A party of the poor?


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IN India, the relationship between caste and politics is trotted out for re-examination before each major election. It is widely believed that caste affiliation is one of the major factors governing voting patterns – certainly political parties behave as though this was the case.

Gramsci saw parties as expressions of class interest – in the case of parties representing the bourgeoisie, the interests of different sectors of the same class. In western Europe, in the inter-war years, the working class was represented by communist parties of unequal strength. The largest was outflanked and destroyed by the Nazis, but in France and Italy, they emerged as political alternatives after the Second World War thanks to their leadership of resistance movements against German occupation. The dream of peaceful revolution flickered briefly before being snuffed out, partly by force (in Italy by promoting ex-fascists to positions of power), and partly because of the failures of the left itself. The hegemony of the USSR and its determination to subordinate the interests of the European left to the exigencies of Soviet foreign policy, the divisions within parties and their inability to break free of Soviet direction, eroded revolutionary aspirations.

Meanwhile, as the postwar economic boom took hold, the parties of the right and centre proved that they could still command a majority of passive voters. As it turned out, the only revolutions in Europe were to occur east of the Elbe, where they were imposed from above by Soviet armies, mass membership of the organized left being a good deal weaker here than in the west.


Nevertheless, for all their shortcomings, for roughly half a century, from the end of the first world war to the students’ revolt of 1968, the interests of the proletariat (and large sections of the peasantry) were embodied in organized political formations that came close at times to winning elections, a feat actually achieved in Spain. Their subsequent decline into impotence is linked to the economic and social transformations engendered by the postwar economic boom, and their own abdications.

It is the almost complete absence of this political tradition in India that I am concerned with here. For the mass of the Indian peasantry (small peasants in regions of dryland cultivation), the rural proletariat, and the unorganized working class (comprising the vast majority of workers) has never been represented by any political party. They vote, many of them, and are affiliated to different parties; but they have never been adequately represented, if representation is defined as the coherent articulation of class interest. The organized left, consisting of the CPI and the CPI(M), represented only a tiny sector of the working class, a labour aristocracy (or what used to be one before the neoliberal ‘reforms’ of 1991), along with sectors of the peasantry, primarily in West Bengal and Kerala. Having adapted itself to the roomy cage of liberal democracy, not even its own apparatchiks, it is safe to say, believe any longer in the arrival of the revolution whose pieties they parrot.


The Maoists have steadily gained ground since the 1980s. Adivasi communities form the bedrock of their support – an impoverished peasantry, exploited by non-adivasi elites and the state (evinced by the unceasing expropriation of adivasi land for ‘development’, the refusal to countenance customary patterns of resource use, the rapacity of state functionaries). However, this support is not uniform, being much stronger in the centre and east of the country than in the west. Even in its strongholds, adivasi support for Maoism is born out of desperation rather than ideological commitment. For its part, the CPI(Maoist) has shown no inclination to adapt its ideology to the lived experience of adivasi communities. Through the majority of Maoist guerrillas come from adivasi backgrounds, adivasi representation in positions of leadership is markedly poor.

Maoism exemplifies the central failure of the Indian left – its inability to adapt Marxism to the realities of the Indian situation. From the refusal to recognize the importance of caste, to the refusal to acknowledge, let alone examine, the positions of the ‘new left’ in Europe and Latin America, the dangers of authoritarianism, the critique of consumerism and the industrial mode of production (Rudolf Bahro), the importance of subsistence arrangements (Maria Mies) – the line is consistent.

Maoism’s success in expanding its bases of influence should not be allowed to obscure the dogmatism of its ideology, the lack of debate, the stale repetition of jargon. The recent offensive by the state exposes the inherent difficulties of conducting guerrilla warfare in pockets: as the party retreats and regroups, adivasi communities are left to bear the brunt of the state’s atrocities. Since 2005, Dantewada has been a war zone whose excesses rival stories out of Africa: a catalogue of rapes and murders, the torching of settlements, orchestrated attacks on independent observers by a state sponsored militia.


