Home / Opinion / Columns /  The role of caste as a coordinate in Kerala’s politics

The role of caste in politics has been a highly debated topic in India. Scholars argue that Indians vote their caste rather than cast their votes. To a certain extent this is true of Kerala also. In a sense, the emergence of democratic politics in the state during the pre-Independence period was a by-product of political mobilization undertaken by various religious and caste-based movements. Hence, Kerala has a strong tradition of community organizations and political parties existing in a symbiotic relationship. Interestingly, this also produced a convergence between the leadership of caste organizations and political parties as the first generation of political leaders were none other than the leaders of their respective communities.

This points towards a major limitation of the social reform movements that took place in the state and, also, the under-developed nature of its economy. Reform movements could never address the larger sociopolitical and cultural issues that had their origin in the caste system. On the other hand, the agrarian economy of the state held very little promise of social mobility for the then emerging middle class, particularly the newly mobile among the lower castes. Naturally, controlling state power, rather than anything else, became the central issue for various caste groups.

This continued in the post-Independence period also, though the consolidation of the Communist movement and its eventual emergence to power in 1957 initially held the promise of containing the influence of caste. However, the overthrow of the Communist ministry in 1959, following the ‘liberation struggle’ organized by caste/communal forces, dampened such initiatives. This gradually opened the possibility for communal forces to manipulate the political processes by forming alliances with secular forces.

The above development soon came to have its repercussions in the cultural sphere as well. As the noted historian K. N. Panikkar says, parties began emphasizing political struggles over cultural struggles. Further, they even began considering cultural politics as secondary to power politics with the result that though Kerala advanced politically, it suffered serious setback in the cultural front. It also needs to be remembered that the very same middle class, which was largely instrumental in providing a secular and progressive content to the sociocultural and political spheres of Kerala earlier, now began to project its class interest through the kaleidoscope of communalism. Chances for this are tremendous today in the face of increasing consumerist culture and depoliticization among the middle class, particularly the younger generation. They do not have any political memory nor any political existence as they have little contact with the society. They actually exist in the penumbral region between depoliticization, consumerism and communalism. Hence, they are easy targets of communal outfits. Further, in the era of globalization, working class politics is facing a severe crisis, which is making the task of communal forces much easier. Globalization has stolen from them their class consciousness, their politics itself. This is clearly seen in Kerala today where labour militancy has become a thing of the past, and where the labour is struggling for their survival.

J. Prabhash is professor of political science at the University of Kerala.

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