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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 41, October 2, 2010

Understanding the Emerging Contours of Indian Politics

Wednesday 6 October 2010, by Ajay K. Mehra



Rise of the Plebeians? The Changing Face of Indian Legislative Assemblies by Christophe Jaffrelot and Sanjay Kumar (eds.); Routledge India, New Delhi; 2009; pages 494; Rs 895.

Electoral Politics in Indian States: Lok Sabha Elections in 2004 and Beyond by Sandeep Shastri, K.C. Suri and Yogendra Yadav (eds.); OUP, New Delhi; 2009; pages 453; Rs 795.

These two volumes published nine months from each other in 2009, the first just before the fifteenth general elections got going and the second six months after it, bear the input of the comparative democracy programme of the Centre for the Study of Democratic Societies which has been engaged in National Election Study for the past three decades. The first one also has a collaboration with French social science institutions—Paris based SciencesPo and Centre d’Études et de Recherches Internationales and Delhi based Centre de Sciences Humaines. These two studies, both edited volumes emerging out of the data generated by the NES, explore significant aspects of India’s emerging democratic culture as well as its rapidly changing politics in terms of leadership, process and representation. In fact, a reading of the two books together gives a comprehensive, though still not holistic, under-standing of the emerging contours of Indian politics. For, focused on how the electoral processes that have been getting more participative and competitive creating an upsurge from below and policies, such as the OBC reservation, have led to major transformations in the country’s politics with State/regional elites from the erstwhile plebeian class calling the shots and the electoral contestations increasingly getting concentrated in States, the two volumes are not focusing on the impact of the developments on political and public institutions.

Jaffrelot and Kumar put together sixteen essays in this volume that has taken a decade to come, binding them together with an Introduction by Jaffrelot, covering fifteen States and the NCT of Delhi. Since the focus is on the OBC politics and elites, the eight North-Eastern States are naturally left out. The other five States left out are Jammu and Kashmir, Uttarakhand, Haryana, Orissa and Goa. Obviously, the Jat politics of Haryana is the most glaring omission, but an analysis of the other States too within the perspective of the book would have been useful. In any case, putting together and analysing data for the Legislative Assemblies of fifteen States and a Union Territory (Delhi) to comprehend the changing social profile of the State Legislatures is a stupendous, though essential at this stage in the development of the Indian polity, task that the editors and contributors have carried out with remarkable academic diligence.

The book analyses the question of ‘mirror representation’ in the State Legislative Assemblies and whether (and if yes how and to what extent) it is changing the power balance and political equations in States. It also unravels the policy impact of the growing ‘politics of presence’ at a nodal point of democratisation of the Indian society and polity. Taking caste as the key variable, as compared especially with class, the book studies ‘how India’s caste-based social diversity translated into politics in a dynamic perspective, over more than 60 years, at the State level’. ‘Mirror representation’ is neither proportionate as yet, nor uniform across States, yet the rules of the political game are not the same now, they appear to have been changing since the 1970s and are decidedly different now, whether or not the ‘plebeians’, the phrase used by the editors to describe the rise of the ‘lower castes’, have wrested power. The ‘politics of presence’ has also visibly impacted the ‘politics of accommodation’, or Centrism, as the Rudolphs have termed it. The volume consisting of rich data and quantitative analysis indicates that the process of democratisation in India, though stable and functional, has also been slow and incremental.

This analytical narrative of the ‘Rise of the Plebeians’ in India brings out an uneven and unanticipated process through which the social (or caste) composition of the representatives to the Legislative Assemblies in States from various regions across the country is getting transformed. In the Hindi belt the focus is on Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar; Punjab, in the northwestern region; on Rajasthan and Gujarat; in the Deccan plateau on Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh; in the areas populated by the Adivasis such as Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh; the Communist-ruled States West Bengal and Kerala; Himachal Pradesh and the NCT of Delhi; and finally, Tamil Nadu where this transformation began early. Aside from analysing the data, chapters focusing on each of the above mentioned States trace the trajectory of the historical development of caste dynamics in Legislative Assemblies. The emerging narrative brings out the interface between the ‘upper castes’, OBCs and the Dalits and maps the shift from the predominance of the upper castes to the newly emerging dominance of the OBCs and Dalits. The crucial element that emerges is a new pattern of a dynamic social coalition, wherein each coalitioning segment is crucial for the other in the new power game.

THE emerging scenario of Indian politics has two variations in the context of social coalitions and the politics of the coalitioning social components. First, its political manifestation moderates political ideologies, facilitating alliances between contradictory and even conflicting social forces. Second, the rise of intermediary castes and classes creates a social class balance in the economic field as well as an economic dynamics that impacts political alliances and party programmes.

