Caste-based political parties failed to secure a victory as they continued to use the politics of difference as an end rather than as a means to graduate to the politics of redistribution

First generation leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru and eminent modernist Indian sociologists expected that the institution of caste will dissolve under the spell of modernity. However, social realities proved to be far more complex and caste continued to reinvent itself, changing its form but not content and influencing much of socio-economic life. This debate has taken a new turn with the recent decisive electoral victory of the Bhartiya Janata Party under the leadership of Narendra Modi.

Caste-based political parties in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, who had galvanised the Dalits and Other Backward Classes (OBCs) towards a democratic revolution, experienced their worst electoral defeat. Election surveys conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies inform that the BJP not only drew massive support from its traditional constituency — upper castes and trading communities — but also attracted a critical number of Dalits and OBCs. One in four Dalits voted for the BJP. The Muslim vote did not make any impact because either their votes got divided between ‘secular’ parties or the addition of their votes to the non-BJP parties was not sufficient in a first-past-the-post system. The shift of a section of Dalits and OBCs towards the BJP was small, but very critical for the party to emerge victorious. It is also significant because ideologically the BJP believes in carving out an organic unity between different Hindu social groups and preserving social hierarchy between different castes. Why did this section of Dalits and OBCs vote for an ideologically incompatible political formation at the expense of parties that had laboured hard for their political empowerment?

Caste-based parties in U.P. and Bihar represent Dalits, OBCs and Muslims. Dalits and OBCs share an antagonistic relationship, but we are clubbing them to highlight a few analytical points that we believe explain the current electoral failure of caste-based political parties.

Political powerlessness

Caste-based parties acquired their political and electoral strength by opposing the ‘politics of equal recognition.’ Politics of equal recognition promised equal rights and equality between citizens. It was rejected by Dalits and OBCs in favour of the ‘politics of difference.’ The politics of equal recognition was seen as being ‘difference blind’ and attesting one hegemonic culture whereas the politics of difference recognised the particularities of each social group and the non-assimilation of group identity. The politics of difference practised by political parties drawing their support from the Dalits and OBCs gave them huge political dividends for almost two decades. However, the politics of difference, argues Nancy Fraser, is not sufficient and has to be complimented by the ‘politics of redistribution’, that is, policy initiatives for redistributing income, reorganising the division of labour, subjecting investment to democratic decision-making and transforming other basic economic structures. This is where caste-based political parties failed and they continued to use the politics of difference as an end rather than as a means to graduate to the politics of redistribution. Dalits and OBCs are caught between political assertion and belief in the domain of culture and electoral politics, and a sense of disappointment that their socio-political empowerment did not translate into economic well-being. This disappointment provided the BJP the space to craft a ‘politics around disillusionment’, which feeds on the collective estrangement of social groups from their original political choices due to their prevailing economic conditions. It is shaped by two inter-related elements: political rudderlessness and political powerlessness.

Political rudderlessness implies a deficit of political vision and acumen in caste-based political parties for ushering in fundamental change. Caste-based political parties eked out opportunistic political alliances to acquire political power and compromised on the emancipatory potential embedded in their original political vision. This not only disillusioned Dalits and OBCs but also led them to experience a certain kind of political powerlessness.

Political powerlessness develops when social groups seem to know the appropriate action for achieving their political goals, but are ineffective in practice. The failure of caste-based politics and political parties to usher in what Fraser calls ‘transformative recognition [politics of difference] and redistribution’ translated into a critical section of Dalits and OBCs shifting their political allegiance to an ideologically contradictory political formation upholding social hierarchy — the BJP — in a classic case of political powerlessness.

Reinventing vision

What does this entail for the future of caste-based parties? Caste-based parties have still not lost their core support. They need to reinvent their vision and demonstrate a road map for implementing a transformative politics of recognition/difference and redistribution. The former is already in play. However, what is lacking is a genuine politics of redistribution. One framework for operationalising the politics of redistribution is to politically support the principle of economic citizenship — a thesis put forth by Barbara Harriss-White and her colleagues in the context of India’s market society in which the informal sector contributes 60 and 93 per cent of the GDP and employment respectively. A majority of Dalits and OBCs toil in this sector as casual workers or are self-employed, earning a bare minimum and are denied any social security benefits. Thus, beyond the state, markets are the major providers of employment and livelihood opportunities. However, markets while rewarding cannot guarantee employment or ensure distributive justice. Instead, markets can generate oppressive wage conditions, displace labour, discriminate and adversely include ‘less privileged’ social groups.

The state alone can set the parameters for economic participation, including taking responsibility for the limits of its own control and for the conditions under which political citizens are economically active. Unless the Indian state sets a framework of rights where each able citizen is able to participate in the market and earn, the politics around disillusionment will continue to persist, albeit taking newer forms and content.

The politics of redistribution is not only crucial for caste-based parties but also for the BJP, if it has to consolidate the impressive electoral gains that it has made in the current election.

(Aseem Prakash is associate professor and Suraj Gogoi is research associate at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.)

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