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Caste-Based Parties

One irony of Indian politics is that its modern secular democracy has enhanced rather than reduced the political salience of traditional forms of social identity such as caste. Part of the explanation for this development is that India's political parties have found the caste-based selection of candidates and appeals to the caste-based interests of the Indian electorate to be an effective way to win popular support. More fundamental has been the economic development and social mobility of those groups officially designated as Backward Classes and Scheduled Castes.

Accounting for 52 and 15 percent of the population, respectively, the Backward Classes and Scheduled Castes, or Dalits as they prefer to be called, constitute a diverse range of middle, lower, and outcaste groups who have come to wield substantial power in most states. Indeed, one of the dramas of modern Indian politics has been the Backward Classes and Dalits' jettisoning of their political subordination to upper castes and their assertion of their own interests.

During the first Round Table Conference, when Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar favored the move of the British Government to provide separate electorate for the oppressed classes (Dalit), Gandhi strongly opposed it on the plea that the move would give power to the oppressed classes (Dalit). He went for an indefinite hunger strike from September 20, 1932 against the decision of the then British Prime Minister J.Ramsay MacDonald granting communal award to the depressed classes in the constitution for governance of British India.

In view of the mass upsurge generated in the country to save the life of Gandhi, Ambedkar was compelled to soften his stand. A compromise between the leaders of caste Hindu and the depressed classes was reached on September 24, 1932, popularly known as Poona Pact. The resolution announced in a public meeting on September 25 in Bombay confirmed -" henceforth, amongst Hindus no one shall be regarded as an untouchable by reason of his birth and they will have the same rights in all the social institutions as the other Hindus have". This landmark resolution in the history of the Dalit movement in India subsequently formed the basis for giving due share to Dalits in the political empowerment of Indian people in a democratic Indian polity.

In the 1960s, the continuity of the upper castes in positions of power was possible because of a quid pro quo arrangement between them and the numerically strong lower castes: upper castes needed the numerical strength that lower castes support supplied and lower castes gained access to the resources and opportunities that support for upper-caste leadership could yield.

The appeal to caste-based ethnic identity continued to remain critical in electoral politics in India. The story of Indian electoral democracy is one of paradox because political parties, despite their emphasis on policies related to economy in their respective manifestos, tend to rely on identity basis for mobilization. Even the Congress Party, which carried the legacy of the nationalist struggle, does not seem to be different. In most of the states, except perhaps the left-ruled Tripura, West Bengal and Kerala, every major party sought to gain by appealing to the electorate on the basis of ascriptive categories. However, the politics of caste varies with context.

Although with the introduction of secret ballot in elections the capacity of the upper caste to mobilize lower castes significantly declined, the former nonetheless held the key to political power presumably because there was hardly a threat from the latter. The Backward Classes are such a substantial constituency that almost all parties vie for their support. For instance, the Congress (I) in Maharashtra had long relied on Backward Classes' backing for its political success.

The situation, however, dramatically changed in the 1990s with the growing consolidation of parties representing the numerically lower castes. As the evolution of the Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh showed, the rise of Mayawati is largely attributed to her ability to couch her appeal to the voters in clear ethnic terms. The 1990s saw a growing number of cases where parties, relying primarily on Backward Classes' support, often in alliance with Dalits and Muslims, catapult to power in India's states.

Janata Dal governments in Bihar and Karnataka are excellent examples of this strategy. An especially important development is the success of the Samajwadi Party, which under the leadership of Mulayam Singh Yadav won the 1993 assembly elections in India's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, relying almost exclusively on Backward Classes and Muslim support in a coalition with the Dalit-supported BSP.

Congress political fortunes suffered badly in the 1990s, as many traditional supporters were lost to emerging regional and caste-based parties, such as the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party.

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