One of the favourite narratives around elections in the past five years has been on the growing irrelevance of caste. However, research indicates that caste does play a strong role, even today, in initial voter decisions, but may be less useful in explaining changes in political outcomes.
In a large-sample (68,500 households) attitudinal survey conducted at the end of 2013, researchers from the Lokniti Foundation, the Centre for the Advanced Study of India (CASI) at the University of Pennsylvania and the Carnegie Endowment asked the question: “Is it important to you that a [upper caste/Other Backward Class/Schedule Caste] candidate wins the election in your constituency?,” the prompt reflecting their respective caste grouping.
“What we found is that 46 per cent of the respondents answered in the affirmative or, in other words, demonstrated a co-ethnic bias,” Milan Vaishnav, Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told The Hindu .
Asked whether they would be troubled by a candidate from a caste grouping other than theirs winning in their constituency, 36 per cent of the respondents said ‘Yes’ in response to a direct question and 57 per cent to an indirect question. “The take-away from this is that there is a significant amount of caste bias in politics, both in terms of favouring co-ethnics and opposing non-co-ethnics,” Mr. Vaishnav said.
Stronger even than individual caste biases towards candidates is the affiliation of certain sub-castes to specific parties, says Sanjay Kumar, Director of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, who led its post-election National Election Studies (NES). “We found strong affiliations of specific castes like the Yadavs to specific parties like the Samajwadi Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD). This affiliation to regional parties was stronger than to national parties. We found that it had not weakened between 2004 and 2009,” Mr. Kumar said.
If the RJD were to field an upper caste candidate, its Yadav base would still vote for the candidate. However, no party would field a Scheduled Caste candidate in a non-reserved constituency because party affiliation could not trump bias against those castes. What caste preferences are less adept at explaining, however, are changes in political fortunes. Psephologist Yogendra Yadav has argued that when a party wins or loses the general election, it gains or loses votes across caste groups. Moreover, since most major parties field candidates of same caste in a given constituency, modern electoral politics is being forced into a “caste-plus” state.
Rahul Verma, a doctoral candidate at the Travers Department of Political Science, University of California, found that while caste and economic conditions did not explain the odds of voting for one party or the other, caste did interact with the voter’s perception of the change in her economic condition.