With five to six castes of roughly equal size in every constituency, but nearly always two major contenders, most people are compelled to vote outside their caste even if that really hurts

The great untruth that weighs on our minds, especially during the election season, is the correlation we make between caste and voting behaviour. This is lazy thinking; just because caste influences decisions on marriage and other assorted rituals, this does not mean that it has a free run everywhere.

To cure ourselves of this unexamined prejudice, all we need to do is climb a short learning curve.

Demography and distribution

Let us begin with demographic facts. Except for Maharashtra where Marathas, of one kind or another, constitute about 33 per cent of the population, everywhere else, no caste, in a numeric sense, dominates any constituency. West Uttar Pradesh is supposed to be a Jat stronghold, but the Jats constitute between 8-10 per cent of the population. Likewise, in the rest of U.P., the Yadavs rarely ever constitute more than 12-15 per cent in most parliamentary constituencies. In Bihar’s Madhopura region which is reputed to be an impregnable Yadav stronghold, only 23-25 per cent of the people there belong to this caste.

If then in most constituencies there are five to six castes of roughly equal size, but nearly always two major contenders, imagine the strain this poses to simplistic arithmetic. With numbers such as these, most people are compelled to vote outside their caste even if that hurts. As nobody wants to waste their vote, circumstances force many to give their caste sentiments a rest when they enter the polling booth. After all, there are only two viable candidates in the fray, but the voters come from five or six different caste groups. This is why most of them return home after opting for someone they would not have tea with. Unsurprisingly, when psephologists and politicians use caste numbers to predict election results, they are almost always wrong.

That they go wrong even in the supposedly caste-ridden States of U.P. and Bihar does not appear to dent their confidence. Even in places like Madhopura, Arrah, Barka, Khagariya, where the Yadavs have a sort of significant presence, it is not as if Mr. Lalu Prasad Yadav’s people won every time. Or take U.P. too; during the period 1991-1998, there was no consistency in electoral outcomes in areas of high Yadav population, such as Azamgarh, Jaunpur and Ghazipur. In Maharashtra too one finds a similar trend. In constituencies where there is a high Maratha presence, such as in Bombay South, Bombay South Central, Ahmednagar and Kopargaon, the honours were distributed between different parties in the elections held between 1991-1998.

Urban bias and homogenising

So, if voters consider issues other than caste it is not out of the largeness of their hearts, but because of the force of numbers. Politicians, true to form, function differently, raised as they have been on patron-client networks. This is why when it comes to giving the ticket, appointing election agents and recruiting goon squads, they look for hangers-on from their own caste and kin groups first. Sadly, most journalists reflect these caste calculations because of their proximity to political bigwigs. As their election jaunts with politicians in jeeps and planes are treated like scoops, they miss facts that are at a slight distance, and don’t even know it.

There is yet another reason why election specialists go wrong, and we may call this an outcome of an urban bias. From a distance it appears as if all those who belong to the category called “Scheduled Castes” (SC) or “Other Backward Classes” (OBC) look alike, think alike and are organically linked. This is another myth.

When the Marathwada riots exploded in Maharashtra in 1979, the Mahars, but not the other SCs, were the object of Maratha wrath. This prompted many Mang and Matang families to etch their caste names prominently on their huts to escape Maratha rage. Few would argue that Ms Mayawati is a champion of the Jatavs in U.P., but that does not say it all. The Jatav caste does dominate SC numbers in U.P., but there are large districts like Kanpur, Lucknow, Allahabad, Gonda, Rae Bareilly, Pratapgarh and Sonbhadra where SCs, other than Jatavs, have a larger presence. So, it is not as if all Scheduled Castes are in the same boat.

How else can one explain why the BSP lost every seat in 2002 in all the Sonbhadra constituencies of east U.P.? This is one of the districts were the SCs are dominant, but where the Jatavs have a lesser presence. Come 2007 and the situation undergoes a dramatic reversal; Ms Mayawati conquers the region. In 2012, another shift; this time Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) loses half the territories it had won just five years ago. Even when we are talking about the SCs in U.P., and with Ms Mayawati on our minds, there is no clear caste correlation.

We make a similar error when it comes to the OBCs. From a distance, it seems, once again, that all these agrarian communities are one undifferentiated mass with earth in their toe nails, but that is where the resemblance stops. The Jats and Gujjars, for example, have a poor opinion about each other. In fact, there are popular tales and fables, that are related at the drop of a hat where one community calumnies the other.

For example, the Jats believe that because Gujjars sell milk, they could sell their family too. The Gujjars return the compliment by saying that the Jats had purportedly sold their souls to the British and that they could do so again to the highest bidder. Yet, we have often heard it being said that there is a caste logic that binds those listed in the OBC category. A quick visit to India’s villages will knock this fantasy out cold.

This should prepare us to look for reasons other than caste loyalties, or traditions, when we examine the rise of OBC mobilisation. Agrarian castes united, post-Mandal, not because they had traditional ties of solidarity, but because they felt deprived in a rapidly urbanising society. They saw opportunity in OBC reservations. There are always straightforward economic reasons behind many a caste manoeuvre. The same logic applied during the All India Kurmi Sabha of the 1930s. It had within its fold the Koeris, Ayudhyyas and Dhanuks whose caste rules did not permit them to even eat together. In later decades, the KHAM (Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi, Muslim) and AJGAR (Ahir, Jat, Gujjar and Rajput) combines made political bedfellows of disparate, often hostile, castes. They succeeded in this because livelihood interests make for good pillow talk.

Caste and patronage

Neither the Jats nor the Yadavs were a majority community anywhere. But it was their secular accomplishments that magnified their presence. In west U.P., for example, the Jats were the best placed in terms of official connections and literacy. It is because they controlled this “social capital” that the Gujjars and Sainis in the neighbourhood came to them for favours. If they wanted a job, file a complaint with the electricity board, or hide from the police, only a Jat worthy could help them out. The Yadavs played a similar patronising role elsewhere in east U.P. and in large parts of Bihar. From the outside, it was easy to come away with the view that areas like Meerut, Muzaffarnagar and Bijnor belonged to the Jats just as Madhopura and Khagariya were Yadav pockets.

The situation is changing. Over the past 30 years or so, other OBCs have managed to send forth their own band of notables from within their respective castes. This has diminished the aura that the Jats and Yadavs once had. The same process holds true for the SCs as well. At one time, the Mahars were the best connected among the SCs in Maharashtra just as the Jatavs were in U.P. With time, however, other SCs have also gained their own clutch of virtuosos: literati, schoolteachers, police inspectors, businessmen, and so on. Consequently, their dependence on the Mahars or Jatavs has, more or less, snapped.

Unlike the 1990s, caste and patronage no longer go together, not even within the OBCs and SCs. This is because there are now patrons, or near patrons, that come from many castes, whether from the SC or OBC category. There is then greater elite rivalry among castes making it difficult to play the caste card down the middle. Also, now that reservation has covered nearly all but the Brahmans, Baniyas and Rajputs, there is little that can be gained by agitating and mobilising along caste lines.

Politicians have caught on to this which is why many of them, turncoat style, are now talking about development instead.

(Dipankar Gupta is distinguished professor and director, Centre for Public Affairs and Critical Theory, Shiv Nadar University.)

More In: Lead | Opinion