Different caste groups have their loyalties behind different political parties and their ideologies. Right from birth, an Indian citizen inherits a caste and grows up as a member of a particular group.
We belong either to one of the High Castes or to Scheduled Castes. In the process of picking up political orientations, attitude and beliefs, we naturally come under the influence of caste groups and casteism. “Caste values” and caste interests influence our socialisation and consequently political thinking, awareness and participation. We bank upon caste solidarity for occupying and performing a leadership role.
Caste influences the process of leadership recruitment. This is particularly true of “caste conscious” people of some States like Haryana, Bihar, UP, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. In Haryana, the leadership comes either from the Jats, Bishnois or Brahmins. In Andhra Pradesh, the Reddys, Kammas and Valamas provide State leaders.
Caste factor is constituent of the Indian party system. Some political parties have a direct caste basis while others indirectly bank upon particular caste groups. In particular, the regional political parties stand predominantly influenced by the caste factor. The DMK and AIADMK are non-Brahmin, rather anti-Brahmin political parties of Tamil Nadu.
In Punjab, the Akali Dal has a community panthic identity but stands influenced by the issue of Jats vs non-Jats. All political parties in India use caste as a means for securing votes in elections. While the BSP banks upon the support of the SCs, the BJP largely banks upon its popularity among the higher caste Hindus and the trading community. While formulating its policies and decisions, each political party in India almost always keeps in mind the “caste angle”.
The caste factor is important in electoral politics in India. All political parties give great weightage to the caste factor in selecting their candidates, in allocating constituencies to their candidates and in canvassing support for their nominees in the election.
In constituencies predominated by Muslims, Muslim candidates are fielded and in areas predominated by Jats, Jat candidates are fielded. Even avowedly secularist parties like the Congress, the Janata Dal, the CPI and the CPM take into consideration the caste factor in selecting their candidates. In election campaigns, votes are demanded in the name of caste. Caste groups are tapped for committed support.
No one can disagree with ND Palmer when he observes: “Caste considerations are given great weight in the selection of candidates and in the appeals to voters during election campaigns.” In elections, caste acts as the most important political party.
Caste acts both as a divisive and cohesive force in Indian politics. It provides a basis for the emergence of several interest groups in the Indian system, each of which competes with every other group in the struggle for power. At times it leads to an unhealthy struggle for power and acts as a divisive force. However, it is a source of unity among the members of various groups and acts as a cohesive force.
In rural India, where the social universe of the rural power is limited to an area of 15–20 km, caste acts as a unifying force. It is the only social group they understand. However, the existence of two or three big caste groups also leads to factionalism. Caste as such is a strong factor in Indian politics and it acts as a cohesive as well as a divisive factor.
Since caste is a major feature of Indian society and acts as an important factor in various processes of politics, it also plays a big role in the decision-making process. Even the issue of re-organisation of States is handled with an eye upon the prevention of undue predominance of a caste group in a particular territory. Caste factor influences the policies and decisions of the state governments. The party in power always tries to use its decision-making power to win the favour of major caste groups.
The Congress has always tried to nurture people belonging to the SC as its vote bank. Regional political parties, whenever they get the chance to rule their respective States, always use political power for furthering the interests of the caste groups which support or can support their regimes.
Recruitment to political offices is mostly done with due consideration of the caste of a person. Caste factor influences the process of ministry making and the allocation of portfolios. Each big caste group always tries to secure ministerial berths for elected representatives who belong to their caste.
The role of caste in the working of the Panchayati Raj and other institutions of local self-government is a recognised reality. We can go to the extent of recording that caste-based factionalism in rural areas of India is one of the biggest hindering factors in the organisation and effective working of the Panchayat. In the Indian rural context, caste has been a plank of mobilisation, a channel of communication, representation and leadership and a linkage between the electorate and the political process.
Though the spirit of secularism stands clearly affirmed in the constitution, yet, in a limited and indirect way, it recognises the caste system in the form of providing for caste-based reservations. Reservation of seats for the SCs and STs in the Union Parliament and the State Legislative Assemblies (Art. 330 and 332) as well as in public services reflect this feature. Even the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) stand determined on caste basis.
The Constitution of India also provides for the office of the commissioner of SCs and STs with the responsibility to investigate matters relating to various safeguards provided by the constitution to these castes and tribes. The provision for the appointment of a minister-in-charge for looking after the welfare of the SCs, STs and OBCs in the States of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa also reflects the indirect recognition of the caste factor.
The emergence of strong pro-reservation and anti-reservation groups in India has been a direct consequence of such provisions of the constitution. The repeated tenures for the continuation of the policy of reservations (the provision stands extended up to the year 2020) for SCs, STs and OBCs is a major controversial political issue.
The reservation policy reflects the role of the caste factor in politics. The OBCs are basically caste-based classes. Now, reservation in the private sector is being implemented and the quantum of reservation is going to be quite high.
Caste-based violence very often finds its way into politics. The traditional differences between the higher and lower castes have acquired a new vigour and have turned, at times, into a violent and fierce struggle for power in society.
The growing terrorisation of the lower castes by the higher or even intermediary castes has become a sad part of India’s political reality in States like Maharashtra, Bihar, Gujarat and UP. Caste violence has raised its head even in some urban areas. Existence of Caste Sena’s in many States is an unfortunate reality of state politics. Caste violence has been a source of big strain on social and political life.
Caste has been emerging as a factor in the process of leadership recruitment. The leadership of Sh Kanshi Ram and Ms Mayawati (SC/ST Combination) is caste-based. So was the leadership of Ch Charan Singh in UP, Karpoori Thakur in Bihar and Dev Raj in Karnataka. The leadership of Sh Laloo Prasad Yadav in Bihar is again an example of caste-based leadership.