It has now become a part of the conventional wisdom that caste is the pre-eminent feature of our public life. Discussions in the media of the electoral process or of cabinet formation cannot proceed without entering into calculations regarding the alliances and rivalries between castes, sub-castes and groups of castes. A major change came about when the communist parties began to demand special consideration for certain castes and communities in the name of social justice.
Many reasons have been put forward to account for the continued ascendance of caste in political life. It is not as if caste played no part in politics in the past, but people then did not speak as openly about its salience there, except perhaps in a few southern states as they do everywhere today. I do not wish to enter here into all the reasons behind the continuing, if not increasing, importance of caste. What I wish to do, instead, is to make the simple point that the ascendance of caste politics has been accompanied by the decline of class politics. The Communist Parties may continue to show reverence to Marx and Lenin, but when it comes to gathering electoral support, they have learnt to fall in line with the other parties, and to go by caste rather than class.
Some Left intellectuals say that they have not really given up their commitment to class, but that in India caste is the form taken by class. This was not the original position of the Communist Party at the time of Independence or of either of its two main branches until the Emergency of 1975-77 or what followed thereafter. The idea that caste is the form taken in India by class was created by Rammanohar Lohia and promoted by his followers in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, including B.P. Mandal. It is difficult if not impossible to reconcile such a view with the theories of society and politics that derive their inspiration from Marx or Lenin.
Left intellectuals have always taken pride in the belief that the regeneration of a nation can be successful only if it is based on a proper theory of society and politics. Marx had developed with great care a particular theory of social structure, social conflict and social change. The conflict of classes had a central place in this theory and the concept of class was defined in a particular way. The Marxists were not the only people who spoke or wrote about class, but they took care to define class in such a way that it made the polarization of classes appear inevitable. Marx believed and persuaded generations of his followers in different parts of the world to believe that the differentiation and polarization of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat were the ineluctable tendency of capitalist society. This tendency would ensure that each class acquired a more and more distinct identity in opposition to its counterpart.
It is not that Marx was not aware of the presence of more than two classes in even the most advanced capitalist societies in his time, or of divisions based on religion and language in them. But the other classes were regarded as ‘intermediate’ or ‘transitional’ classes whose significance would decline in comparison with the two ‘basic classes’. Likewise, the divisions of religion and language would lose their force in the face of the basic class divisions.
Throughout the 20th century, class divisions as envisioned by the Marxists came to be overshadowed by stratification on the basis of occupation, education and income. Inequalities did not disappear, but they came to be structured differently from what had been anticipated. The polarization into two great classes has not taken place and looks less and less likely to take place in the foreseeable future. The conflicts that show little signs of dying down are those among groups based on religion, language and other communities of birth. It is becoming increasingly difficult to disguise them as forms of class conflict. But if class politics has failed to materialize, it does not follow that we have to set our hearts and minds on caste politics.
The failure of class politics to materialize is not unique to India. The fortunes of the British Labour Party from the beginning of the 20th century to its end show us why the use of class for mobilizing electoral support provides diminishing returns. The Labour Party was established as a political party in 1900 with the specific objective of promoting the interests of the working class when that class had, or appeared to have, a distinct identity and a definite interest. As the boundaries between the working class and the middle class — or between blue-collar and black-coated workers — became increasingly porous and vague, the working class lost its character as a distinctive political force. It was left to Tony Blair to declare at the end of the 20th century that his party would have a dim future if it failed to discard the pretence that it had an elective affinity with any single class in society. In our country, the pith and substance of class politics has been abandoned by the major Communist parties although its rhetoric has been adapted to the use of caste politics.
In India, using caste as a proxy for class acts to the detriment of the truly disadvantaged and to the advantage of the middle class. Today every caste is differentiated in terms of income, occupation and education, and every bloc of castes has its own middle class which, like the middle class everywhere, looks to its own particular interest first before looking to the general interest. The advantage of using the language of class even while electoral support is gathered by appealing to the loyalties of caste is that it enables the middle-class leaders of the socially disadvantaged castes to take the moral high ground and to put their upper-caste counterparts on the back foot.
The fact that class divisions did not lead to the kind of political polarization anticipated by Marx in the 19th century does not mean that we can turn our backs on the very substantial economic inequalities that continue to exist between individuals and households. These inequalities are perhaps larger and more extreme in our society than in any other society of the present or the past. It is important to recognize that they might increase even while the social and political disparities between groups become smaller. The compulsions of electoral politics are one thing, and formulating policies that will seriously address the needs of the vast numbers of individuals suffering from poverty, hunger, malnutrition, ill health and illiteracy is another.
Democracy would not work at all if leaders of political parties took no account of the calculation of electoral advantage. But it cannot work well if they pay attention to nothing else. The English language very wisely makes a distinction between ‘politics’ and ‘policy’. They may be related but they are not one and the same. No doubt policy has to be formulated and implemented in and through the turbulence of politics. But we must not allow the requirements of policy to be overturned at every step by the demands of electoral politics.