Lower Castes Gain an Upper Hand: Indian Political Arena Gets New Power Brokers

Article excerpt

Mike McPhate is a freelance writer.

As Laloo Prasad Yadav, the low-caste head of the opposition Rashtriya Janata Dal party in northern India's Bihar state, reclined in a lawn chair outside his mansion and aired his shirtless potbelly in the evening breeze, a villager of the traditionally dominant Rajput caste approached meekly and touched his feet in a Hindu gesture of obeisance.

"He's come to tell me that I have the support of half of the Rajputs in his village," Yadav explains, ignoring his visitor, whose presence was intended to gain favor before India's May 2004 parliamentary elections.

The upside-down hierarchy of the encounter surely pleases Yadav, a firebrand socialist who led a political takeover of Bihar in the early 1990s. Before that, Rajputs and other upper castes, a small fraction of Bihar's population that long dominated its government, would address low-caste members like him with contempt and only by caste name, Biharis say.

In the wake of the polling, with the world's largest voting constituency of 670 million having cast ballots in five phases that ended May 10, the political emergence of India's downtrodden has made a deep imprint on the nation's electoral politics.

"They are gradually, and more or less surreptitiously, taking over north India," said French scholar Christophe Jaffrelot, author of the book India's Silent Revolution.

Many here see the elections as a critical step on the way to a new era. They believe that nuclear-armed India could soon don the garb of superpower after the globalization of labor has given it a growing role in the world economy. And Pakistan appears ready to put aside the aging conflict over Kashmir, a state both countries complain has been a drain on their defense budgets for over a half-century.

Unlike past contests waged under the shadow of religious violence, the two main parties--the now-ousted Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the now-dominant Congress party--campaigned on promises of growth and development. Both alliances have wooed a newly arrived class of politicians that is seeking to upend the country's two-millennia-old social hierarchy.

They come from the margins of India's Hindu system of caste, a now- discredited philosophy that sorted individuals by birth into a ladder of occupational groups. On the top rung were Brahmins, a priestly class, while untouchables, or Dalits, were so reviled that they existed outside the scheme altogether. Together, low castes and Dalits, who still suffer widespread cruelty, make up about two-thirds of the country's billion people.

Their political entrance was prompted by an upheaval that began in the 1980s with the ouster of the Congress party, which had governed practically unchallenged since independence from the British in 1947. With its fall amid popular anger at its growing authoritarianism, low castes and Dalits organized for the first time to put their own in power.

In the state elections of India's federal system, they rose steadily in several key states along the northern Hindi belt, an agricultural region that holds nearly half of the 543 seats that were contested in the recent elections. Where socialist agitation, spawned by a legacy of landlord-peasant conflict in the north, failed in the past, the appeal to caste and Dalit identity succeeded in overturning power in several of the states.

While the divisions among them prevent a united effort to take control of government, their support has become essential to the major parties, say experts here.

Before the rise of low castes and Dalits, "Congress couldn't think in terms of sharing power," said Shaibal Gupta, a Bihari political scholar. "Now, they are talking in terms of coalition."

The BJP and Congress--now led by Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born widow of assassinated Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi who took over the party in 1998 and was elected to Parliament the following year -- have lately tried to dispel their reputations as upper-caste clubs. …