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The democratisation of politics

India's Silent Revolution is a sympathetic account of the rise of lower castes in North India. But the emphasis is more on identity and representation, not the redistributive potential of caste politics, says ZOYA HASAN.


RICH in political history and empirical detail, India's Silent Revolution: The Rise of the Lower Castes in North India is an ambitious and impressive book. It offers a scholarly and sympathetic account of lower caste politics in north India and the new assertiveness that has characterised this silenced majority since the 1960s. Comparison of lower caste politics in north India with non-Brahmin politics in South India enriches the study, and this provides some clues to the weaknesses of the former and its excessive emphasis on quota politics. The book's core argument is that the second age of democracy, which began in the 1970s with the decline of Congress and broadening of social horizon and incorporation of lower castes, has transformed India from an elite dominated conservative democracy to a social democracy. The politicised version of caste and the increased representation of lower castes in the political system were in the main responsible for the democratisation of Indian politics.

Contrary to the widely held view that the Congress party was successful in fashioning an open elite system, which permitted social groups to gain a share of power within the political system, Christophe Jaffrelot argues that there was no room for an egalitarian agenda in Congress's clientelistic scheme of politics. Rather, the pattern of land settlement, the demographic weight of the upper castes and their overwhelming role in the power structure strengthened the hold of conservatives within the Congress. This is true, but was this only because the upper castes were over-represented in the Congress or because there were inadequate pressures from lower caste social movements and parties to compel an actual accommodation of lower caste/class interests? Arguably, the absence of vigorous political competition strengthened the upper castes' hold over the Congress and facilitated its cooption of pliable lower caste leaders, which was sufficient to delay social change for a good 30 years.

However, this eventual shift raises important questions about the changing character of India's democracy. Does democracy and transformation mean just representation of lower castes and political arrangements for power-sharing and does high presence of lower castes in government mean an automatic blending of political and social democracy and the coming into existence of substantive democracy? Jaffrelot's answer appears to be in the affirmative and his justification for this throughout the book is the changing caste composition of political parties and government in favour of the lower castes. But is this really enough to herald the emergence of social democracy in north India, as we know it?

Historically, the basic limitation of lower caste mobilisation in the north was its failure to break out of the Sanskritisation mould in contrast to western and southern India where caste movements were questioning Hindu religious culture. In Tamil country, the multi-layered ideology of Dravidianism emerged out of opposition to Brahmanism and Brahmin institutions of colonial rule, and in the hands of Periyar became associated with a vision of Dravidian and Shudra primacy against Aryan Brahmanism. In Maharashtra, Jyotiba Phule blamed Brahmins for the deprivations of the lower castes and hence of the many ills of society. Consequently, in these regions lower castes were questioning the superiority of the Brahminic Hindu religious tradition at the same time as they were going through indigenous religious reform. There is little evidence of such questioning in north India. In the north, caste activity and associations did not have as their particular focus the privileges of Brahmins and the condition of women and lower classes. Sanskritisation as a strategy of emancipation could not proffer an encompassing category like Dravidianism to challenge Brahminism, and consequently, there was little chance of developing an alternative ethnic identity to shape lower caste mobilisation. Dravidian politics developed into an inclusive Tamil nationalism, associating the Dravidian community with the non-Sanskritic Tamil language and cultural tradition. The lower caste political formations in north India failed in building precisely that single, common political language which the DMK in its prime was so adept in building.

There are three tendencies in lower caste politics in north India: Laloo Yadav's cultural critique and opposition to upper caste-class privilege; Mulayam Singh Yadav's substitution of upper castes politics with a model of a peasant-cum-caste politics; and Mayawati's Dalit power agenda. No doubt, through these three tendencies the lower castes have gained an important voice in north India but the question is this: Are they able to make use of their enhanced political presence to change structures of privilege? Lacking social vision and programme, often they end up as sectarian struggles, which cannot challenge the structures of exploitation. All of them lack a fully rounded social and economic agenda. Of these, Laloo Yadav has the most holistic approach, he is critical of caste-class privilege, but has no clue of modern statecraft and the necessity of economic development or industrialisation. Uttar Pradesh is a different story altogether, it has not yet moved into an entirely anti-upper caste orbit because of the demographic weight of upper castes and their continuing political and cultural influence.

None of these tendencies has produced a reorientation of public policy towards the needs and aspirations of the poor and in the allocation of public expenditure to the social sectors. Thus, we do not see governments dominated by OBCs and Dalits devoting new resources in mass education or programmes targeted towards the socio-economic uplift of the poor. This book has very little to say about the political economy of north Indian states and actual performance of post-Congress governments over the period that it covers. Such an analysis could help us to understand why Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, lag behind in terms of performance with regard to indicators of human development. The achievement of power was rarely translated into government policies, which are pro-poor in the economic sense. Admittedly, filling reserved quotas and increasing the political representation of lower castes is a most important and pleasing change from the Congress era. But why do these governments have such a poor record of empowering the poorest citizens to behave as active agents pursuing their interests is a critical question that remains unanswered.

Finally, the crucial issue of the rise of communalism and the growing contribution of OBCs and Dalits to anti-Muslim violence make it necessary to engage explicitly with the discourse of lower castes and its relationship to Hindu nationalism and can this discourse water down Hindutva? This the book does not frontally address. The argument that caste mobilisation is both a progressive political force and antithetical to Hindutva is an important one, especially in view of the general tendency to assume that caste mobilisation generates disintegrative social conflict. However, it is crucial to remember the role played by the controversy over Mandal in generating the political consensus that made Hindu nationalism more acceptable despite the huge dangers of religious nationalism, right-wing politics and communalism. The furore against reservations suggested that the legitimacy of state intervention in areas related to social justice had been eroded, and this fed into BJP attempts to gain increased legitimacy and popularity at the time. The resurgence of middle class and elite privilege has reinforced this, as have efforts to naturalise that privilege through the ideological linkage of Hindutva with nationalism. Gujarat shows the success of this approach: in the absence of a radical political discourse, the VHP has been able to persuade the Dalits and Adivasis that their interests lie with Hindutva and therefore in direct conflict with those of Muslims. In other words, when the focus is not on the redistributive potential of caste politics, but on identity and representation, the discursive implications of the caste discourse can lend itself to an accommodation within a new political rhetoric of Hindu nationalism.

This is an admirable book, of immense interest, amassing and analysing a range of material to demonstrate the extent to which changes of caste politics have led to transformations in India's democracy. It attempts to grapple with fundamental shifts in Indian politics: the political processes of democratisation and the social and economic effects of democratic power-sharing urges from below.

India's Silent Revolution: The Rise of the Lower Castes in North India, Christophe Jaffrelot, Permanent Black, 2002, p.505, Rs. 795.

Zoya Hasan is with the Department of Political Science, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

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