The recent incidence of Aam Aadmi Party’s leader Atishi Marlena giving up her surname “Marlena” soon after her announcement as party candidate for East Delhi parliamentary seat for the 2019 Lok Sabha election forces us to rethink if caste matters for voters even in big metropolitan cities like Delhi. It is understood that she was advised to do so as her surname sounded Christian, which is not helpful for mobilising votes of the majority community.
If this single instance was not enough, the recent statement of Ashutosh, who unsuccessfully contested the 2014 Lok Sabha election from Delhi as AAP candidate, confirms how caste identities and surnames are important for mobilisation of voters. Ashutosh, who recently resigned from the AAP, made a statement that his party wanted him to use his surname “Gupta” during his campaign as the constituency from where he was the candidate has a large number of voters from his community. There could be numerous such examples or candidates either taking up or dropping their surnames to be identified or to hide their caste and religious identities for expected political gains. The difference may be of shades, but caste considerations are important for almost all political parties. It begins with the selection of candidates and continues till the formation of the Cabinet.
I hardly have any confusion on this issue, whether big city, small town or village, caste considerations matter for voters, the only difference may be in shades. Caste-based identities have existed in villages for long and the rural people had no inhibition about this. But what is important to note is that caste-based identities have become much stronger now compared to the past amongst urban Indians. It does matter a lot for the political parties.
Post-Mandal politics has ushered a new era in Indian politics. Identity politics, which was earlier seen only in villages, is now visible in towns and metros too.
Few decades ago, we hardly saw vehicles in big cities with prominent display on the back and front of their vehicle of words like “Yadav”, “Gujjar” and “Jat” just to name a few as marker of their caste identity.
When identities have occupied much more a central space now compared to the past in the life of the people in big metropolitan cities, it is natural to expect such identities to play an important role even in the political space.
The caste-based mobilisation is one of the most important tools of voter mobilisation of all political parties in present-day politics in India.
The emergence of identity politics is the result of formation of large number of political parties and their survival largely of not solely on their caste-based support. We find such political parties in the length and breadth of the country from the far East to the West and from North to down South.
The Telugu Desam Party in Andhra Pradesh champions the cause of pro-Telugu people and those belonging to Kamma caste. In Assam we have All India United Democratic Front (AUDF) representing solely the cause of Muslims in the state. In Bihar all the regional parties have its own caste-based support, the JD(U) amongst the dominant OBC caste, the Kurmis; while the Rashtriya Janata Dal is popularity know as the party of Yadavs. The Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) of Ram Vilas Paswan has survived over the decades only on the support of dalit votes in the state.
The story hardly changes in Uttar Pradesh where the Samajwadi Party is closely identified as a Yadav party, while the Bahujan Samaj Party is identified as the party of dalits, more so of Jatavs. Ajit Singh-led Rashtriya Lok Dal is seen as a party only of Jats.
The JD(S) of Karnataka is largely considered as a party of the dominant peasant community, the Vokkaligas, while the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra is identified as a party largely of Marathas. Most of the regional parties of states in the Northeast are seen as caste-based parties.
These parties were not only formed on caste-based support, they have survived largely on caste-based support as voters of particular castes vote for these parties in very large numbers and form a votebank for it.
Evidence from surveys conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) indicate, caste remains an important consideration of the voting choices for a sizeable number of voters. This is true of voters cutting across locality, whether rural or urban, the difference may be only of shades. Evidence from the survey indicates, caste-based voting is prevalent not only amongst voters of the North Indian states like Bihar, UP, Rajasthan or Haryana, but in most of the states in other regions as well.
In Andhra Pradesh, the two politically-dominant communities of Andhra Pradesh — the Reddy and Kamma — have voted over the years. It may not be incorrect to treat them as votebank for political parties. Nearly 70 per cent of the Reddy vote for the YSR Congress, while similar proportions vote for the TDP in Andhra Pradesh. Voters of two dalit communities — the Malas and Madigas — are also sharply polarised in favour of the YSR Congress in Andhra Pradesh.
Similarly, the Nair of Kerala, vote for the Left Democratic Front in large numbers while other upper-caste voters generally vote in bigger numbers for the United Democratic Front. In Maharashtra, a very large proportion of voters from the Maratha community vote for the Shiv Sena.
Caste still remains one of the important considerations of voting for Indian voters, and caste-based mobilisation remains an important consideration for political parties. The recent issues of Atishi dropping her surname and Ashutosh’s statement regarding issues with his surname only throw new light on this issue.
The 2019 Lok Sabha elections are not far away. We will definitely witness how political parties will form alliance with other parties with the aim of forging bigger caste alliances. But the issues might get lost in the noise of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections at that time.