Hindus.

If one goes through the list of Punjab’s legislators, it is clear that the partnership between the Akali Dal and the BJP has a logic rooted in community and caste. The Akalis bring the Sikh vote and the BJP brings the Hindus. In fact, except for one Sikh MLA (cricketer Navjot Singh Sidhu’s wife), all the other BJP state legislators from Punjab are Hindus, so far as I could spot, and almost without exception, from the upper castes.

Similarly, in Bihar, the partnership between the Janata Dal and the BJP succeeds because of a caste logic and I have written about this here before. Though this voters’ clinging to their caste come rain or shine is accepted for the most part, the parties, at times, take a position against corruption, whether because of media pressure or their conscience. The RSS has a genuine moral problem with corruption and that explains the exit of Yeddyurappa. The Congress also, it appears, did the moral thing rather than the pragmatic thing when it decided to take a beating instead of letting Jaganmohan become chief minister.

It is strange to say this, given how much bad press they get, but often, it is the politician who is more moral than the voter in India.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 28th, 2013.

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Reader Comments (23)

  • Gary
    Apr 28, 2013 - 1:08AM

    Whatever dude….

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  • Ghati
    Apr 28, 2013 - 3:28AM

    I am surprised that all of a sudden everybody has fallen silent. Methinks, it is more because of the difficulty to adjust to Aakar Patel’s skewed India view, rather than pure boredom!

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  • aristhrottle
    Apr 28, 2013 - 6:28AM

    I am a bit more sanguine about voters breaking through caste/religion/regional boundaries, especially when it comes to national elections.

    I do agree those factors still play a large role, but it is, I think, declining.

    Maybe you haven’t looked this article:

    http://www.indianexpress.com/news/established-fake-political-facts/1080126/0

    or this

    http://www.indianexpress.com/news/candidates–experience-rather-than-caste-influenced-voters-study/1107822/0

    What is required is more empirical research, which will help to change the tone of our debates.

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  • Foreign Leg
    Apr 28, 2013 - 8:36AM

    @Author: Hailing from one of the states you mentioned (Karnataka), I do not agree with your assessment of my state.
    .
    Based on the recent local body elections (By the way, it was not just one election but comprised of elections to 4.952 wards in 207 urban local bodies) within Karnataka and the resultant sweep by Congress, data suggests an overall gain in vote-share by the Congress. It does not show as you seem to assert that the BJP, KJP and BSR put together were able to command the same number of votes as before and that the split in votes resulted in the Congress victories.
    .
    The reason for this BJP rout is very simple. People are disappointed that Jagdish Shettar has accomplished nothing. BJP leaders in the state are content to fight with each other rather than work for the development of the state and Yeddyurappa when he was with the BJP made demands as if the party was his own personal fiefdom. This can be seen particularly by his action to remove Sadananda Gowda who was seen as a capable administrator but who had to resign only because the BJP national executive succumbed to Yeddyurappa’s demands.
    .
    People like Yeddyurappa and Jaganmohan Reddy should have no place in modern politics. Sure, Yeddyurappa commands Lingayat votes the same way Kumaraswamy commands Vokkaliga votes in the old Mysore region. All three persons however are extremely corrupt and have developed only a few pockets of the state where their votes are concentrated. This is the reason why people from those areas only vote for them. These 3 can never carry the state. They can only hope for a divided vote so that they can do horse-trading and extract maximum gain from some alliance.
    .
    Karnataka has suffered due to the extraordinary powers of these small parties. As a result, the last elections saw a decisive vote for the BJP. Next month, I expect to see a decisive vote for the Congress.
    .
    However during the 2014 parliamentary elections next year unless something extraordinary is done by the Congress, I expect that Karnataka may vote for the BJP. Remember that Karnataka is one (and perhaps the only) state where people have been known to vote one way for the assembly and another way for parliament sometimes within months of each other. How would you justify this anomaly in the context of voting based on caste?