Jaffrelot underlines the pattern in the Hindi belt in a well-articulated Introduction: ‘In all these States, the proportion of the upper-caste MLAs has steadily declined from about 40-55 per cent in the 1950s to about 25-35 per cent today whereas the share of the OBC grew from 10-20 per cent to about 20-40 per cent.’ The rise of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) has signalled the meteoric rise in the representation for the Dalits. However, there has been a significant change in the assertive Dalit-bahujan alliance. While in 1993 there were no upper-caste MLAs in the BSP, by 1998 15 per cent of the party’s MLAs were from the ‘upper castes’ including Brahmins, and in 2007, which is not covered in this volume, the BSP supremo transformed the bahujan into sarvajan with great effect. Jasmine Zérinini notes in the chapter on UP: ‘The rise in the upper-caste MLAs had been achieved at the expense of SCs whose share in the party’s representation in the Assembly had gone down to 30 per cent.’ This is what I have referred to as the shift to ‘sarvajan’. However, it is still unclear as to whether it is a strategic election-driven shift or an ideological one replacing the BSP’s anti-Brahmin rhetoric expressed in the ‘bahujan’ slogan.

The Deccan Plateau has had a different political dynamics from the Gangetic plain. It has observed the ‘unchallenged rule of dominant castes’ who have been the rich farmer class. No wonder the emergence of regional parties with their support, such as the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) in Andhra Pradesh, has led to investment of the agricultural surplus in the new emerging avenues in the film, hospitality and construction industries rather than the old established sectors of industries. The TDP could thus forge an alliance between the upwardly mobile backward castes (40-50 per cent of the State’s population) and the dominant kamma caste to great effect till the 2004 elections.

In West Bengal, upper caste status and education are important political resources. However, despite land reforms benefiting Dalits and other backward castes, the rule of the dominant castes with elite bhadralok culture continues. Stéphanie Tawa Lama-Rewal observes that these ‘respectable people’, an urban elite enjoying the multiple privileges of upper-caste status, English education and employment in the higher professions, have been dominating the public life of Bengal since the 1930s. The dominant bhadralok culture continues to create conditions for the Dalits and backward castes to depend on the patronage of the party, that is, the Communist Party of India-Marxist.

This quantitatively dense volume does not boast of a theoretical framework and application of qualitative techniques. However, the chapters in the book have employed qualitative data from each State to contextualise their findings from quantitative analysis. Further, the dense data and their interpretation by the contributors in the volume creates the ground for and the possibilities of raising conceptual issues regarding the emergence of the ‘plebeian’ political elites that would undoubtedly help in understanding the nature of democratisation overtaking India’s representative democracy.

In Delhi, for instance, a Dalit’s election from a non-reserved constituency is indicative of the ideal direction that India’s representative democracy should eventually take. It would perhaps bridge the glaring hiatus between representation and participation in Indian democracy. This would then perhaps break the use of castes as vote-banks. The essays in the volume help understand the changing influence of various caste groups, as also about the non-party political movements in States such as Tamil Nadu and other States with strong Dalit movements. An understanding of transforming the caste profile of the legislators in favour of the erstwhile lower castes in State Assemblies also gives an opportunity to take this inquiry further to interrogate the changing nature of party leaderships. It would be also useful in comprehending the rise and success of the Trinamul Congress in West Bengal and failure of the Praja Rajyam Party in Andhra Pradesh.

The volume indeed is a commendable collective effort that will not only help the students of Indian politics, but also scholars who study democracy empirically as well as theoretically in any part of the world. This is no less a resource for the students of social stratification and political sociology.

THE volume Electoral Politics in Indian States: Lok Sabha Elections and Beyond containing 22 chapters and a methodological note by the Lokniti team of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, which has been undertaking National Election Study for several years, is a rich source book of data and analysis for electoral democracy in India. The six-decade-old electoral politics of India has undergone fifteen general elections for the Lok Sabha and several for the State Legislative Assemblies, which have doubled since the first reorganisation of States in 1956. Moreover, since both the Lok Sabha (six times) and Legislative Assemblies in several States on several occasions have not completed their five-year term, the country’s electoral politics has become active virtually round the year. The unfettering of local politics with the statutory guarantee to the local institutions through the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments and consequent elections to the local bodies in different States has created a round-the-year electoral cycle. Obviously, the electoral democracy of India is a window to both procedural and substantive democracy in the country. This book on the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, thus, is a significant contribution to all the disciplines of social sciences. Its significance also arises from the fact that as the CSDS-led NES has been institutionalised in the past decade-and-a-half, substantive analyses of the Indian democratic process, if not of democracy, have been based on its result.

