Home / News / India /  Will class politics replace caste politics in India?

One cliché looms large in every election campaign in India: that caste politics may finally give way to class politics. But as counting begins on the day of the election verdict, caste subsumes every other factor, even in serious analyses of election results.

In the recently held Bihar assembly elections, Tejashwi Yadav’s jobs plank couched in the language of ‘economic justice’ came across as the dawn of class politics. In the post-election analysis, this factor had disappeared entirely.

So, does caste continue to rule politics as always? Or is there a new class consciousness emerging in the country? Our reading of the tea leaves suggests the latter. Three key factors seem to have raised the salience of class in India’s polity today, we reason. Rising inequality in the country, widened by the pandemic, is the first and most immediate factor. The second factor is the emergence of a new aspirational class with its own values and expectations from the state. The final factor is the fragmentation of old caste coalitions and the interplay of caste and class in recreating caste coalitions and political affiliations.

The pandemic has already widened the job market divide and inequality is expected to remain high even in the post-pandemic period. This is likely to put two classes of sizeable size in opposition to each other: the ‘middle class’ Indians (including the aspirational neo middle class) and the poor.

India has always been a predominantly poor country. But after three decades of rapid economic growth, India’s ‘middle class’ has bulged and the ranks of the poor have shrunk. Only now, the divide between the haves and the have-nots has substantial representation on both sides.

Consider this: in the 2019 post-poll survey by Lokniti, more than 50% of the respondents considered themselves middle class, and 32% considered themselves lower to poor class. Clearly, two sizable opposing groups have formed, with differing, and sometimes oppositional interests.

The current crisis has pushed the government to implement relatively unpopular reforms on labour and farm laws, in a bid to attract new investments and revive growth. The upper middle class sees these reforms as long pending measures that will modernize the Indian economy. The rest view them with suspicion. The disruption of the old order helps sharpen the divide between the two groups, setting the ground for confrontational class politics.

Further, the self-identification as middle class has meant that expectations from the state have begun to change, with the state being seen as an enabler rather than as a provider. Even the Bharatiya Janata Party’s rise can be linked to the reshaping of such expectations, as we have argued earlier.

This change in the perception of the state is also driven by greater individualism in society. The World Values Survey data for India shows a steady increase in the desirability of ‘independence’ as a character trait.

When such shifts take place, traditional identity gives way to the more mobile class identity, and creates ground for new politics that responds to these needs. In a 2017 essay, the political scientist Devesh Kapur and co-authors showed how India’s rising aspirational class has a completely distinctive worldview.

These differences lie at the heart of the emerging class divide in the country today. The shifts in caste-based loyalties that we see today are also linked fundamentally to class differences.

The fragmentation of old umbrella caste-based coalitions and the rising salience of mobilization along the lines of individual sub-castes or jatis, are in a way shaped by material interests and income differences. In the post-Mandal era, caste-based politics were along the axes of broad categories such as Dalits and OBCs (Other Backward Classes). But within-group inequality in these social groups are extraordinarily high, research shows.

Political parties have already begun capitalizing on these differences as we have seen economic aspirations taking centre stage in the mobilizational plank of all parties. The BJP has been trying to widen the wedge between the ‘lower OBCs’ and ‘upper OBCs’ for many years now, arguing that it is the ‘upper OBCs’ who have been the chief beneficiaries of reservations. BJP’s meteoric rise under the leadership of Narendra Modi owes a lot to the party’s ability to exploit such intra-caste cleavages, as these pages have pointed out earlier.

This is not easy to sustain in the long-run as the party must also find a balance between the competing interests of traditional middle classes who have gained from the status quo and the neo-middle classes favouring dismantling of the old order.

The interplay of caste and class in India is of course not entirely new. Both B.R. Ambedkar and Ram Manohar Lohia engaged with the questions around class. But both recognized that caste, more than class, will be the central axis of political mobilization in India. In a famous lecture in Hyderabad in 1952, Lohia referred to caste as immobile class, and class as mobile caste.

Ambedkar and Lohia recognized that the ‘objective conditions’ in newly-independent India were not ripe for Marxist class politics. A country that had very low levels of industrialization did not offer much scope for class politics to emerge, given the limited size of the organized labour force. Besides, most of India’s population lived in poverty, and depended on the state for their well-being.

Since then, the ‘objective conditions’ have changed, and hence, a new class-based politics seems to be emerging. However, it is worth keeping in mind that not everything has changed. That limits the scope of class-based politics.

Economic expansion has swollen the ranks of the middle class. Yet, India’s ‘middle class’ only represents the top deciles of India’s income distribution, and poverty, while diminished, hasn’t shown any sign of disappearing so far.

Thus, the emergence of new class-based politics is unlikely to entirely displace the conventional axes of politics in India. No party is going to ignore caste. But it is likely that old caste-based coalitions and configurations will give way to new, with class interests providing the common glue.

Similarly, no party is likely to turn its back on the welfare state. So the real contest would be on different welfare models political parties can offer. The Bihar elections were a prime example: the two main alliances promised jobs, but while the opposition alliance promised jobs by filling government vacancies, the National Democratic Alliance promised jobs through private businesses.

The final limits on class-based politics comes from politics that can transcend class through more potent overarching narratives. The 2019 Lok Sabha elections are a case in point. In the year before the elections, the narrative of economic stagnation and rural distress gained traction.

But post-Balakot, national security became a bigger factor, and voters rated the government much more favourably even on economy-related issues. It was as if the Balakot missile strike cast a new shine on everything the government did.

So emotive issues are unlikely to disappear from the political space. Economics will not replace social and cultural agendas even as issues relating to jobs and incomes gain greater salience. The politics of today and tomorrow will have to contend with both socio-cultural and economic anxieties even as they contend with the twin divides of caste and class.

The authors are based at the Centre for Policy Research (CPR), New Delhi.

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