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  • S
    Apr 28, 2013 - 10:18AM

    In West Bengal the (close to 30%) Muslim vote is the deciding factor. Caste affiliation doesn’t matter to the Hindu Bengalis, but the Muslims vote en bloc and basically decides the party in power.

    http://www.khaleejtimes.com/kt-article-display-1.asp?section=editorschoice&xfile=/data/editorschoice/2013/April/editorschoice_April14.xml

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  • Ruby
    Apr 28, 2013 - 3:34PM

    I agree with the conclusion. Except in some youth in cities, nobody cares about corruption or Anna movement. Everyone wants to join the loot maar bandwagon. They are not troubled by the loot maar, but only by their sorry state of not being the guy who does the loot maar. So our politicians give every one a share in governance(ahem, the loot) before the elections as a botal and biryani packet. After the elections, it takes the form of a TV set or a gold necklace. People feel happy that ‘governance’ is reaching them and them beat their chests about corruption for the show.

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  • harkol
    Apr 28, 2013 - 4:09PM

    Author has such a weird sense of reality!

    Tamilnadu & Westbengal vote on Chauvinism or caste lines? Both these states have a Brahmin woman as Chief Minister!! Jayalalitha was born to a Kannada Iyengar family near Mysore! Banerjee never asked for a vote on the basis of Bengali chauvinism.

    People are more corrupt than parties?!! Here is the reality – From 1977 onwards, India has been trying out alternatives, but it seems all parties have been modeled on a Bad/corrupt congress model. So, when they feel disappointed, they wonder how does corruption matter and vote for whomever they feel represent their other concerns best.

    Has nothing to do with ‘people’ being more corrupt. It just shows they are ‘desperate’.

    Mr. Patel is a Dynasty worshipper and doesn’t see anything wrong in Gandhi family. Have not once seen a critical piece by him of this ultra corrupt family. Perhaps he lives in a parallel universe.

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  • Apr 28, 2013 - 5:07PM

    “The voter doesn’t care about corruption and demonstrably corrupt people can return to power in India. The history of elections in Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar shows us this quite clearly”

    Mr. Patel , if the voter does not care about the corruption( and governance) then why the sitting party and their candidates are toppled and rejected in the next election in.UP, Bihar and Tamilnadu. Why JDU with a coalition with BJP( whom every body brand as communal) in Bihar is re elected with bigger majority. Sir , it is the least corruption, ( corruption is not abolished) transparency in the government administration/ activities and equal opportunities to all irrespective of the religion was the driving force for casting the votes. They received votes in the constituencies having major voters from the so called upper caste , lower castes and Muslims too whole heatedly. In the Muslim majority constituencies BJP candidate won. . Better governance is the new Mantra and the voters displayed their wisdom very clearly.. Gone are the days when caste was a major factor. Journalist are required to update their knowledge. cheers.

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  • gotti
    Apr 28, 2013 - 5:15PM

    Great and balanced analysis and the conclusion is almost identical to what we see in Pakistan, especially rural Sindh and South Punjab, which is about 30% of Pakistan and is 100% poverty-stricken. It’s ironic because the poverty rate of Pakistan is 40%, which goes to show any developments by the feudals and fake pirs in their respective areas can put Pakistan in the 2nd world, overnight. Till then, they will continue to live higher than first-world, royal lives whilst their constituents (read slaves) live in less than third world conditions.
    Anywhoo, the author has been able to keep his Gujarati sympathies for Modi veiled to a large degree and is soon expected to become neutral, more genuinely as time passes, given that it seems ET has decided to prevent Modi trolls from harassing their writers and bloggers.
    Maybe they have finally been able to figure out, as SRK said in his last tweet, that the platform of the Internet or social media was meant to reduce distances and convert illogical, unfounded and demagogic hate into moderation, peaceful coexistence and interfaith harmony.
    I felicitate ET for having figured this and showing responsibility in what they allow to be published in its comments section, especially from the Modi trolls.