The political equilibrium which the left failed so signally to break was created during the course of the struggle against colonialism: it is upheld by the internal divisions in Indian society (however permeable in other contexts), whose faultlines mark the terrain on which politics is conducted. At bottom, it comprises an alliance between a powerful rural bourgeoisie – the major farming castes whose economic and social dominance of the countryside has deep roots – and an urban middle class, drawn largely from the upper and middle castes. Jats in the north, Patidars and Maratha Kunbis (in the west), Reddys, Vokaligas and Lingayats (in the south) belong to the first group, as do Rajput and Brahmin landowners; mercantile and ‘clerkly’ castes (Marwaris, Jains, Kayasths) as well as Brahmins belong to the second. This list is no more than indicative – a crude outline of a complex social process that will serve, I hope, for the limited purpose at hand.

The state’s policies have always been an organic expression of class interest. There is nothing startling about this – the difference is that the Indian middle class has always been much smaller than those of the West, as well as far more unwilling to placate the poor (whom it tends to regard as a race apart). The liberalization of the 1990s maintained this element of continuity with the past. By this time, the permeability of the two wings of the bourgeoisie had been firmly established: the farming castes had begun diversifying into trade and the professions from the colonial period. Now it felt strong enough to jettison the ideological safety nets of the past, and cannibalize parts of itself in the interests of the whole. The freeing up of fiscal resources for the private sector was achieved by modifying older patterns of middle class employment: recruitment by the state declined, and the public sector was cut down. The middle class accepted a higher threshold of insecurity in return for increased growth and unbridled consumerism.


An uneasy pattern of caste allegiances underpinned Congress dominance, which lasted until the 1980s. The ineradicable sectarianism of Ambedkar’s successors ensured Dalit support for the party. Its commitment to secularism, symbolized by Jawaharlal Nehru (compatible on the ground with a great deal of soft Hindutva), brought it much of the Muslim vote, cutting across class lines. Adivasi support was won partly by default, and partly through enactment of the reservations systems. Reservations in state employment and in political representation were the only concessions made by the state to the largest sector of the rural underclass. They enrolled a tiny minority into the structures of administration and representation (albeit at the most subaltern level), lifting them into the ranks of the middle class.

In the north, the party brought together groups at the apex of the social pyramid – Brahmins, Rajputs, Bhumihars – with those at the bottom (principally adivasis and Dalits). To them it added Muslim support, crucial to its victories. The dominant farming castes in the north and west tended to coalesce around its competitors. In parts of the Deccan and the south, the contours of electoral support took a very different form: the dominant farming castes, far more powerful and numerous than in the north, constituted the bedrock of Congress support in Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka; to them it added Dalits and Muslims to forge an almost unbeatable electoral machine.


Needless to say, caste support is expressed not in numerical absolutes but tendencies. Caste calculations operate locally, and can be undercut by parties nominating candidates from the same caste. Nevertheless, a large section of each caste within a particular region may coalesce around a party tied to its social interests against a background of economic identity cutting across caste. Thus, opposition parties in the Jat heartland served as vehicles of political assertion by Jats against the traditional primacy of Brahmins and Rajputs (who tended to support the Congress). In much the same way, it is safe to assume that the majority of Yadavs in UP and Bihar voted/vote for the Samajwadi Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal.

Different states and regions will show variations from this simplified pattern of caste affiliation. The elections of 1977 and 1984 produced a mass transfer of votes – against the Congress in the first case (though its southern support base held firm) and to it in the second. The reasons lie outside the normal pattern of electoral politics. Apart from these episodes, the pattern of caste allegiances held, despite strain. Congress primacy, under challenge from the end of the ’60s, was not decisively broken until two decades later.


The process can be dated from the mid to late ’80s. In Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, the coalition of farming castes that had supported the party split, condemning it to spells out of government. In Gujarat, the Patidars gradually transferred their allegiance from the Janata Party to the BJP. The adivasi bastions of the Congress in Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, one of the immutable facts of politics, were undercut by RSS propaganda. Subordinate farming castes in the north and east asserted themselves: the political consolidation of Yadavs in eastern UP and Bihar mirrored the earlier rise of the Jats of the Hindi heartland: they turned to the Janata Dal whose offshoots in UP and Bihar became their fiefs.

