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UP Elections: The persistence of caste
Rajeev Srinivasan
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May 14, 2007

Mayawati's landslide victory in Uttar Pradesh will no doubt encourage the chatterati to pontificate sagely about caste. They will nod their heads ruefully suggesting that, if only, if only, jati were to disappear, the Millennium would surely be upon us! They will also trot out, on television, canned videos of alleged harassment of low-castes, and suggest that the BSP will forthwith put those uppity upper-caste people in their place.

The reality is that Mayawati's rule will be a little stormy, as in the past. We can expect many arbitrary and peremptory actions, including the revival of that shopping mall at the Taj Mahal. And large doses of competitive victimhood: makes for good copy, but it's pretty meaningless.

The pontificators will also forget that, far from eliminating caste, what Mayawati has achieved is the actual consolidation of those at the top and the bottom end of the caste hierarchy, the Brahmins and the Harijans. She had realised that her traditional vote-bank of Harijans and Mohammedans wasn't going to cut it, especially given the desperate pandering to Mohammedans by her main rival Mulayalam Singh Yadav. Kudos to Mayawati for deft use of the persistence of caste.

It has become a conditioned reflex for Indians to believe that caste is unremittingly evil. But jati and varnam are merely a codification of the fact that all humans are not born equal in their endowments: some are tall, some are fat, some are musically talented, and so on. Caste is about the ruthless Bell Curve, and is about as inescapable as race. It is neither good nor bad; it just is (casteism, however, is reprehensible, just as racism is.)

In fact, caste must be useful, which is why it has survived for so long; and Mohammedans and especially Christians are enthusiastic practitioners of ideas similar to casteism in India and elsewhere: they revel in in-group-out-group dynamics and discrimination.

What Mayawati has demonstrated (and this has been shown time and time again) is that caste is an excellent mechanism for collective bargaining, wherein a group member has a better chance than an unattached individual. Jati acts as a trade union, with members attempting to grab more than its fair share of the pie that hasn't grown, because of the dirigiste and suffocating nature of the Indian State.

It is entertaining that allegedly egalitarian Communist states too have their castes: rulers' offspring get the plum jobs. Not too many children of Politburo members toil in the gulags of China, or have their organs harvested on demand. A recent report showed that 90 per cent of China's millionaires are relatives of high-level party bureaucrats. Such a fine job they are doing of collective bargaining to line their own pockets!

To go back to Mayawati, she has shrewdly figured out the real issues behind the rhetoric of caste relations. It would be amusing if it weren't tragic that a lot of the chatterati have convinced themselves that the real problem is between the lowest and the highest jatis, and about how the former want to be just like the latter.

This is complete nonsense, because people of any jati are generally not looking to go up and down in the hierarchy of jatis. They are content with their existing in-group, even if they belong to a relatively 'low' jati. It is the belonging that matters; this is one of the signal differences between the atomised and unhappy citizens of Western countries and the relatively better-adjusted Indians.

It is also a fact that hardly any members of 'low' jatis are looking to become priests, although this is a war-cry raised by the usual suspects. In Kerala, there are seminaries where anybody can train to be a temple priest, but nobody is queuing up for the opportunity. Most people have a healthy attitude towards priest-hood: it's like any other skilled occupation where you hire someone trained in it, if you are not capable of or not interested in doing it -- much like you hire a lawyer, an architect, or a doctor.

Mayawati has created the first Hindu vote-bank by linking the top and bottom of the jati chain. It is the OBC jatis who have the numbers everywhere, and they have, after sustained agitation, managed to grab the levers of power in many places, a brilliant example being the stranglehold on power they have in Tamil Nadu. This however, means that the OBCs are corrupted, based on the dictum that power corrupts. Exhibit A is once again Tamil Nadu, where three innocent bystanders in a newspaper office were just burned to death in an internecine battle for political spoils in the DMK.

Mayawati has shown that there are many ways to skin a cat: by creating the Brahmin-Harijan vote bank, with a few Mohammedan votes thrown in, she has handily outmaneuvered the OBC-dominated Samajwadi Party. The question of the hour is whether others can follow suit. For instance, the BJP did not see this emerging trend and take advantage of it. Will they, now?

Caste is not going to go away. It is, if anything, strengthening, even in the cities, contrary to the facile Communist idea that it will disappear over time. Caste is useful, in a very real sense. If the Indian economic pie had grown so rapidly that there was no need for collective bargaining, caste would have lost some of its economic rationale (see my earlier column Reservations: The Economic Factor). As things stand, study after study has shown that some of the biggest success stories in business in India are really stories of caste-members helping each other out: for instance, the industrious Gounders who have built up the multi-billion dollar textile powerhouse in Tirupur.

Those who recognise the value of caste and utilise it will thrive; those who do not fall by the wayside. Mayawati has just proven this in UP.

Comments welcome at my blog

Rajeev Srinivasan
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