Casteist politics is a kind of tribalism that hinders the growth of a modern polity. It should therefore be a laudable attempt for a political party to counter the baneful influence of casteism on secular politics. But the strategy outlined by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) to do so seems both flawed and suspect. The party’s admission of its failure to understand and counter the danger of the caste factor is yet another indication of the Indian communists’ warped assessment of the country’s political reality. This is largely due to the communists’ obsession with dogmatic approaches to politics. Theoretical preoccupation with the class-struggle made them take an ostrich-like position on the caste issues. They were deluded into believing that castes will wither away under the weight of the class-struggle. A diametrically opposite reality now stares them in the face, as caste, and not class, increasingly takes centrestage in Indian politics. But the remedy that the CPI(M) central committee suggests in a document, “Caste and caste organizations”, seems well-intentioned but inadequate. Promoting inter-caste marriages is no doubt a good idea, but ridding politics of the caste-bias will require a holistic approach that is far wider in its scope.
The other problem with the Marxists’ late awakening to the dangers of caste-based politics is that it seems to have been inspired by fears of the party losing part of its support-base to casteist organizations. There are indications that the party is faced with such a prospect even in its strongholds like Kerala, where it too worked the caste factor to its advantage for a long time. The party is anxious that the Bharatiya Janata Party will surreptitiously seek to cut into the Marxist vote-bank in Kerala by promoting caste-based organizations. But a narrow, partisan strategy to retain political space cannot successfully meet the larger challenge of casteism. Neither will the party’s battle against casteism look convincing if it allies itself with caste-based parties such as Mr Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party or Mr Laloo Prasad Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal. It is unlikely that the CPI(M) will take on these parties because it cannot fight the B JP or the Congress on its own strength except in West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura. Claiming as it does to be the party of the proletariat, the CPI(M) should also ponder why the poor are staying away from the class-struggle and rallying round the casteist parties. The rise of the casteist parties should have prompted the Marxists to turn the spotlight more directly on their own failures.