Monday, November 9, 2015

The winner in Bihar won't be this party or that. It'll be caste -- to the detriment of democracy

India rotates round caste like the earth rotates round the sun. It is surprising that the founders of our Constitution did not recognise this when they laid down the hopeful rules of our model democracy. Look at two different cases - Karnataka and Bihar - and we will be dismayed by the extent to which democracy has become a shell under the impact of caste.

In Karnataka, the ruling Congress finally expanded the cabinet. A leading newspaper ran a 'Know Your New Ministers' feature, giving personal information of each of the four new cabinet members. Mentioned clearly was: "G. Parameshwara. Community: SC. A.Manju. Community: Vokkaliga. Manohar Tashildar. Community: Balija (OBC). Vinay Kulkarni. Community: Panchamashali Lingayat".

The newspaper did its duty by giving readers information that was locally vital. In the process it also showed that it is too simplistic to say that Karnataka is ruled by Vokkaligas and Lingayats. There are 116 types of Vokkaligas and at least 42 types of Lingayats in official listings. Now that the cabinet has recognised Panchamashali Lingayats, what of the Aradhya Lingayats, and Sadar Lingayats, and Banajiga Lingayats, and Nonaba Lingayats, and Jangama Lingayats, and all the others? There are so many castes and so many subcastes that no cabinet will be able to satisfy all of them unless we have 100-member and 200-member cabinets. When religion and caste become the basis on which political policies are decided, democracy goes out and castocracy comes in.

Bihar is of course the undisputed standard-bearer of casteism. It conveys nothing if we say that 82.7 percent of Bihar's population is Hindu, for 'Hindu' is a hazy notion, so hazy as to be immaterial. To make sense we have to say that Backward Castes make up 51 percent and Dalits 16 percent. Against that 67 percent of the population, the forward castes account for only 15 percent while Muslims upstage them with nearly 17 percent. These are the primary numbers around which politics, elections, power, party formations and ambitions revolve.

The BJP's dilemma was that its traditional base in Bihar rested on the upper castes -- Bhumihars, Brahmins, Rajputs and Kayasthas. What could that minority do against the Yadavas, the Dalits and the Kurmis who were handling power for more than a couple of decades? That explains the BJP's desperate efforts to present itself as a champion of the backward castes and the equally desperate efforts by leaders like Nitish Kumar and Lalu Yadav to consolidate their hold on the backward votes.

The BJP pushed several backward and Dalit leaders to the forefront in this election. Its electoral rhetoric was also highpitched on the virtues of development for the backward. But it was trying to do what was impossible, ideologically and tactically. How can you hoot for India and Pakistan in the same cricket match? The BJP's dilemma was clear from the fact that it was unable to name a chief ministerial candidate because the obvious choice, Sushil Kumar Modi who had been deputy chief minister and whose capabilities as a thinking leader had found recognition beyond party boundaries, was an OBC and projecting him would alienate the forward castes.

As for Nitish Kumar, he fortified himself by inventing brand new types of backwardness. He expanded the OBC idea to include a new EBC idea (Extremely Backward Community) and he expanded the Dalit idea to include a Mahadalit Caste. More castes of course meant more privileges, more concessions, more benefits -- and more votes. This process also produced phrases the internal contradictions of which were hilarious. The "upper backward" like Yadavas and Kurmis were in power till now. The "lower backwards" like Badadhi, Kahar, Kewat, Kumhar, Lohar, Tatwa, Teli, Sanav, etcetera could now hope for some crumps of office. What an exciting game.

The excitement is enhanced by the fact that what goes up can come down. The Patels in Gujarat were quite high in the social-economic ladder till not so long ago. But their traditional businesses declined and agriculture became less and less rewarding, so the phenomenon known as Hardik Patel came up demanding reservations and quotas for Patels and classification as backward. As if on cue the Brahmins of Gujarat have also demanded reservation for them in government jobs and educational institutions. Haryana's Jats, Kerala's Namboothiris and Tamil Brahmins, every one wants reservations. Everyone has realised that in India to be backward is the way to go forward. "Democracy is not just a form of government. It is a form of society", said Ambedkar. Poor Ambedkar.