Is caste over for Indian politics?

The World

Caste politics – which has dominated Indian elections for the better part of 30 years – may just be on the way out, according to University of California professors Vasundhara Sirnate and Pradeep Chhibber. 

In an intriguing editorial for the Indian Express, the academics argue that class distinctions are beginning to trump caste distinctions in Uttar Pradesh – India's largest state and in some ways the cradle of caste-based campaigning. It's worth a read. But I'm not buying it.  Here's why:

Right off the bat, Sirnate and Chhibber write, "In 2011, a survey in Uttar Pradesh asked voters whether they preferred leaders who could govern to those with whom they had a jati/biradari (caste) relationship. Seventy per cent of the respondents preferred a politician who could deliver public goods and “govern”, and only 20 per cent said that they would like someone from their jati/biradari as a political leader. There were no statistically significant differences in the responses between Hindus, Muslims, Dalits, upper castes, and other backward classes (OBCs)." Their conclusion: "The findings suggest that voters are tired of identity politics and may prefer to vote for politicians that perform."

Fair enough. But how about how they actually make their decisions? Who did they vote for in the last election, and why, and (in a couple weeks) who did they vote for this time?  The trouble with the survey question is that it's too theoretical. If I knew of a candidate who was great performer and delivered things like terrific roads and clean water, I might vote for him instead of somebody from my caste.  But since I don't have access to good information, or there are no such candidates, I go with my caste.

In other words, you can't tell who will be a good leader, or even who has been a good leader.  But you can tell whether he or she is a Brahmin or a Dalit.

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