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Last week, a Dalit family was brutally attacked in Faridabad and their two children were murdered in an act of arson. It was an incident that shook us to the core and served as a grim reminder that the national mindset has to be immediately reset; to put it bluntly, the hegemony of the privileged (in this case, the upper castes) has to be dismantled.

The incident in Faridabad was not playing out in the inner recesses of rural India. Instead, it was happening in the National Capital Region and the atrocity is not a one-off moment. Statistics released by the National Crime Records Bureau show crimes against Scheduled Castes, or SCs, rose to 47,064 last year—up by about 40% from 33,594 six years ago. Any police officer will tell you this is an underestimate.

Worse, the Faridabad episode reminds us that such atrocities continue to occur even into the seventh decade since India became independent and adopted a Constitution guaranteeing freedom of rights to all regardless of caste, creed or religion. Surely, at the least, this is a systemic governance failure. And the irony is that the latest attack—not an isolated one—occurred in the year that is being observed as the 100th birth anniversary of Babasaheb Ambedkar by all the political parties.

Not surprising, politicians were quick to express their anguish and several rushed to commiserate with the grieving family. Our cynicism about politicians is such that most of us can’t be blamed for viewing it as yet another photo-op moment for political mileage. The point here is not to rest blame; instead, it is to flag the point that there is a need for structural change; to alter this discourse of prejudice. And one way this can be altered is through greater political power. This is easier said than done.

The ongoing Bihar assembly election shows us the wide gulf that exists between the claims and actual commitments of politicians. Almost every politician goes the extra mile to espouse their support to the socially disenfranchised of Bihar. In fact, caste has come to define the state’s politics—though incumbent chief minister Nitish Kumar and, more recently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi have reframed the debate to include development as a parameter in the electoral equation.

But in actual practice, politicians rarely walk the talk. Consequently, political under-representation follows, which, in turn, translates into bad policy. And in a system where only the loudest is heard, the voice of the majority, which is politically under-represented, is drowned out. The Most Backward Castes (MBCs), who have a quarter of the vote share in Bihar, accounted for only 5% of the members of the legislative assembly (MLAs) elected in 2010.

The MBCs are the single largest caste block in Bihar and yet struggle for a political voice. Part of the reason is that this caste is not homogenous and is also spread out in Bihar—making it difficult for them to evolve as a cohesive unit, though that may change with this election. Obviously, the consequences are marginalization.

In a recent interview with Mint, Asaduddin Owaisi, a three-time member of Parliament from Hyderabad and head of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, summed up the consequences. Though he specifically referred to Muslims, the inference can be extended to other marginalized communities. “We feel that in a parliamentary form of democracy, which is a participatory form, the representation of Muslim minority is coming down day by day. Another problem is development indicators, whether it is economic, social or health, have gone from bad to worse. We have an opinion that this has a direct correlation with the political disempowerment of the biggest minority of the country."

In the final analysis, it is clear that at the least, the narrative of the last seven decades has to change if India is to emerge as a truly representative democracy. A less prejudiced nation, goes without saying, also makes for good economics.

Anil Padmanabhan is deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comments are welcome at capitalcalculus@livemint.com

His Twitter handle is @capitalcalculus

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