Thursday 10 April 2014

Caste- myths and realities

In election season, everybody is a pundit and has a view about the factors that will determine the outcome of the election. The diversity of the electorate ensures that everyone can get their voice in and can claim credit for predicting something right!  One of the all-time favourites during election is the argument around caste and its importance.  For the national English media, the relevance of caste is almost a holy grail, partly because they are unable to understand the intricacies of caste at a local level; it is one of the “others”, but an “other” they believe to be important because everybody including politicians tell them it is the most important other in politics. Regional media thrive on caste; in Karnataka, my home state, veteran journalists and political analysts cry themselves hoarse about various sub-caste intricacies and how one important sub-caste is important or has been hurt and is bound to impact the result dramatically.  And yet, after each election, politicians and the media go to town talking about how the vote was for change (positive or negative) or for good governance or development!
In the DAKSH and Association for Democratic Reforms (“ADR”) survey, we asked the respondents whether caste was important to them when voting in an election. I have tried to capture some of the results in this short entry.
The big numbers- 58% of our respondents (nearly 2,50,000 of them) said that caste of the candidate is not an important factor for them while voting in elections; 24% of our respondents said it was an important factor and 14% said it was a very important factor for them. So, 38% of the respondents said caste of the candidate is important for them when voting in an election. So, caste, whether we like or it is still relevant.
Let us look at some of the other highlights- the biggest surprise was Gujarat. 60% of the respondents said that caste was very important for them and 24% said it was important, making 84% of the respondents saying that it was an important factor.  This was the highest in the country by a long long way! What does this say about the development and good governance NaMo? I will let you make your own conclusions.
Second, of the respondents with a background in the defence sector, nearly 22% said caste is very important and 25% said it is important making 47% of those with a defence background saying that caste is important for them when they vote in elections. Again, this is a shocker given the defence services emphasis on unity and integrity.  Contractors came next with around 42%.
Another surprise is the contrast (or the lack of it) between those with an IT background- nearly 39% say caste is important (of this 16% said it is very important)- and those in Agriculture- for which the number is 36% (of this only 12% said it is very important). What does this say- caste has more or less the same role, whether in rural areas or urban areas and whether you are in a modern profession or a traditional profession.
Let us next look at educational background- irrespective of the level of education (i.e., postgraduate, graduate, high school, primary etc) or lack of it, approximately similar percentage of people feel that caste is important (the % varies between 36 and 41 with high school educated being the highest and primary school educated being the lowest).   Similar even patterns are evident when we look at wealth distribution- the % of people who say caste is important varies between 30 to 35%.
The biggest surprise however is in how people from different castes feel. The % of people who believe that caste is important for them during elections in the OBC, SC and ST category varies between 31 and 35, but is a whopping 43% for people belonging to the General category. Again, I will let you come to your own conclusions on this as well.
We should only remember one aspect, there is no single constituency in the country where a candidate can win with support from only one caste or indeed, the lack of support from any caste (a point that Dipankar Gupta has lucidly explained in his op-ed in The Hindu on March 21 Further, if any caste is dominant (not only in numbers but because of their influence based on wealth, land holdings and patronage) in a constituency, all political parties put up candidates belonging to the same caste. Analysts argue that in such a case, the caste of the state level or the national level leader becomes relevant! 
We will come up with more analysis on this shortly.


  1. Great analysis, Harish. Your article just re-confirms one thing very clear that as a country, we have progressed in many aspects, but as far as the caste system is concerned, I guess we are still the same old orthodox. Nothing right or wrong, it is the way it is. I wish, as a nation we rise above the caste system and focus more on the issues. That is the only way, we can propel ourselves to the next stage of development.

  2. Did you get any information specifically on whom women vote for and why? I'm specially interested in the views of India's rural women.

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