The year is 2017 and the nation has an aircraft carrier, a nuclear-powered submarine, a 700MW PHWR (Pressurised Heavy Water Reactor) under trial run and the Supreme Court has ruled that political parties cannot ask for the vote in the name of religion, caste, language, race or community. This judgement naturally raises the question as to how powerful the caste sentiment is with Indian voters and how successful is caste factor in determining the electoral outcome of an election in India?

Before going into the analysis of this topic, we need to understand the demographic distribution with respect to caste. The statistical report (2004-05) by NSSO (Nation Sample Survey Organization) estimated OBC population to be comprising of 40.94%, SC population to be around 19.59% while ST population to be around 8.63%, of the total. The rest of 30.84% comprises of general category citizens. This worthiness of this report was questioned as NSSO Statistical Survey (1999-2000) Report placed OBC population at around 35% and hence, it seems unlikely that OBC population grew by six percent within a time period of five years. The Socio-Economic Caste Census 2011 gives a religion wise caste distribution;


Distribution of Population of each Religion by Caste Categories
Religion/Caste SCs STs OBCs General class/Others
Hinduism 22.2% 9% 42.8% 26%
Islam 0.8% 0.5% 39.2% 59.5%
Christianity 9.0% 32.8% 24.8% 33.3%
Sikhism 30.7% 0.9% 22.4% 46.1%
Jainism 0.0% 2.6% 3.0% 94.3%
Buddhism 89.5% 7.4% 0.4% 2.7%
Zoroastrianism 0.0% 15.9% 13.7% 70.4%
Others 2.6% 82.5% 6.25 8.7%
Total 19.7% 8.5% 41.1% 30.8%

By the above figures it is very clear that every caste block has very high potential to influence the electoral outcome if politicians are able to woo voters in the name of caste, and the effect of such factors can be eminent from the result of any political contest, right from Panchayat to the Parliamentary Elections, but does that actually occur? Or, are today’s voter still crippled by caste-based political thought?

India, Voters of Past, Present and Future

To begin with, I consulted an article by Binoy S Prasad titled General Elections 1996, Major role of Caste and Social Factions in Bihar. In the very beginning of the article, Mr Prasad has mentioned in the absence of a strong and clear political agenda, caste played the most important role in determining the electoral outcome of the elections as far as Bihar was concerned. It is very true that well after the general elections of 1967, it became very clear that Congress Party, couldn’t reign the whole of India and regional parties with their regional issues (that were often dominated by religious, caste-based or linguistic agenda) could be considered a force to reckon with. Except for Bengal and Kerela, where parties with Leftist ideology defeated Congress, all other states which Congress lost to regional parties like Tamil Nadu to DMK, Andhra Pradesh to TDP, Odisha to BJD, Assom to AGP, and so on, were not on issues pertaining to very significant political ideologies but rather on grounds of religion, caste, language, representation in central government, share of benefit from resources under the control of central government or other state governments, or statehood issues. But when I googled for ‘Influence of caste in general elections, 2014’, the results were of a bit different nature.

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a US-based think-tank carried out a survey about the voters’ psychology in India with reference to the 2014 general elections and found out that voters were interested in electing those to the public office who could profit the local and national economy. Now, this had been the trendsetter in most of the US elections since last two-three decades, but in India, the 2014 general election was a watershed moment because of this sudden push from the voters’ side for a better economy. This doesn’t really mean that voters were negligent to caste identity or religious and linguistic sentiments, but yes, the voters are attaching importance to overall development also. This is a link to a video by Milan Vaishnav from CEIP, explaining the survey results.  

An article written by noted Indian historian, Ramchandra Guha published in Outlook magazine, pointed out towards the change in socio-economic conditions of the voters in India. He quoted in it,

“Some trends are promising; more Indians now live in cities where the pressure of caste and locality matter less than in the countryside. More Indians now contract marriages outside their communities. With economic development, more Indians are now abandoning traditional caste-based occupations. In factories and offices, they work and break bread with Indians of different social background. These secularising tendencies are reinforced by TV and the internet which alert the young to mentalities and lifestyles very different from those of their parents or grandparents.”

In the article he has very effectively quoted that in spite of this trend, the Indian electoral outcome is still driven by archaic values because of the following two factors:

  1. The secular-minded middle class isn’t still, by and large, the most valuable voting bloc in terms of number, and
  2. The political parties, be it national or regional, are far more concerned to gain voters’ sympathy on religious, caste-based and linguistic agenda, and are far less concerned to project any concrete outlook or standing on issues pertaining to national interest like health, education, environment, the economy and foreign affairs. These arenas form the centre of an electoral campaign in even relatively much smaller democracies like the Chez Republic and Ukraine, but ironically, take a backseat when we talk about elections in India.