This volume analysing the data of the 14th general elections came as the outcome of the 15th general elections in the country were declared in May 2009, which surprised almost all political observers more than the results of 2004 elections did. In 2004, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance expected to return to power in New Delhi, but the defeated Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee summed up the surprise: ‘Hum nahin jante hum kyon haare; jo jeete woh nahin jante woh kyon jeete (We do not know why we lost; those who won do not know why they won).’ In 2009, while the Indian National Congress was apprehensive of the ultimate outcome and performance of the party as well as of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) it led, several other parties, in the Opposition as well as those supporting the UPA, appeared more confident of its defeat; hence they hedged their bets for their own relative success. No wonder, a part of the UPA led by the Yadav chieftains from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh contested the election as the fourth front keeping their options open. So did the UPA constituents such as the Sharad Pawar-led Nationalist Congress Party, which openly hobnobbed with the Left-led Third Front. Even the Congress and its leaders did not anticipate the scale of the party’s gain, for both the BJP and the NDA it led and the CPM and the Third Front it led did not expect to emerge as weak as they eventually did. Most surprising was the setback for Mayawati and her Bahujan Samaj Party, which contested 500 seats, 65 more than in 2004, in order to emerge stronger at the national level. The party which won 206 of the 402 Legislative Assembly seats in UP in 2007, could add only two more Lok Sabha seats to its 2004 tally of 19. Obviously, the elections in India for the past one decade have emerged as a process in which the popular mandate cannot be taken for granted and it is an arena that has large patches of political quicksand.

The quicksands are the results of the first-past-the-post system, this Westminster model winner-takes-all parliamentary democracy in India; with a fractured party system fragmented verdicts and unexpected results have become a norm for the past two decades. Under the circumstances neither could the Congress have predicted that a 2.02 per cent rise in vote share between 2004 and 2009 would add 61 MPs (from 145 to 206) to its flock in the Lok Sabha, nor could the BJP have imagined that a 3.36 per cent decline in vote share would mean a loss of 22 seats (down from 138 to 116) to the party. This unpredictability of democratic exercise in the largest democracy on the planet raises a number of questions. The main question, however, is: how do the substantive choices in the State Legislative Assembly elections held between parliamentary elections shape the nature of political contestation in the Lok Sabha polls? The book attempts to answer some of these questions by analysing the data gathered and compiled by the National Election Study at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi.

The analyses of most of the NES data for 2004 in the volume were earlier published in the Economic and Political Weekly and Seminar. Of the 19 out of 28 Indian States analysed in the volume, Bihar is a notable omission among the politically (and electorally) significant States. While the publication of the results of the 2004 general elections just before 2009 general elections could be due to the time and process involved in such a project, the editors and contributors of the book rightly did not hazard guesses on the fifteenth general elections, for any prognosis of the dynamics of Indian elections is fraught with avoidable risk. Instead the emerging political sociology of elections in India with the NES survey helps an understanding the citizens’ perception of elected governments, the political leadership and the nature and context of their own political choices. It thus creates a lasting academic value for itself.

THE first chapter ‘The Elusive Mandate of 2004’ reviews several interpretations of the NDA’s electoral defeat and points to the fallacious assumption that it is possible for even a very competent researcher to identify, summarise and capture the meanings and designs of countless individual and collective messages in a manner that is at once fair and intelligible. It argues that the anti-poor image of the NDA Government may have hurt it, just as the process of Mandalisation ironically worked to the advantage of the Congress, although the party did little to contribute to the process. The chapter ends on the circumspect note that a ‘mandate is often earned, and learnt, retrospectively’. The chapter also raises some interesting questions. In stating that the results of the 2004 elections could not be anticipated, it not only points to the growing unpredictability of Indian elections, it also raises the question if the results could be anticipated at all. Second, it also underlines two fallacies—of the popular mandate claimed by a ruling party or combine and of the political implications of a government without a mandate. Third, the analysis presents a contradiction in stating that a certain percen-tage of those who voted for the UPA or other non-NDA parties wanted to give the Vajpayee Government a chance. (p. 8) Fourth, in analysing the impact of incumbency and anti-incumbency on the verdict, the analysis raises the question if either situation contributes to a ripple if not a wave. (p. 21) Fifth, though the analysis at a macro level has insisted that contrary to popular belief the 2002 Gujarat riots and BJP’s Hindutva posturing did not affect the election result, its micro analysis indicates loss of Muslim votes to the BJP and NDA. (pp. 34-35)

