Role Of Caste In Elections

What is the rationale of contesting an election when getting a ticket is hard, winning uncertain, the enterprise costly and if a candidate is nearly certain to be kicked out after one term?

Role Of Caste In Elections

The coverage of the Bihar elections abounds with considerations on caste, defined as the go-to variable to understand both alliance's strategies and voters' alignments. Indeed, both main alliances devised mutually exclusive social and political alliances, and, contrary to recent electoral campaigns in other states, spare no efforts publicising the promises they make to specific groups.

The focus on caste however tends to ignore the deep transformation that caste politics has undergone in Northern India in recent years.

The first trend that one sees is that traditional vote bank support towards the so-called caste based parties they are associated with is gradually eroding. In recent years, in Bihar, more Yadavs vote for non-RJD candidates than in the past. The earlier alignments between certain types of castes and certain parties fielding candidates from the same background have given way to a far more diversified and localized electoral strategy, consisting in building local alliances between groups according to their local demographic and political power balance. The political instability of the 1990s stemmed largely from the fact that parties focused on narrow social bases, therefore limiting their capacity to score large victories, let alone obtain single majorities of seats. But as parties grew more "inclusive" — out of necessity — the support among their core group eroded.

As political parties see it

The second misconception that one sees frequently is the idea that caste operates on its own, irrespective of other dimensions. From the parties' point of view, identifying which caste they should ally with locally, and distributing the tickets accordingly, is only the beginning of the process. One has to identify the right candidate within the targeted groups. In that regard, caste is only one aspect of a candidate's "winnability". The capacity to garner support across caste barriers, the resources they can mobilise, their connections to local power wielders and business interests, and the local history of inter caste relations are all aspects that are taken into account while selecting candidates. The necessity to place kins and relatives, and the fact that parties attempt at the same time to anticipate their rivals' strategies make the distribution of tickets even more complex.

These variables — identity, resources, connection to elite groups, local history and lineage — form what one could term as the rules of political engagement, or a set of constraints that weigh on both parties, candidates and ultimately voters.

Candidates' perspective

If one looks at the election from the candidates' perspective, the outlook is grim. Elections in India are very competitive but in more diverse ways than it seem at first sight. As a candidate, one has to compete not only with other parties' candidates, but also within their own party and often within their own social group or community, in order to get the ticket in the first place. Such as it is, the campaign for the ticket is often longer, harder and at times more expensive and violent than the electoral campaign itself. It takes years for an aspiring politician to build a profile that will retain a party's attention.

Costs & career

At the same time, campaign costs are ever increasing. Not only one needs to spend resources to get into the fray, but one also needs to outspend their competitors. And once they're elected (if they are), they enter into a world of daily expenditures, where every interaction with constituents necessitates the spending of resources of some kind or another. Being a candidate and an elected representative is a hugely expensive proposition.

To make things worse, data shows that the political life expectancy of MLAs is very short. On average, more than half of the incumbent MLAs of any Vidhan Sabha in Northern India do not get a second term.

One wonders then what is the rationality of competing when getting a ticket is hard, winning uncertain, the whole enterprise costly no matter what happens and if in addition, a candidate is nearly certain to be kicked out after one term, either by voters or more likely so by his or her own party, as a casualty of anti-incumbency prevention, faction wars or due to pre-electoral seat sharing agreements. There must be incentives to do so, reasons to think that one will be able to recover one's investment, and eventually make a surplus.

Rules of the game

Not everyone is of course equally endowed to play a game with such stringent rules and it is therefore not surprising that mainstream parties tend to select their candidates among the local dominant groups, who can produce candidates who fit the bill. The rules of the game have an impact on who gets to successfully contest elections.

In the old days, when Congress dominated both national and state politics, three resources were required to win an election: an upper caste status, land and a Congress ticket. Today, a candidate requires caste number rather than status, economic resources that land alone can no longer provide, and an ABC ticket (anything but Congress ticket).

An upper caste status no longer commands any authority or legitimacy vis-a-vis other groups. How many people you can mobilise behind your caste name and beyond is what matters. Land still matters to some extent but not as much as in the past. Instead, the position of a candidate and of his or her support group in the local economy and the control exerted over local economic institutions, public or private by the candidate or his or her support is determinant. And in recent years, a Congress ticket has become more of a liability than an asset, compared to other parties' tickets.

This is important because the constraints that weigh on parties and candidates shape the kind of representation people get. Ticket distribution remains caste-based but determined by local factors. And the collusion between candidates and local economic and political elites often determine their winnability.

Economy, the equaliser

As a result, while assemblies have become more heterogeneous or representative in terms of caste, they have at the same time become more and more homogeneous, in terms of economic profile of their members. How does it matter that MLAs come from different castes if they are all businessmen, or are all similarly enmeshed with local business elites? What we see in North Indian politics is not a growing nexus between caste and business, but the progressive integration of local political and economical elites.


It would be easy to write off this story as yet another example of elite capture or as the development of local crony capitalism. This would overlook the fact that the game and its rules find social legitimacy in the eye of voters, who expect their representatives to act as effective mediators between themselves, the state, or any resource that can be tapped and diverted to meet local interests, caste based or not, legitimate or not.

And what recourse do voters have, but to turn towards the individuals and groups who control the local institutions that determine the allocation and distribution of public and private goods? Those who control local economic institutions — the brick kilns, the cold storage facilities, the transport companies, the schools and colleges — those who control local credit organizations and cooperative banks — are also instrumental to the success of any developmental policy. This is how they can derive political capital from their hold over the local economy. In Bihar, as in other parts of Northern India, control over local institutions remains largely mediated by caste.


Thus, presenting the Bihar elections as the contest between vikas and sammaan/swabhimaan — that is development versus caste or dignity — is deeply misleading. First of all because each alliance is as caste-minded as the other when it comes to the crafting of electoral strategies and ticket distribution (there may be differences in discourses but hardly any in practice). But also because the tenants of the politics of dignity usually overlook the fact that caste-based mobilisation is also the way to access to the benefits of what passes as development. Recent ethnographic work done in Bihar by Jeffrey Witsoe convincingly shows how development and caste are deeply intertwined, placed in a relation of tension, rather than separate or in a relation of opposition.


This is not an entirely new situation. The individuals and groups who dominated politics in the past were also those who had control over local economic institutions. The major difference however is that more groups can claim to that position and that elections have become more competitive. The porters of economic influence have also shifted from land and agriculture to non-farm activities, a reflection of the economic transformations that have taken place in Bihar.

We need to stop thinking about elections using only one variable and must contextualise the role of caste and identities within their local political economy environment. This would also help us rethink the meaning and impact of the rise of backwards in politics and the apparent democratization of electoral politics.


Gilles Verniers is an Assistant Professor at Ashoka University. He conducts a post-graduate course on ' Making Sense of Indian Elections'.