Saturday, February 18, 2012

[ZESTCaste] Not caste in stone

Not caste in stone
Barkha Dutt
February 17, 2012

Even though it makes for the perfect television shot, there's
something heartbreaking about the sight of village children excitedly
chasing a helicopter as it kicks dust in the faces of hundreds of men
and women who stand there transfixed and fascinated by the blinding

season sometimes makes you feel that all that has changed over the
decades in the lives of India's poor is that many of them now have a
mobile phone to capture the image of the netas soaring to the sky. And
yet, despite the evident 'mai-baap' dimension to the high-flying and
seasonal visits of vote-seeking politicians, the electorate itself is
now driving some fascinating changes in the traditional paradigm of

Uttar Pradesh is witnessing one of its most keenly contested,
four-cornered elections. Much has been made of the fact that 60% of
the voters are under the age of 40 and at least two of the
most-prominent faces of the campaign — Rahul Gandhi and Akhilesh Yadav
— are Generation Next politicians who are attempting to re-invent
their own parties. So, has the youth factor trumped caste and identity
politics? Not quite. The winnability of political strategy is still
being deconstructed in terms of who can claim the 21% Dalit vote or
the 18% Muslim vote in the state. In many ways, the absence of either
an over-arching emotive issue or an inspirational, hope-inspiring
leader means that there is no tidal wave that can wash over the
faultlines of caste and religion. But where caste was once rigidly
central to how people voted and how politicians plotted to win their
votes, today caste has become a fluid and moveable element in the

In other words, while some voter loyalty continues to form around
narrow caste affiliations, it is now fairly typical for ticket
distribution by all parties to reflect a rainbow coalition of
communities. Uttar Pradesh may not quite be ready yet for a Nitish
Kumar-led Bihar model where governance has the capacity to subsume
caste. But growing urbanisation, new technology and a generational
shift in thinking has ensured that while caste remains a key element
behind political choice; it's now a more malleable, mobile, and
flexible factor than ever before.

Ironically — the one politician in the state who is most defined by
identity politics — is also the architect of a social engineering
churn that has now become the accepted political formula employed by
almost every party. Mayawati — unapologetic about positioning herself
as a "Dalit ki beti," adamant about why she needed to pour in crore of
rupees into memorial parks that mark Dalit pride — is also the same
politician who first understood that India's politics no longer has
any inbuilt pariahs. In 2007, she was able to successfully stitch
together an unlikely patchwork of support with Dalits, Muslims and
Brahmins. That successful experimental model has now become the
reference point for every party's electoral arithmetic. And while the
rest of the country may identify Mayawati as a Dalit leader, a close
reading of the ticket distribution by her party this time illustrates
her continued and assiduous courtship of other castes and communities
— a higher number of Brahmin and Thakur candidates, for example,
against the 88 Dalit candidates who are contesting, and nearly an
equal number of tickets for Muslim candidates.

That Mayawati's rainbow is in danger of being rained upon this time
has much less to do with the rigidities of caste hierarchies and more
to do with other complex issues of anti-incumbency and a perceived
aloofness in political style. The criticism of the second aspect is
another significant change that an assertive electorate has pushed on
the polity. Despite all the helicopter-hopping, politicians across
parties are being forced to abandon a talk-down and top-down approach.

The village voter may show fascination for your flying machine but he
expects to be able to meet you, talk to you, shake your hand and
petition you directly about the absence of drinking water, electricity
or a functional primary school. Both arrogance and shyness now have a
shrinking space in the politics of the heartland. Akhilesh Yadav may
use the iPad to navigate his campaign routes, but he also needs to
clamber on an ordinary cycle and establish mass contact with voters.

Rahul Gandhi may have limited time for journalists but after every
speech he jumps off the stage, shrugs off his security ring and walks
straight into the rally grounds to mingle with the crowds. Uma
Bharti's once famous rhetorical extremity is of much less value now
compared to her earthy political style that is able to establish an
easy communication line with the people.

There are some contradictions of course. Mayawati — who set the social
engineering ball into motion — remains the only exception to this
emerging norm. The red carpet laid out to receive her is swept many
times before her arrival; her ministers swiftly leave their footwear
at the base of the stage as they stand by to receive her and she
rarely, if ever, steps down to mingle with the crowds. And yet her
rallies — even today — draw the most staggering numbers. In part, the
well-oiled organisational infrastructural machinery of the BSP makes
this possible. But it's also the record of historic injustices towards
India's most marginalised community that provide her a great deal of
latitude that most other politicians simply cannot afford.

Yet, once the Dalit community gradually moves towards economic
betterment and social assimilation, even Mayawati will be forced to
re-invent her style. Despite the dramatics of the helicopter landings
in dusty barren village fields, political largesse can no longer be
dropped from the skies like manna from heaven. Not unless you want the
ground beneath your feet to shake dangerously.

(Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV)

The views expressed by the author are personal


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