A wake up call in national interest
Ban on Caste Rallies
The recent Allahabad High Court verdict banning caste based political rallies in Uttar Pradesh reignited the debate on the role of caste in Indian politics. The reactions to the court order were on expected lines with the national parties welcoming it and most of the regional parties, particularly with strong caste affiliations, expressing their strong reservations about it.
However, notwithstanding the denials by political parties, caste continues to remain a crucial factor in electoral politics. If most of the regional parties unabashedly exhibit their caste preferences, the national political parties too are equally guilty of perpetuating the caste factor, whether it be in the matter of selection of candidates or projecting party leaders at the regional level. Of course, they often indulge in it under the garb of ‘winnability’, an euphemism for practicing caste and communal politics.
Even those regional Satraps who claim to possess a national vision have never shied away from playing the caste card, whether it be the former Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda, who wears his Vokkaliga preferences on his sleeves or the new champion of secularism Nitish Kumar. Though Kumar often slams his arch rival and RJD Supremo Lalu Prasad Yadav as a politician preoccupied with caste, he himself was one of the first politicians in Bihar to organise a caste-based Kurmi rally in early 1992.
Though they cry hoarse from the roof tops that their utopian ideology does not believe in either caste or religion, the Communists, including the ultra left Maoists, have often identified caste with class and such ‘class wars’ have often ended up in ‘Caste Wars’, as was widely seen in Bihar. The importance some of the national political parties attach to the caste factor can be gauged from the fact that barely a week before the High Court order, the ruling Congress party had sought a break-up of various castes in all the 543 Lok Sabha constituencies from its state units in preparation for the coming general elections.
According to media reports, in a confidential communication to all state party presidents, the High Command asked them to submit population figures and caste break-up along with the complete details of sitting candidates and aspirants as well.
After Independence, the nation’s founding fathers chose the Parliamentary system of democracy based on an electoral system which unfortunately tended to reinforce caste consciousness, instead of eliminating it and bringing about an egalitarian social order.
The implementation of the Mandal Commission report in 1989 by the then VP Singh Government was yet another landmark in India’s caste politics. Regional Satraps such as Mulayam Singh Yadav, Lalu Prasad Yadav and Deve Gowda rode the Mandal wave to electoral glory.
Unfortunately, the appeal of such caste leaders to their following was not to strengthen the common struggle to remove the inadequacies in the existing socio-economic system. The appeal was and continues to be to elect their fellow caste men to power. While it did bring about limited political empowerment, some assertiveness and a sense of pride among the Dalit and backward classes, nothing substantial in improving their socio-economic conditions including the much needed land reforms have taken place in any of the states where such caste leaders have acquired power and continue to wield wide influence.
The decision to go for a caste based census in 2011, following demands by leaders of the ruling UPA and the Opposition parties, was yet another milestone in the country’s caste politics. Even the Communist parties, who support the quota system, have gone on record stating that caste based reservation cannot be a lasting solution to the socio-economic disparities. In fact, Yechuri had stated once that, “Enough statistics can be adduced to show that despite reservations, the plight of these sections have not substantially improved.” Ironically, the only instance of a caste count in post-Independent India was carried out in Kerala in 1968 by the Communist Government led by EMS Namboodiripad.
While the intention of the High Court in banning caste based rallies is indeed laudable, it is unlikely to have much impact on curbing the role of caste in Indian politics in the existing scenario. With its pan-Hindu appeal, the BJP may be able to obfuscate the caste factor to some extent but that emphasis should be seen not only in its ideology but also in the choice of candidate. The merit, image and popularity of the candidate should be more important than pure caste calculations.
Here, it is pertinent to mention the case of the State of Odisha, where caste has never been the criterion for popular choice. Whether it is due to the impact of the universal Jagannath cult or the role played by visionary leaders such as Pandit Gopabandhu Das, Biju Pattanaik or Nandini Satapthy, the politically enlightened electorate have time and again shown their preferences to candidates based on performance and not caste.
Though the Patel community continues to play a key role in the BJP’s success in Gujarat, the overwhelming and repeated support to the Chief Minister, who belongs to a minority caste, is reflective of the changing orientation of the voters in favour of good governance vis a vis caste factors. In contrast, BJP lost in Karnataka as it banked heavily on BS Yeddyurappa’s Lingayat base, which deserted it once the former Chief Minister quit the party.
Apart from an enlightened choice on the part of voters and good governance on the part of ruling parties, it is also high time to consider whether a system based on proportional representation can be an antidote to caste politics in the country. Under this system, people would have to vote for parties and not individuals, thereby minimising appeals on casteist, communal or parochial lines. Political parties can also suggest other effective electoral reform measures to curb the menace rather than prompting the courts to take the lead. The Allahabad High Court ruling has to be taken as a wake up call in national interest.
(The author is Senior Fellow and Editor with the Vivekananda International Foundation)
Dr Shakti Kumar Pandey from Lucknow
Soon after the apex court gave its verdict that those convicted and those who are in jail cannot contest elections, the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court’s order to ban caste-based rallies in Uttar Pradesh with immediate effect has given a serious jolt to the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Parties, which are the main caste-players in UP politics. The order will have far-reaching consequences in UP politics which has been fraught with class and caste consciousness. The politics in UP will certainly change when such parties will not be able to allure the castes, by giving them false assurances.
The order was passed by the bench of Justice Umanath Singh and Justice Mahendra Dayal while hearing a public interest litigation (PIL) filed by lawyer Moti Lal Yadav. The court also issued notices to the central and state governments, the Election Commission, Samajwadi Party (SP), Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Congress, making them party to the litigation.
The petitioner had contended that rallies based on castes were against the constitution and threatened to vitiate social harmony in the country’s most populous state. Yadav had brought to the notice of the court that every party in the state was vying to score brownie points by holding caste-based conventions and rallies.
Already up in arms against the apex Court’s verdict debarring criminals from politics, the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party have started thinking about ways and means to by-pass the HC order. However, Samajwadi Party has been rather cautious in making statements against the High Court.
The regional outfits like SP and BSP have been holding caste rallies and conventions in UP, every now and again, making false promises to the communities. It may be mentioned that the BSP has organised 38 Brahmin rallies till now and was planning to hold rallies for other castes in the run-up to Lok Sabha elections. In the last few months, the BSP had held the biggest show of strength held in the state capital through a ‘Brahmin Sammelan’. That rally was addressed by party chief Mayawati. The ruling SP too recently held a similar Brahman convention and a Muslim rally which was addressed by party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav and Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav.
Reacting to the court’s order, the state BJP chief LK Bajpayi said his party welcomed the judicial intervention. “The BJP has always been opposed to such rallies and I am happy that the high court has taken a firm and timely stand on the issue,” he said, adding that both the SP and BSP were involved in caste politics to hide their failures. “Our party has never indulged in such politics and we are happy at the ban,” he added. However, baffled over the order, the BSP reacted angrily to the court order saying that the party will “continue organising rallies till there is caste system in the society”.