A striking feature of elections in India, including the ongoing general elections of 2019, is the discussion on caste as a determinant of political outcomes. So much so that even the prime minister who otherwise enjoys considerable popularity among the electorate has to invoke his caste identity during election campaigns. While most of the regional parties in north and central India are clearly identified with particular castes or caste groups, even mainstream political parties such as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Congress are not immune to such considerations when it comes to candidate selections or striking alliances. And unlike religion, which is expressly prohibited for seeking votes, there is no such bar on invoking caste identities for votes.

While it is premature to suggest that caste has fully replaced class as the mobilizing factor, caste as a political category dominates the electoral discourse. It is surprising, given the assumption that seven decades of independence and rapid economic growth along with affirmative action to help disadvantaged groups would have broken down caste barriers. But it is not just a reality in rural areas, but also in urban areas, forcing candidates to reveal their caste identity. Part of the reason for persistence of caste as a political category is the worsening of inequality in the last three decades.

The process of growth since Independence and particularly since the onset of economic reforms from 1991 has certainly increased inequality in several dimensions. It has also led to consolidations among those who have been left behind. These have led to demand for separate states and reservations among the caste groups left behind. But there has been absence of political mobilizations on class lines.

While there is considerable overlap between caste and class, a failure to understand the role of caste has already led to a diminishing role of Left parties in the northern mainland. But it is important to ask the question of why class-based alliances, such as those of farmers or workers, have failed to get the same kind of traction as caste. More so at a time when an agrarian crisis has been prevailing in the country for some time now. Also, with joblessness, deteriorating working conditions and stagnating wages, there is absence of any mobilization among the workers. This is not to suggest that there has not been any mobilization on these lines. The last two years have seen numerous farmer agitations and large mobilizations along with worker unrest, but these have failed to emerge as political formations. Even among the youth who have been on the street demanding reservations, such consolidations have taken caste as their uniting factor, be it Jat, Patel or Maratha protests. Among those who are already under the ambit of Scheduled Caste (SC), Scheduled Tribe (ST) or Other Backward Class (OBC) quotas, the mobilization has been to strengthen the reservation system with hardly any mobilization on economic issues cutting across caste affiliations. The absence of economic issues such as the agrarian crisis and unemployment in their political mobilization is surprising.

However, another reason why caste may persist in the near future as an important category for political mobilization is the nature of economic growth. The changing nature of the Indian economy, with its focus on informal jobs, requires networks and access to markets, which continue to remain outside the ambit of reservation and affirmative action from the government. The fact that the private sector has virtually no provision for affirmative action in any sphere also implies that the largest sector of the economy has actually contributed to perpetuating the existing system of discrimination and exclusion. Even after three decades of economic reforms, the private sector continues to have insignificant representation of disadvantaged groups.

For disadvantaged groups, access to political power is the only way of participating in the process of growth in the new economy, where networks and patronage still operate in the same old fashion. More so in the informal sector than in the organised sector. Caste networks play an important role in ensuring access to credit, market and capital in a social and economic structure dominated by the old elite. But in the process, it has created new networks of access and patronage defined by access to the caste group which holds political power. This has led to a new process of political consolidation by caste groups within large political formations of SCs, STs and OBCs. New political forces representing smaller caste groups such as the Apna Dal, Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party, Nishad Party in Uttar Pradesh and smaller formations led by Kushwaha, Sahni and Manjhi sub-castes in Bihar, have emerged, fragmenting the political landscape further.

While these remain focused on ensuring political representation and thereby economic access to their caste groups, the absence of political consolidation on larger economic issues makes them dependent on the existing system. This in many ways expands the number of political groups staking a claim to economic resources and political power, but in the process strengthens the existing system of networks and patronage which they seek to eliminate.

Himanshu is associate professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University and visiting fellow at the Centre de Sciences Humaines, New Delhi

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