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  • ItsAllOk
    Apr 28, 2013 - 7:23PM

    It’s not that simple in India. Only a person with a lazy mind and intellect will jump to the conclusion that caste is a deciding factor in elections. Caste may be a factor for in some areas but to generalize that is intellectual laziness. This is another version of “all terrorists are Muslims” sort of thinking.

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  • Genesis
    Apr 28, 2013 - 9:23PM

    There is nothing wrong in relating to your caste,language or religion for that matter.It is a human instinct and it is so across cultures around the world.what do I have in common to whom I cannot relate.

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  • pi
    Apr 28, 2013 - 10:04PM

    In a democracy the VOTER is always RIGHT.
    At the end of the day he is voting for himself. If he chooses the same canditate/party as I do, I am happy; but if he does otherwise, it’s his perogative and I will respect that. That’s the essence of democracy.

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  • Komal S
    Apr 29, 2013 - 10:54AM

    I guess the caste based votes is not as simple as the author portrays. There are enough examples to say this is not true. MGR who ruled Tamil Nadu for many years was a malayalee and he mainly drew votes by attracting Thaikulam(Ladies). Not sure if any politician in India have been successful in attracting women votes as MGR did. More recently Bill Clinton attracted this kind of support from women voters in the US elections. Also current CM Jayalaitha is a Brahmin and if anybody knows Tamil Nadu politics, Brahmins make less than 3% of the population and they are a political liability. The fact that Sonia Gandhi campaigned for last two elections and won elections for Congress and Manmohan Singh has been the PM in the last two elections, tells you the people in the country do not go blindly by caste/religion equations.

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  • Naresh
    Apr 30, 2013 - 12:49AM

    @ Aakar Patel Ji :
    .
    Many many thanks for having the Guts to Speak the Truth by stating Italian woman becomes prime minister
    .
    It is only in India that a Foreigner along with her Italian Son and Italian Daughter – Italian Citizenship due to be born of an Italian Mother – can become a Prime Minister thereby Totally disregarding the **Reciprocatory Clause in the Indian Constitution.
    .
    I trust that you will remember Sonali Dasgupta who surrendered Indian Citizenship, Converted to Roman Catholicism and Applied for & Got Italian Citizenship but still was denied permission-acceptance to stand at a Local Village Council Election.
    .
    Long Live Indian Hypocracy.
    .
    CheersRecommend

  • Rakib
    Apr 30, 2013 - 7:33AM

    @Naresh: There is danger of intellectual enslavement in blindly believing whatever a political malcontent like Subranmaian Swamy says. The so-called “Reciprocity Clause” refers only to Countries in Schedule 1 under Section 5.1(e) read with Section 11 & 12(1) of Indian Citizenship Act 1955. Now please consider these: (1) the Schedule lists out countries with which Reciprocity was envisaged-they were all Commonwealth countries.There was no mention of Italy or any other in that Schedule nor was it ever inserted. But far more importantly (2) BJP led NDA Govt struck down even that clause by The Citizenship Amendment Act 2003. Now if a person is good enough to be citizen, she can vote & if she is good enough to vote she can be voted to a post too! You or Swamy just do not have a case but try anyway. Exasperated by such silly contentions SC bench of Justices R V Raveendran and A K Patnaik, in a judgment delivered in October 2011 proposed a 3000% increase in fines to be imposed for frivolous litigation.

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  • Deb
    Apr 30, 2013 - 2:07PM

    @Naresh

    No need to get excited at the mention of Sonia Gandhi as a probable prime ministerial candidate. The author did it just to spice up the article. He knows and you should know that Sonia could have been the prime minister in the first UPA govt if she wanted to be.

