As society and politics have changed in India in the last sixty years, our perceptions of them have also changed. Because the changes have been gradual and incremental and not sudden or dramatic, as in China, we do not always recognize that the reality and the perception are no longer what they were in the wake of Independence.
In the early years of Independence, caste and caste-consciousness appeared to be in decline. There were indications that they were loosening their hold in the cities, particularly among educated professional people, and it was expected that the trend would, in course of time, operate in the rest of society. The urban middle class was, at that time, quite small, but its social and political influence was considerable, and it was growing. People expected the progressive elements in it to show the way in freeing society from the petty tyrannies of caste. On this, both the liberal and the radical elements in the intelligentsia were in agreement.
We can say with the advantage of hindsight that the trajectory of caste in the last sixty years has been more uneven, not to say uncertain, than the progressive members of society expected. There has not been any sharp break with the past, but there have been ups and downs. The belief that caste was loosening its hold over society and would continue to do so was not altogether illusory. It depends on where we look. If one looks at the ritual rules of purity and pollution by which so much of the traditional order of caste was maintained, one will clearly find caste to be in decline, and the decline appears irreversible. But if we turn to politics and the electoral process, we will see a different picture.
Because politics dominates the media to such a large extent, many are now beginning to say that caste as such is becoming stronger and not weaker. But we should not be beguiled by the media into ignoring the steady erosion of caste in many important areas of life. Restrictions on inter-dining have been substantially reduced, and such restrictions as are now found are due more to differences of income, occupation and education than caste. Restrictions on inter-marriage no doubt remain, but they are less stringent than they were two or three generations ago. The association between caste and occupation has weakened and is likely to weaken further with the progressive displacement of ‘caste-based’ by ‘caste-free’ occupations.
Yet we cannot ignore the growing ascendancy of caste over politics in many, if not most, parts of India. The entry of caste into politics did not come about suddenly. Caste acted on politics even before Independence, and as far back as in 1970 Rajni Kothari put together an important collection of papers entitled Caste in Indian Politics. All the same, a significant change came about after the Emergency. Caste politics began to gradually enlarge its scope, and there are now very few states where caste is not a major factor in politics. What is as important is that the promotion of caste solidarity for political purposes has become increasingly open and acceptable. Political parties are no longer embarrassed to promote caste interests but say that they must do so to further equity and justice.
This change is most striking in the case of the left parties whose leaders, at least outside West Bengal, have become strong advocates of caste quotas. If we view this in the perspective of the early years of Independence, it will appear as a remarkable turnaround. Fifty to sixty years ago, talk about the significance of caste in Indian society was generally treated with scorn by them. They viewed such talk as a way of obscuring the true source of contradiction and conflict in Indian society which, in their view, was class and not caste.
Some Marxists now say, as Ram Manohar Lohia would say before, that caste is the form taken in Indian society by class. This is not very convincing and somewhat disingenuous. No matter how we juggle with phrases, the politics of the class struggle is very different from the politics of caste quotas. If more and more left leaders are becoming reconciled to caste politics, it is for pragmatic and not ideological reasons.
If class politics is being displaced by caste politics, it is not simply because inequalities of wealth, income and occupation have ceased to matter or become less important than those of caste. Orientations to politics have changed in India and worldwide during the last fifty to sixty years. Class politics has lost much of its shine, and identity politics, of which caste politics is a particular form, has gathered increasing strength in many countries, including India.
India took the path of constitutional democracy after Independence. The liberal and gradualist political agenda of the Congress under Nehru enjoyed broad support within the country. But some found it dull and uninspired, and looked for an alternative to it. At that time, class politics or a politics based on the mobilization of the dispossessed classes — the workers and peasants — seemed an attractive alternative. Some found it natural then to believe that the road taken by Russia under Stalin or China under Mao would lead India to a better future than Nehru’s path of bourgeois democracy. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the turnaround in China, class politics no longer has the same appeal for the imaginative and the adventurous.
The left parties have had a mixed record in India. They did not bring about either a political or a social revolution, but they have had some success in politics and government. They have learnt to adapt themselves to democracy and to trim their sails to the requirements of electoral politics. They have had to work with other political parties. In a democracy, political parties learn to work with each other and also come to resemble each other a little. As the left parties have become more and more like the other parties in the country, they have become less and less like the parties of Lenin and Mao.
Class politics, to the extent that it draws its inspiration from Lenin and Mao, is fundamentally different in its outlook and orientation from caste politics. The aim of class politics is to bring class divisions to an end; it is a utopian aim. The aim of caste politics is not utopian but pragmatic. It does not seek to bring caste divisions to an end but, rather, to secure a better distribution of the benefits and burdens of society among the different castes. Caste politics is better adapted than class politics to democracy, particularly in an era of coalitions.
The more caste politics gains over other forms of politics, the more the consciousness of caste gets revived. The general trend in society may be towards a loosening of the hold of caste through education and economic development. But politics is a powerful force which can arrest the general trend by acting against it. Politicians have not created the divisions of caste, but by using them so extensively in the competition for power, they are making it stronger than it might have otherwise been.