Dalit support for the Congress had always been passive, based in equal parts on the lack of an alternative and its legacy as the originator of the reservations system. The rise of the Bahujan Samaj Party broke this equilibrium and transformed the political landscape of the north. The BSP began as a union of state functionaries, representatives par excellence of the Dalit middle class. This nascent class, separated economically from the mass of Dalit poor, found itself assigned the lowest place in the ranks of the bourgeoisie and subjected to unwavering social prejudice. This dichotomy provided the impetus for political organization – the merit of the BSP was to succeed where the Ambedkarite movement had failed.

Conditions in the ’80s were propitious for its emergence – thirty years of empty promises had disenchanted Dalits with the Congress, while the Dalit middle class had become large enough to seek an organization of its own. Kanshi Ram’s talents as an organizer were aided by the fact that the Chamars in Uttar Pradesh form a coherent bloc (unlike Maharashtra, Andhra or Karnataka where Dalits are split between two or more competing castes). It was in UP that the BSP achieved its greatest successes, with Mayawati playing a leading role. After a brief alliance with Yadavs – the Mayawati-Mulayam Singh entente – the antagonism between the two groups solidified. The organic tension between landowners and labourers seems insufficient to explain this, for many, if not most, Yadavs are small farmers: it is likely that their growing antagonism towards Dalits was a means of mapping and validating their rising status politically.


The growth of the BSP was temporarily occluded by a sudden upsurge of Hindu identity cutting across caste and class lines, artificially orchestrated by the BJP, and aided by the ineptitude of the Congress. Throughout the ‘80s, the party had sought to appease Hindu fundamentalism (as well as the Islamic and Sikh varieties) to gain votes. The attempt to please every fundamentalist failed: the BJP was the first beneficiary as upper and middle castes in Uttar Pradesh flocked to it, propelling it to power in 1991. The transience of this support became visible in every subsequent election.

The breakdown of the Congress’s caste coalition began with a double movement: the transfer of Dalit votes to the BSP in Uttar Pradesh, accompanied by a gradual shift in Muslim votes to the party favoured by the dominant farming castes. This shift was born out of anger at Congress equivocation over Ayodhya: it turned into flight after the Babri Masjid was brought down by the storm troopers of the right in 1992. Muslim anger cost the Congress one of its most reliable sources of electoral support.

Without Dalit and Muslim support, its chances of winning evaporated. In order to contain the rising tide of Dalit assertion, the upper castes switched their votes to the BJP. Once the temporary cross-caste mobilization over Ayodhya had subsided, the political landscape of Uttar Pradesh rearranged itself. The coalitions between the BSP and the BJP were attempts to revive the old alliance between upper castes and Dalits against the pressure of farming castes. But where the Congress had mobilized Dalits passively, under upper caste leadership, Mayawati reversed the terms of the equation. This proved a pill too bitter for the upper castes to swallow. As they cast around for an alternative, the BJP unravelled. The BSP’s electoral victory of 2007 reflected the success of its new coalition (Dalits, Brahmins, Muslims, bringing the core elements of the old Congress alliance together, this time under Dalit leadership) and popular disenchantment with the SP. Muslims and a significant sector of the upper castes flocked to the SP in 2012, out of disenchantment with the BSP (and, in the case of the upper castes, to contain Dalit assertion), and Mayawati lost decisively.


In Bihar, the transfer of Muslim support from the Congress to the Rashtriya Janata Dal (with its solid bedrock of Yadav support) was enough to propel Laloo Prasad Yadav to power. In response, the upper castes gravitated to the BJP and the Congress virtually vanished from the political landscape. In Gujarat, the BJP, basing itself on Patidar support, sought to trump caste by systematic mobilization against Muslims and Christians. Narendra Modi’s electoral successes are, like Hitler’s, a triumph of hate-mongering and propaganda. In northern Madhya Pradesh, the caste coalition of the Congress appeared, on the surface, capable of being broken up in a way analogous to UP as Dalits moved towards the BSP. However, its success in UP, and Kanshi Ram’s retirement, had the effect of diverting the party’s energies, and it failed to build upon its early inroads.

