Caste’s Political Use in Today’s India


BANGALORE, India, June 15,2013 (Lavanya Shankaran): Caste is not a word that modernizing India likes to use. It has receded to the unfashionable background. Newspapers reserve their headlines for the newer metrics of social hierarchy: wealth and politics, and those powerful influencers of popular culture, actors and cricket stars. Traditionally, Indian society was divided into four main castes. The castes were ostensibly professional divisions but were locked firmly into place by birth and a rigid structure of social rules that governed interaction between and within them. That, famously, was then. Discrimination based on caste has been illegal in India for more than six decades.

As India transforms, one might expect caste to dissolve and disappear, but that is not happening. Instead, caste is making its presence felt in ways similar to race in modern America: less important now in jobs and education, but vibrantly alive when it comes to two significant societal markers — marriage and politics. No surprise on that first one. Inter-caste marriages in India are on the rise but still tend to be the province of the liberal few. For much of the country, with its penchant for arranged marriages and close family ties, caste is still a primary determinant in choosing a spouse. Politics is where caste has gotten a surprising new lease on life. Nearly half of the voting population of even a highly educated city like Bangalore considers caste to be the No. 1 reason to vote for a candidate.

Six decades of democratic statehood have attempted to correct the imbalances of the past through “reservation” — job and education quotas for the so-called backward castes, like the Dalits. This program has been effective, in a fairly hit-or-miss fashion. This changed in 2011, with the first Indian census to visit the subject in eight decades. The ostensible reason for the caste census was to see where we were economically. But let’s have no doubt, the impact will be political. Indian political parties have played caste politics for years. The census results will give strategists their best tools for precisely targeting voters and tailoring campaign messages to caste concerns and fears. Caste will probably grow as a voter focal point, at the expense of administrative competency in economics, education, foreign policy, women’s rights, the environment and every other vital matter of governance that concerns a growing India. So that is the fascinating conundrum of Indian society: on one hand, caste is losing its virility as India opens up opportunities and mindsets, while on the other, the forces of democratic politics ensure that it will thrive and never be forgotten as a crucial social index.

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