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Home > India > News > Report

'Reservation politics will reach a dead end'

Alaphia Zoyab | June 06, 2008 00:34 IST

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Caste may be losing its salience in Indian politics. This was the upshot of a talk Professor Suhas Palshikar gave to a small group of around 20 research scholars and professors on South Asia at the University of Chicago. With that, he challenged one of the most basic assumptions on Indian politics.

He was speaking about 'Making sense of caste-politics interaction in contemporary India', organised by the university's South Asia Language and Area Center on May 15.

Professor Palshikar, who teaches at the University of Pune and is the co-director of Lokniti � a comparative democracy programme of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi, says Indian political scientists are asking the wrong questions.

For instance, he says, "There are changes taking place in the experiential nature of caste due to urbanisation." He also drew attention to the changing Dalit image of the Bahujan Samaj Party.

 "The BSP, these days, talks about being a sarvojan samaj party, which means a party for the whole society. They are no longer a party just for Dalits," he said.

Professor Palshikar presented these ideas to underscore the as yet unexplored question, "Is caste influencing politics today in the traditional manner that it did in the 1960s and 70s?"

He was speaking within the magnificent English Gothic Foster Hall in a large room that can seat 40 people. Speaking over a squeaky door that refused to quite shut, he explained why caste alone could not be the framework within which Indian politics may be examined. He cites a small study conducted at his own base, Pune.

"Our study found that barring the Dalits, in no other caste group are more than 40 per cent practicing the same occupation as their father or grandfather." That is an extremely important statistic because it indicates, "the internal material interests of caste groups may be disintegrating."

He puts this down to the upward mobility of the majority. A caveat, he is quick to add, is that while this is true of Pune it may not hold elsewhere. "There has been an overemphasis on creating macro-level data when what we might really need is constituency level information which we don't have at the moment," he said.

In his analysis, political parties with national aspirations have had to evolve from appealing only to caste-identities because the politics of reservations and social justice eventually reach a dead-end.

 "Now we are witnessing that caste appeal has become inadequate," he said, arguing that this is in agreement with the message of BSP leader Mayawati's inclusive sarvojan samaj.

"That's why Mulayam Singh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party, who appealed strongly to the Yadav community in Uttar Pradesh, could not make much headway in Maharashtra  � because there are no Yadavs there. That's why it is complicated for the two national parties, the Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party, to come up with any uniform caste-based strategy," he said.

But even caste needs to be de-emphasised in national politics, Professor Palshikar says, adding that caste identity is being asserted in cultural life with the formation of caste-based associations.

"Apart from acting as pressure groups demanding seats and reservations for their communities, they also act as gatekeepers, ensuring that young people marry within the community," he said. "Furthermore, they are demanding greater cultural space for their caste by demanding statues and renaming of libraries etc after their caste heroes."

Interestingly enough, they also perform some economic functions, like a caste-based barbers association that fixes the amount they charge customers.

 "Region, religion, caste, material interests inter-weave in such a complex manner and at such different levels that we need to find out then where the contemporary moment in Indian politics lies," he said.

Rochana Majumdar, an associate professor at the University of Chicago and a historian of nineteenth- and twentieth-century India, said, "Palshikar offered new materialson the everyday operation of caste in contemporary India, which opened up a whole new set of questions for researchers of Indian history, politics and anthropology."

Unfortunately for researchers, scientific polling data on elections started only as late as 1996. What is clear though is that the notion that Indian politics begins and ends with caste needs to be discarded immediately, according to Professor Palshikar.