The true threat to the Congress in Madhya Pradesh (and Chhattisgarh) was to come from the BJP’s poaching of its adivasi support base. Systematic RSS propaganda amongst adivasis (building upon its earlier success in Jharkhand) was aided by rapid acculturation. The BJP’s victories in 2003 and 2008 stemmed largely from this, apart, of course, from the shambles of the Congress. An adivasi party might transform the political landscape of Madhya Pradesh much as the BSP did in UP, but a formation of this kind remains only a theoretical possibility.


This impressionistic and simplified survey of caste support to various parties in different parts of the country brings us back to the original question – who represents the poor as opposed to mobilizing their votes? Has the BSP succeeded where the organized left failed? The answer, I think, is no, and it reveals the paradox at the heart of the relationship between caste and class. The BSP embodies the active participation of Dalits in politics, in numbers large enough to reshape the political landscape: it is this that sets it apart from the Ambedkarite movement and makes it unprecedented. But what it does not do is represent them through a coherent and radical programme of reform.

Mayawati’s terms in office were largely business as usual, albeit with a Dalit bias expressed in symbolic gestures – statues of Ambedkar, Kanshi Ram and Mayawati herself, the renaming of districts, somewhat greater opportunities for the Dalit middle class. It can be argued that the conditions in which the party came to power, originally in alliance with the BJP, and later with Brahmin support, precluded any radical programme, but the point is that the BSP deliberately operates on the terrain of identity rather than class. This is because it is a creation of the Dalit middle class, integrated economically with the bourgeoisie, but socially distinct from it. This accounts for its Janus face, pointing in two directions, and explains its indifference to any programme of institutional reform.


A small middle class crystallized from within Dalit and adivasi groups plays a leading role in political mobilization and supplies most of their political representatives. Its propaganda tends to be on the terrain of identity. In much the same way, the splinters of the Jharkhand movement have long concentrated on reservation policy to the virtual exclusion of material demands. This is not to say that extension of the reservations system is not important – only that the chances of obtaining state employment, or any kind of white collar job, for the majority of the adivasi (or Dalit) poor are close to zero. Only a radical programme of institutional reform is likely to address their problems – state schools and hospitals which actually work, minimum wages, a measure of social security, accountability in the sphere of administration, land reform and land redistribution, community control of resources, an overhaul of the criminal justice system. Yet the Adivasi Ekta Parishad, a platform of Bhil organizations in western India, concentrates on questions of culture and identity, putting aside economic struggles as being of secondary importance. In Tamil Nadu, a Dalit party like the VCK invokes Tamil nationalism/chauvinism in order to broaden its appeal and win a share of power, compromising itself thereby.

This is because the adivasi and Dalit middle class speaks for a mass of poor whose material interests diverge from theirs insofar as they require a radical restructuring of the state’s institutions and its economic policies. The contradiction is inescapable unless one prefers to believe that every adivasi and Dalit can be lifted into the ranks of the middle class if social prejudice was abolished. An analogous contradiction marks the political choices of the dominant farming castes. Class differentiation has produced a semi-proletariat of small farmers and labourers, especially in regions of dryland cultivation, whose size can only be guessed at. Its economic position is sometimes as desperate as that of the rural under-class – witness the rising tide of farmers’ suicides over the last two decades – yet caste assertion undercuts class solidarity.


The grey area in the relationship between caste and class has to do with class formation, and this reveals itself on the terrain of political mobilization. Most members of the dominant (and not so dominant) farming castes are poor – this is especially true for groups like the Yadavs and the Maratha Kunbis, predominantly small farmers with a wealthy elite of landowners and businessmen – yet in aspiration they look to this elite rather than the Dalit proletariat whose economic interests are more congruent to theirs.

Which brings us to the central paradox of the relationship. Caste is – and is not – class. It is class insofar as it determines class position for most Indians. It is not class insofar as it inhibits class mobilization across castes. Which is why a genuine party of the poor has yet to appear in India – which is no more than to say, a party capable of addressing caste while transcending its parochialism.