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  • Naresh
    May 1, 2013 - 2:29AM

    @Rakib & @Deb :
    .
    Gentlemen – Not being able to give up her Italian Citizenship and taking up Indian Citizenship makes her Indian Citizenship “Null & Void”. As regards the “Receprocatory” Clause one will have to read it in full to make a deciaion!
    .
    CheersRecommend

  • Rakib
    May 1, 2013 - 7:35AM

    @Naresh: If someone rejects even SC judgment there is nothing much one can do. Every argument (including renunciation of Italian citizenship) was dealt with when SC dismissed two election petitions challenging Indian citizenship of Sonia. The judgement is worth reading. The Supreme Court Bench consisting of Chief Justice A.S. Anand, Justices R.C. Lahoti and Doraiswamy Raju dismissed case on grounds that petitions made only bald and vague averments about Sonia Gandhi’s eligibility for Indian citizenship, and therefore, did not satisfy the requirements of pleading material facts under Section 83(1)(a) of RPA, 1951. Even Swamy dare not approach any court again with the same citizenship issue without attracting wrath of the judges. However,as Jalaluddin Rumi once said, it’s your prerogative to bind your eyes, climb up the roof & declare to the world: lo! the sun is dead.

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  • Cynical
    May 1, 2013 - 2:00PM

    @Rakib

    As always you have dealt with the Sonia’s citizenship issue (in response to @Naresh) with irrefutable facts which are in public domain for anyone who cares to see.
    Problem with people like @Naresh (and there are quite a few of them) is that they have made up their mind and refuse to be confused with facts.
    Nevertheless facts need to thrown at their face each time they spout their jingoistic inanity.
    Well done.

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  • Naresh
    May 1, 2013 - 2:56PM

    @Rakib & @Cynical :
    .
    The Issue is as follows :
    .
    1. Did Sonia Gandhi have Italian Citizenship or had she renounced it at the time of obtaining an Indian Passport – I believe – in 1984-85?

    Have Rahul and Priyanka renounced their Italian Citizenship or not?
    .
    Then the matter ends.
    .
    Cheers
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  • Rakib
    May 1, 2013 - 6:29PM

    @Naresh: As Cynical said all info is on Internet,if you are looking for info. For prejudice there is no cure. I already told you of the judgement! Citizenship issue was settled by 2001 SC decision. Court records show the precise date when she surrendered old passport & acquired the Indian one (27th & 30th April 1983 respectively, that is, more than a year prior to Indira’s assassination). Please Google for judgement details.(Have Rahul and Priyanka renounced their Italian Citizenship or not?) Also, spare me the trick question that may amuse grandchildren like “Have you stopped beating your wife or not?” If you have doubts about Rahul Gandhi’s nationality please sue him (at the risk of attracting punitive fines) under Article 84 of the Constitution which says that a person shall not be qualified for a seat in Parliament unless he or she is a citizen of India. Priyanka & her children & their future progeny may hold citizenship of Outer Mongolia for all I care.

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  • Cynical
    May 1, 2013 - 6:52PM

    @Naresh

    ‘Then the matter ends.’

    Nope. It will settle for once and all when you file a PIL with the supreme court challenging its earlier verdict. But mind you, Subramaniam Swamy and the safron brigade has given up though the later still cry wolf whenever an election is around.

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  • Jeyan Nathann Karunanithi
    May 14, 2013 - 6:38AM

    First of all, am surprised by your conclusions that politics in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu is caste based. The main reason for the rise of regional parties is the excessive centralization of decision making at New Delhi offices, which make rest of the country feel left out.

    National parties have historically performed bad in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu for past 40 years for the simple reason that they don’t resonate with the idea of federalism which these two states have championed for.

    In the course, we shouldn’t forget the historical error that was committed by central government at New Delhi in imposing Hindi as a National language and which led to wide spread student protests in Tamil Nadu. And the social revolution that ensued resulted in the whole population giving up the practice of using ‘surnames’ for it propagated superficial discrimination. When such is the case, it makes me wonder how could the writer come to a premature conclusion.

    And more over even when National parties do get elected in Southern states, they always take regional specific stance to be relevant.

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