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Caste in a new mould

Caste in a new mould

Author: Lucia Michelutti
Publication: India Today
Date: December 4, 2009
URL: http://indiatoday.intoday.in/site/StoryPrint?sId=74191&secid=30&page=null

Introduction: The New breed of cosmopolitan provincial politicians remains configured by caste lines, if only to retain existing benefits rather than gain new ones in a even more polarized nation

One of the most striking political developments of the last decade has been the rise and consolidation of caste-based regional parties. During this time the political significance of lower castes/communities, and lower caste political leaders like Lalu Prasad Yadav and Mayawati, have achieved national prominence.

Underprivileged groups have gradually emerged as major votebanks in opposition to the 'forward castes' and revolutionised the Indian political arena at all levels. Not only have historically disadvantaged groups become more likely to vote and participate in politics than their well-educated and wealthy counterparts, but there has also been a radical change in the face of the Lok Sabha and state assemblies, with many more politicians coming from lower caste backgrounds than ever before.

Underpinning these political developments has been great social change. Popular politics did not spring out of the blue in the late 1990s, and its development is linked to long-term processes of social transformation beyond the realm of electoral politics. These changes have not only shaped the practice of electoral politics, but have also more fundamentally altered the social and cultural meaning of democracy in India.

The argument I put forward in my monograph, The Vernacularisation of Democracy, is that popular politics thrives when ideas and practices of democracy enter and transform domains of life which are not usually considered to be 'political' like family life, caste, kinship, marriage ideologies, and popular religion. Thus, the entrance of underprivileged sections of society into mass politics has not been a response to changes that took place in the realm of party politics, but rather has been the result of ongoing transformations in the social and cultural structure of society which political parties then caught up with and reacted to.

The rise of regional caste-based parties over the last two decades has been encouraged by a number of interlinked social processes such as the weakening of the legitimacy of caste hierarchy, changes in the local patterns of authority and patronage and crucially the 'substantialisation' of caste and its transformation into a 'quasiethnic group'. Ethnographic research shows how the caste system defined by hierarchical relations is changing its nature. As a result, castes are increasingly becoming competitive 'horizontal' groups.

This provides the basis for new forms of political competition. And it is precisely as 'horizontal' groups that they have been mobilised by regional political parties. It represents a shift from the mobilisation techniques used by the Congress during the first decades of rule.

During the 1950s and 1960s, the Congress transformed patron-client relations between so-called 'dominant castes' and other castes into a votebank through 'vertical mobilisation'. In doing so the party put together coalitions of upper and lower castes. By the 1970s, however, the experience of competitive electoral politics, and the impact of education, reserved jobs and land reforms, weakened local structures of dominance, and this opened up political spaces for traditionally marginalised (both economically and ritually) castes and communities.

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