This is the link to the article available on Outlook website. He has made a list of what, as a concerned voter of India, one can wish for in the future to happen. Honestly speaking, none of the wishes has seen the morning light. But if you question your sole, it is most likely that you will discover that at the depth of our heart we all want a strong central as well as state government which;

  1. Devalues religious, caste-based, community-based, linguistic or any other form of societal importance and rather provides equal opportunity for all, and
  2. Has very clear standing on policies of economic development.

Now, consider the fact that literacy rate is increasing and ECI is working hard for making election an easily accessible opportunity for all the citizens of India. It may soon be difficult for parties to play the religious and caste-based tune!

The Curious Case of Bihar

Further research on the matter, as to how the state of Bihar has responded to changing time, I reached for an article presented by Gilles Verniers, who is an Assistant Professor in Ashoka University, and conducts a post-graduate course on ‘Making Sense of Indian Election’.  In his view, the rural Bihar (which comprises of more than 88% of the total population of the state) has been in the past regarded as a whole-sole playground of religious and caste-based vote banks, but what many fail to notice is that religion or caste has been only one aspect for the contesting parties. Identifying the right candidate within the right religious group or caste has been the pivotal role of the party officials prior to elections in the state. ‘Win-ability’ of the candidate depends partly on the religious or the caste-factor and has been mostly determined by his/her ability to mobilise resources, his/her ancestral lineage and family history with respect to the relation with local power wielders, business interests, and representatives of other castes. In fact, as elections are being organised in a more transparent manner with each passing election season and since ECI has been a very apt learner ever since T.N. Susan has been the CEC, factors other than religion and caste has turned out to be of far greater consequence.

Furthermore, the causality of an anti-incumbency factor is as high as 50% in the northern states like Bihar. This means, even with the religion, caste and political lineage, it is very likely that one, who has been elected, will be made to relinquish his office either by the party or by the voters. This definitely leaves people with strong religious or caste-based backing vulnerable too. One thing is to be kept in mind that when we are stating that religion and caste plays a role in Bihar, that definitely means that each and every political contestant has its calculations done, and hence each party, be it RJD, BJP, JD(U) or the left front, will be pitching candidates from religious groups or castes which have some gravity in the constituency. This many a times nullifies the religious or caste-backing effect. So we must reconsider the statement that Bihar is a religious and caste-based battlefield.

In the past, when Congress Party dominated the state election in UP and Bihar which has a rather infamous feudalistic history, three factors dominated the election, an upper caste title, land and Congress Ticket. Now, strong caste or rather good ties with strong caste-group, monetary asset and influence over local business and any ticket other than that of Congress Party is a necessity. Another fact is due to the commendable performance by Parties (based on OBC vote banks) which dominated the state elections in the 1990s and onwards, the upper castes hegemony has come to an end and economic asset needed for election is well within the reach of candidates belonging to OBC, SC, and ST community. The question arises as to how does it matter when MLA’s come from different castes with a similar profile?

The answer is, voters gain importance. Just think of the fact that the state of Bihar has recorded highest growth rate in a couple of quarters. Or reindustrialization is underway in the state which did lose a significant chunk to Jharkhand. The parties have understood that ground work matters. MLAs and MPs know people are not interested in religious or caste identity alone, and it may within few elections turnout that these factors will take a back seat and voters will vote the sincere. It’s a matter of fact that we can’t simply state that gone are the days of caste and religious appraisal, but yes, it is also true that a segment of new voters have already emerged for whom, DEVELOPMENT is the buzzword. And to sum up, the SC order comes at a time when the new voters are taking birth.

SOURCEa. Wikipedia b. Outlook Magazine
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  1. Well written.When political parties will be ready to accept internal democracy and electoral reforms then influence of caste come down.

  2. caste and democracy differ from each other and cannot co-exist because caste advocates fragmentation of society whereas democracy stands for the unification of society.
    But a bitter truth for Indian Democratic System…
    Where Caste System is not only accepted but also Expected.

  3. There is no denying the fact that caste and religion are being used by political parties to polarise the votes. Nearly every election has witnessed this..especialy in bihar and UP which are large electoral states. The worry is that they are doing it openly even distributing tickets on the ground of caste..making manifesto by caste distribution and still we are watching like a helpless dog.. This is mediocre..ridiculous.. RJD has always been soughting for yadav and muslim votes… Congress are after muslims votes… And so on…The election commission and the supereme court should come up with a solution for this…

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