x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

As Indians cast their votes, caste is less important

The Bihar state elections are an affirmation of the fact that in many parts of emerging India, the politics of inclusive development is increasingly supplanting the divisive politics of caste.

It is the biggest electoral victory in the history of Bihar, India's most impoverished state. Nitish Kumar, the incumbent chief minister, roared back to power for a second term last month on his agenda to bring development to the state's poorest.

The coalition led by Mr Kumar won 206 of the 243 seats in the state assembly, stunning his predecessor, Lalu Prasad Yadav, a charismatic demagogue and the champion of identity politics, who won three successive elections in the past on the slogans of social justice for historically marginalised lower castes.

In elections five years ago, Mr Kumar edged out Mr Yadav in a narrow victory. Mr Yadav had taken up the social rights of Bihar's lower castes but failed to offer much in the way of good governance or long-term social transformation. During his 15 years in office, Bihar became the epitome of all that is woeful about emerging India: chronic poverty, anarchic crime and endemic corruption. The state had the country's highest child mortality and lowest literacy rates. Its notorious kidnapping and ransom industry was running a parallel economy, while the formal economy sank as investors and businessmen took flight amid growing lawlessness.

Under Mr Kumar, Bihar recovered impressively. He built thousands of kilometres of roads and hundreds of bridges. Law and order improved as he beefed up security even in the most anarchic pockets of the state. He built thousands of schools and hired tens of thousands of teachers, significantly reducing dropout rates.

Mr Kumar's latest election victory, this time with a yawning margin over Mr Yadav, is an affirmation of the fact that in many parts of emerging India, the politics of inclusive development is increasingly supplanting the divisive politics of caste. "Bihar has left caste behind," Mr Kumar said last month after his impressive election victory.

His electoral gains, which riveted the nation, marks the onset of a new era for India's fractious polity. For centuries, India has been blighted by casteism, a hereditary system of social structuring that divides people into endogamous classes. Those at the lower rungs of this hierarchical social pyramid have long lived in conditions of extreme poverty and great social disadvantage, while those at the very bottom have often been denounced as untouchables.

With these grave social inequalities, Indian politicians have effortlessly managed to parlay caste passions into votes. In Bihar, it was commonly said that a vast majority of people didn't "cast their vote", but they "vote their caste."

But with growing aspirations and the hunger for development amid a rapidly accelerating economy, caste no longer remains the sole criteria for voting preferences.

However, it still may be premature to write off identity politics altogether. It continues to be a significant tool of political mobilisation across India.

Since independence, India has legally abolished caste discrimination, but has not abolished caste as an identity. In Indian cities, caste divisions seem to have been somewhat blurred, if not erased, by more apparent class divisions spawned by the economic boom. But the indignities of caste-based violence stubbornly persist in the rural interior that is home to two thirds of India's population.

Identity politics, in these areas, is still seen as an effective instrument for social justice.

In Uttar Pradesh, for instance, India's most populous state, Mayawati was elected chief minister with a huge majority in 2007, even though her legacy has been mired in several allegations of corruption and embezzlement of public funds. She managed to mobilise the state's oppressed Dalits, or so called "untouchables", to elect her for their social upliftment, though she seems to have done little in this regard after her victory.

Even in Bihar, Mr Kumar's victory depended heavily on getting the caste arithmetic right. He may be labeled the "development man" of Bihar, but he is certainly not caste blind. He did not make rabble-rousing speeches about caste in his political campaigns, but through economic policy formulations he managed to forge new caste alliances that would benefit him electorally. He cleverly fragmented his rival's lower caste support base through focused incentives, including reservations in local government bodies and special economic aid, for individual groups.

In his previous tenure in office, he refused to carry out crucial land reforms even though they were highly recommended by a land reforms commission. He feared that this might anger the state's powerful landed gentry, an upper-caste group that remains a crucial voting bank.

Observers have begun writing off Mr Kumar's bête noire, Mr Yadav, but he still holds considerable sway among lower castes in Bihar. In this election, his party won 25 per cent of the total votes, a number that could rise by the next election.

Mr Yadav scoffs at the politics of development. "You only need a road if you own a car," he once told a gathering of poor, lower caste farmers who complained about Bihar's poor road infrastructure when he was the chief minister. But they largely remained loyal to him. Mr Yadav may not have given them roads and development, but his three terms as chief minister gave the lower castes a sense of proxy psychological empowerment. He is credited for releasing them from the tyranny of upper-caste landlords.

Perpetuating the caste divide worked well in furthering Mr Yadav's electoral ambitions in the past. But his recent election debacle shows that whipping up caste passions alone will no longer win him elections. I am sure he regrets not building that road.

Anuj Chopra is an independent journalist currently based near Mumbai