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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Caste politics come full circle in India

By Sudha Ramachandran

Upper-caste Brahmins, whose relevance in the electoral arena dwindled over the past few decades thanks to their relatively small numbers, are wielding significant influence in the general elections scheduled for next month. In fact, the master strategists and spin doctors of the main political parties in the poll fray are Brahmin.

"Most of the country's political strategists and backroom boys - those running the country's political war rooms, advising party leaders, drawing up electoral battle plans, negotiating tricky alliances, crunching numbers or just working on slogans and spin - are from among the 'twice-born' [Brahmins]," said Smita Gupta in an article in the newsmagazine Outlook.

Jairam Ramesh, the election coordinator of Congress - the lead party in the ruling coalition - and author of several of its policy documents, is Brahmin. As is the chief election strategist of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Arun Jaitley. Orissa chief minister and president of the Bharatiya Janata Dal Navin Patnaik's chief advisor is Pyarimohan Mohapatra, a Brahmin. So is the spokesperson of the Janata Dal-Secular, Y S V Dutta. Even the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), a party of low-caste Dalits (the former "untouchables"), has a Brahmin, Satish Chandra Mishra, as its chief strategist.

What is more, the Brahmin vote is being assiduously courted by the BSP in the electorally crucial state of Uttar Pradesh. The party has given a fifth of the seats it is contesting in Uttar Pradesh to Brahmin candidates. Of the 80 seats up for grabs in Uttar Pradesh, 20 have been given to Brahmins as against 17 for Dalits. In the 2004 general election, the BSP fielded just eight Brahmin candidates.

Traditionally employed as priests, scholars and teachers, Brahmins are at the top of India's caste hierarchy. But constituting roughly 5% of the population - in several states especially in southern India they account for a mere 1-3% of the population - their electoral clout has been limited. This has been further circumscribed by the assertion of the Other Backward Castes (OBCs) in the country's politics.

Many will argue that Brahmin influence in the power structure never diminished. Indeed, despite reservations for Dalits and OBCs, India's bureaucracy is significantly Brahmin. Many Brahmins figure among advisors to ministers and top officials in various departments. According to the Backward Classes Commission, Brahmins account for 37% of the bureaucracy.

While their presence in the bureaucracy is significant, Brahmins had become near non-entities in the electoral arena. Although several prime ministers were of Brahmin origin, the number of Brahmins in parliament declined steadily over the decades. The present Lok Sabha (Lower House of parliament), for instance, has only 50 Brahmin MPs - 9.17% of the total strength of the house, down from 19.91% in 1984.

While a head count of Brahmin voters, candidates or MPs would not amount to much, their numbers among the party strategists and spin doctors is significant. And several parties are eyeing the Brahmin vote in what is likely to be a close election and are fashioning their strategies with that in mind.

Take the BSP for instance. Its leader, Mayawati, who is the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, was once notorious for spewing venom on Brahmins and other upper castes. Her rallying cry was "Tilak, Tarazu aur Talwar, inko maaro joote chaar" (Thrash the Brahmin, the Bania and the Rajput with shoes). But in recent years she has been aggressively wooing Brahmins. And Mishra, her Brahmin advisor-cum-strategist is at the forefront of this courting of the community.

In the 2007 assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, the BSP joined hands with the Brahmins. The Dalit-Brahmin alliance propelled the BSP to power.

While this was not the first time that the BSP formed a government or the first time a Dalit woman had become chief minister, the BSP's 2007 victory was historic as it was able to form a government on its own. And that had become possible because of the crucial support it received from Brahmins in the elections.

What prompted Mayawati to reach out to Brahmins? Caste arithmetic. The BSP has the support of the Dalits in Uttar Pradesh - it is sure of 21% of the vote in the state. But this meant only 100 seats or a fourth of the 403-seat assembly. It needed to draw in support from other castes and communities to come to power. With the OBCs unlikely to vote for Dalits - it is the OBCs that are the main oppressors of Dalits today and are in daily contact and conflict with them - Mayawati looked to the Brahmins.

As for the Brahmins, lacking a party to support - the BJP, which has traditionally attracted their votes, is in disarray in Uttar Pradesh - they accepted the BSP's hand.

With the Dalit-Brahmin alliance proving to be rewarding in the 2007 Uttar Pradesh assembly election, Mayawati is now replicating that strategy for the general elections. And it is not just in Uttar Pradesh that she is reaching out to Brahmins. Brahmins figure among her party's candidates in other states such as Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra as well.

The party that is the most agitated by the BSP's wooing of Brahmins is the BJP, which has traditionally drawn the Brahmin vote. But BJP sources say that outside Uttar Pradesh, Brahmins will continue to vote for its candidates. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Hindu organization that provides the BJP with its ideological moorings, is overwhelmingly Brahmin and its cadres are fanning out across the country to win support for the BJP.

While the Brahmin vote is being assiduously courted in Uttar Pradesh, this is not the case in south India where the Brahmins are numerically insignificant and politically marginal. But even here, a Brahmin woman, Jayalalithaa, has dominated one of the leading parties in Tamil Nadu and even became its chief minister.

For centuries, kings derived their legitimacy from the ritual investiture of their Brahmin priests. Brahmins played the role of advisors to kings. While the kings were hardly puppets in the hands of the Brahmins, the latter did wield immense influence and power.

Things changed in Independent India after 1947. The numerically insignificant Brahmin became politically irrelevant. But their influence in the electoral arena is growing again. Their vote in the larger states matters. Today political parties are looking to Brahmins to plot and strategize their victory in the polls.

The Brahmins, it seems, are back in the political game.
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