Yogendra Yadav and Suhas Palshikar provide ten theses on State politics in India. First, the political legacy of movements and ideologies at the State level has proved more enduring than that of institutions. Second, the emergence of States as real and imagined political communities has intensified political regionalism without weakening the ties with the larger, national unit or suppressing the emergence of sub-regional communities. Third, the greater political clout of the States and their unwillingness to share power with their sub-units has blunted the democratising impulse of institutional reforms and accentuated inequalities across States instead of reducing differences in access to power. The fourth thesis is that the spread of a distinctive culture of democracy has given a regional flavour to political practice without ensuring a democratic culture, as emancipatory ideas confront majori-tarianism and the populist tendency faces pragmatism. Fifth, higher and more intense political participation at the State level has widened the base of democracy and sustained its legitimacy without enriching the quality of democratic outcomes. The sixth thesis is that political regimes at the State level acquire their anchorage as well as their bondage from the rise of dominant castes to power, which represents as well as halts the transfer of power to lower social orders. The argument in the seventh thesis is that as State politics gain greater autonomy vis-à-vis national politics and the Central Government, its capacity to resist corporate and other organised interests appear severely eroded, often producing regimes that act as agents of dominant classes. Then, a system of what the authors describe as ‘competitive convergence’ has meant that the opening up of the format of party competition has not led to greater and more meaningful political choices for citizens. Thesis Nine is that struggles and movements seek to rupture the convergence of the political establishment but their non-political character limits their capacity to affect the political agenda. The final thesis is that the rise in the politics of coercion and state response to it has led to a spiral of shrinking space for democratic politics. These theses arising out of empirical data of the CSDS-Lokniti programme would prove useful heuristic tools to study State politics in India.

The chapters based on electoral data and political trends from Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Maharashtra, Goa, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Delhi, Haryana, Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Manipur indicate that the possibility of a national wave in Indian politics is a trend of the past. Obviously, parties need to be more circumspect in their electoral strategy. For, relative autonomy of State politics has led to a differential party system that not only represents the social context more clearly, but also brings in a new set of elites in Indian politics through the rise of regional parties, which are not shy of dual stakes—in States as well as nationally. This creates an interesting new situation as the Indian polity enters the second decade of the new millennium. The impact of this trend on society and polity paradoxically is both integrational and fragmentational, though not necessarily resulting in centrifuge. This comes out clearly as in the ‘reverse osmosis’ analogy in the chapter on UP by A.K. Verma. The caste dynamics that was the basis of social coalition successfully operated by the Congress has taken new forms, perhaps for each State. While castes such as Dalits are experimenting with Dalit-only and Dalit-centric parties, they have not given up other options. With Mayawati’s BSP experimenting with the inclusive ‘sarvajan’ political strategy, upper castes too appear prepared to experiment with it.

WHILE each chapter reveals the distinctiveness of State politics, three chapters with contemporary relevance need to be underlined. Jharkhand was carved out as a separate State a decade back for a more focused adivasi-centric politics and gover-nance. Neither the politics of the two national parties, the Congress and BJP, nor of the Jharkhand-centric ones point to any such development. Clearly, the politics of Jharkhand deserves a more comprehensive analysis from the perspectives of development, tribal politics and demands for autonomy, particularly whether autonomy solves and resolves representational and developmental issues. Second, West Bengal politics is on the verge of a major political change with the Left’s reduced capacity to produce social consensus through negotiations in local governmental institutions and political bodies. With the land acquisition in Nandigram and Singur turning into a major anti-CPM movement, not only is the Left unsettled, for the first time in 32 years it suffered a humiliating loss of face in the 2009 Lok Sabha poll with their Lok Sabha seats declining from 35 to 15. Since Left politics in India is at a critical juncture with the reins in the hands of the post-independence leadership, its thrust and direction deserve analysis from the perspective of their contribution to Indian politics. Third, Rekha Chowdhary and V. Nagendra Rao’s analysis of the polls in Jammu and Kashmir comes at a time when the State is on a boil. The analysis shows that polling percentages in the Valley have varied from place to place, with the capital Srinagar recording rather low percentage. The analysis of the politics of the State also shows that there was an extensive mobilisation by the separatists against participation in the polls. This indicates both faltering and limitations of the ‘mainstream’ leadership amongst the azadi-chanting Kashmiris. The analysis points to improved polling under limitations. The leadership failed to enlarge this support base, which was in any case on the edge.

Prof Ajay K. Mehra is the Director (Honorary) of the Centre for Public Affairs, NOIDA and editor of the ICSSR Journal of Abstracts and Reviews in Political Science. He can be contacted at e-mail:

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