State elections, limits of caste-based strategies

Caste demographics do not have the deterministic effect on electoral outcomes that is often assumed

October 18, 2021 12:02 am | Updated 12:53 am IST

Meerut, 28/03/2019. BJP Supporters in large numbers to attend Prime Minister Narendra Modi First Election Sankalp Rally at Meerut in Uttar Pradesh on Thursday, March 28, 2019. Photo by R V Moorthy / The Hindu

Meerut, 28/03/2019. BJP Supporters in large numbers to attend Prime Minister Narendra Modi First Election Sankalp Rally at Meerut in Uttar Pradesh on Thursday, March 28, 2019. Photo by R V Moorthy / The Hindu

As a new round of State elections approaches in India, political parties are crafting their electoral strategies. A large part of this exercise consists of constituency mapping, or gathering data about caste and community demographics, information about the local balance of power between groups, and the identification of local caste leaders, with the aim of matching candidates’ selection with a particular reading of the socio-political characteristics of each seat.

As a political variable

These caste-based strategies also include larger-scale equations, in which parties target their discourse towards specific segments of the electorate, again defined along caste lines. In recent months, we have seen the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Samajwadi Party (SP) amplifying gestures towards Brahmin communities, hoping to bank on the resentment generated by an overtly pro-Rajput administration.


Both practices — micro- and macro-caste targeting — have been used in Indian politics, and in Uttar Pradesh in particular, for a long time. The incentives for parties and candidates to look at the electorate through the lens of caste are clear: caste makes a complex social and political scene readable. It simplifies things. It spares parties from having to address what individuals want, by clubbing individual aspirations into collective ones, based on their ascriptive identities.

But reading politics or the electorate exclusively through the lens of caste leads to many over-simplifications and misconceptions about the ways caste operates as a political variable.

For instance, much is made about caste voting and caste and party alignments. Pre-poll and post-poll surveys seek to investigate the electoral behaviour of large groups taken as a whole. In reality, most voters in Uttar Pradesh do not belong to groups that are associated in any stable way with any party. Caste politics is the game of a few and not of many. Most castes are too small or too geographically scattered, or too poor, to constitute a core support base for any party or candidate, even locally.

Findings of a survey

As a result, only a few groups vote cohesively for specific parties, such as the Jatavs for the BSP, the Yadavs for the SP, upper castes with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and so on. And even then, the extent of cohesiveness in these groups’ support to the parties that seek to represent them greatly varies through time. According to a Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS)/Lokniti survey data, since 2007, the support of Jatavs and Yadavs for the BSP and SP has eroded. The same survey data reveal a growing rift among Yadavs along class lines, richer Yadavs being more likely to vote for the BJP. Over the past 30 years, upper-caste voters have not always supported the BJP cohesively and neither have the large number of small, non-dominant Other Backward Classes and Dalit groups that today constitute the other core of its electoral base in Uttar Pradesh.


The data available on how people vote suggest an absence of caste-based block voting and show instead caste-party alignments that are loose, and fluctuate over time.

Micro-targeting strategy

Since 2014, the BJP has successfully developed a strategy based on the micro-targeting of small groups. To achieve this, it has used a combination of approaches or registers of mobilisation that include caste appeal, through the organisation of small caste melas, the induction of non-dominant OBC leaders within the party, the sponsoring of small caste/community events, and so forth. It also uses the rhetoric of inclusion and justice by claiming to be non-discriminatory in the distribution and provision of public goods and welfare benefits. In the process, they depict their adversaries as elitist political parties that treat their core support base preferentially. Lastly, they also use religion and nationalism as mobilisation tools that are meant to bind together segments of the electorate that have otherwise little interest in common, including the upper castes. This is how the BJP has succeeded in building a social coalition of groups that include both traditional upper-caste elites and non-dominant backward groups.


Caste in this context does not lose its salience but is merely part of a strategy that uses a variety of discourses to mobilise voters. Caste arithmetic matters, but is insufficient in and of itself to win an election. For instance, caste considerations will still largely determine the distribution of tickets, which, in turn, will shape the representation of various groups in the State Assembly. But it does not account for the complexity of voters’ electoral behaviour, nor for overall party appeal or campaign effects.

Strongholds and seats

Another indicator of the fluctuating association between caste and politics is the relatively small number of caste strongholds, defined as seats that regularly return MLAs who may belong to different parties but belong to the same caste.

In 2017, 319 seats changed hands in terms of party, owing to the strong performance of the BJP, which won 272 of these seats (it retained 40 of the 47 seats it won in 2012). Of these 319 seats, only 74 elected an MLA from the same caste as in 2012. Overall, the caste retention of seats in an Assembly of 403 was 34% (139 MLAs), which includes re-elected MLAs and new MLAs from the same or from different parties.


Even before the 2007 delimitation, the number of caste strongholds was quite limited. Between 1996 and 2007, voters elected MLAs who belong to the same caste consecutively in only 94 seats (28 of which were won by the same party in the three elections). This fact alone, combined with an overall high electoral volatility, indicates that caste demographics do not have the deterministic effect on electoral outcomes that is often assumed.

Caste-based strategies are also more likely to be effective when the electorate and the party system are highly fragmented. Parties can seek to build minimal caste coalitions at the constituency level to get the minimum number of votes required to garner seats. Before 2017, the average vote share of winners, or winning thresholds, hovered at around 35%.

This played to the advantage of regional parties, who could combine the strength of their core support base with the votes that candidates belonging to other castes could bring on their own. This was known as the transferability of vote bank.

Uttar Pradesh, post-2012

But after 2012, the rise of the BJP reduced the fragmentation of the party system, which meant the winning threshold was pushed higher. In 2017, the average vote share of winners was 43%, against 35% in 2012. In such a context, strategies that rely mostly on caste arithmetic become insufficient, since it is much harder to mobilise many castes at the same time in fragmented constituencies.


This explains why the BJP holds considerable advantage against its adversaries. Beyond the question of resources and organisational strength, the BJP has developed the ability to reach out to a wide array of groups by using multiple registers of mobilisation, including caste, religion, nationalism, welfare, and an anti-elite discourse targeting its opponents.

In contrast, the BSP and the SP seem to rely on the strategies that helped them win majorities in 2007 and 2012, but that have proved ineffective to counter the BJP’s dominance over the past three elections (2014, 2017 and 2019). The future will tell if these parties can reinvent their electoral strategies. The one thing that is certain for them at this point is that time is running short.

Gilles Verniers is Assistant Professor of Political Science and Co-Director of the Trivedi Centre for Political Data, Ashoka University. The views expressed are personal

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