Bahujan Samaj Party (BJP) leader andUttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawatihas urged the electorate of Punjab to vote for her party’s candidates in stateassembly elections to fulfil the dream of BSP founder Kanshi Ram.The late Kanshi Ram, who has become asymbol of contemporary Dalit assertionand political success, was born in Punjaband was active in the state’s politics for along time. Notwithstanding its newly projected image of being a party of all,the
, the core constituency of theBSP has been and continues to bescheduled castes (SCs), or Dalits.Together, the 39 SC communities of Punjab constitute nearly 29% of the totalpopulation of the state, close to doublethe national average. With such a largepopulation, they are perhaps the largestcluster of caste communities of Punjab.However, the BSP has hardly ever posed a challenge to the mainstream politicalparties of Punjab. This time, too, there is little hope of the party winning any seats.How do we explain this puzzle in a democracy where “caste” and “community”frame the grammar of politics? Or does this raise questions about the commonsense of electoral behaviour?
The modernist leadership of India had a very clear notion of democratic politics. It was to be based on the idea of the individual citizen. The ties of community andcaste were to be forgotten with time. This was not only a desirable state of things, but also a part of the natural and inevitable process of evolutionary change.Modern technology, industrialization and urbanization were to destroy all“parochial” community ties. This, they believed, was what had already happened inthe West. There was no reason to think the trajectory of change in India would beany different. Even someone like B.R. Ambedkar, who always suspected theintentions of the largely upper caste-dominated nationalist leadership, hoped thatmodernization and urbanization would help the Dalits get out of the villages and break free from the oppressive social structure of caste.Democratic politics and even the modernization process have, however, unfolded very differently. Soon after India introduced electoral politics, sociologists andpolitical scientists reported that not only was democratic politics failing to destroy caste, but caste was in fact going through a process of transmutation and seemedto be surviving very comfortably with the electoral process. Individual castecommunities were getting into horizontal alliances and forming what sociologistM.N. Srinivas described as “vote banks”. Soon, a new common sense of caste anddemocratic politics emerged.By the 1980s, caste and electoral politics had become virtually inseparable. Fromthe lay public to the psephologists of popular media and serious academic analysts,nearly everyone began to treat caste as the most important variable influencingdemocratic politics in India. According to this common sense, caste communitiescompeted with each other and determined electoral outcomes. Even when they didnot directly participate in electoral politics, they operated as pressure groups andinfluenced the governance agenda of the Indian state at the local, regional andnational levels. Over the last three or four decades, several political parties havecome to be identified with specific caste communities.Punjab appears to be an odd case in this national framework of caste politics. Although caste is indeed one of the operative parameters of Punjab politics, thereseems to be very little competition among the caste communities of Punjab. TheJats, who constitute only around one-fourth of the state electorate, have remained virtually unchallenged. The last non-Jat who could become chief minister of thestate was Giani Zail Singh, and that was way back in the 1970s. The two majorpolitical parties, the Congress and the Akalis, are both Jat-led and Jat-dominated.Even the Khalistan movement was largely a Jat-dominated phenomenon. A more surprising fact about caste in Punjab is the virtual absence of a challengefrom the Dalits. Notwithstanding the positive effect of Sikhism and Islam on thenature and practice of untouchability in the region, the Punjabi Dalits have beenquite a deprived population. Even though they are mostly rural, less than 1% of all the agricultural land is owned or tilled by them. In an agrarian society, landdetermines everything. Even though the Dalits of Punjab are less likely to be below the national poverty line, in relative terms their deprivation is quite stark, and incomparison to other communities they stand far below.Interestingly enough, Punjab has also been witness to some of the most vibrantmobilizations by the Dalits. From the Ad Dharm movement of the 1920s to therecent movement for a separate Ravidassia religion, the Dalits of Punjab have oftenasserted their distinct identity. Yet, the BSP seems to be an insignificant force in the regional politics of Punjab,although it succeeded in rising to power in Uttar Pradesh. How can we make senseof this? The answer perhaps lies in the way we have come to understand caste andthe excessive heuristic value that we tend to attribute to it.Notwithstanding its significance in the social and economic life of Punjab, castehas not been an idiom of Punjab politics. The dominant idioms of regional politicsare shaped historically. Thanks to its history of partition and communal divide, themost dominant idiom of the politics of Punjab has been that of religiouscommunities—the dynamic of communal relations between the Sikhs and theHindus. The second important idiom of politics has been the region—the dynamicsof relationship between Punjab and the Centre. And the third important idiom has been the social and economic class. At the local level in the region, caste seems to be closely tied to class, perhaps much more strongly than elsewhere.Jat power is reproduced through a constellation of all these factors, and as of now remains unchallenged in Punjab.
Surinder S. Jodhka is professor of sociology and chair of the Centre for the Studyof Social Systems, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University.