Two incidents this week underline the importance of caste in Indian politics. First it was Aam Aadmi Party leader Atishi Marlena, who was declared the party’s candidate from the East Delhi constituency for the 2019 Lok Sabha election, dropping her last name Marlena because, as some party leaders said, it is ‘Christian-sounding’ and hence can be a disadvantage. The second was former AAP leader Ashutosh’s revelation that when he contested the 2014 Lok Sabha election from Chandni Chowk in Delhi, he was told by his party to add his surname, which he had dropped years back, because it would reap electoral dividend. Atishi’s Twitter handle has now been changed from @Atishimarlena to @AtishiAAP. The AAP also ensured that during the launch of her candidacy, attended by none other than Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, her last name did not figure in hoardings and banners.
The role of caste in politics has divided political thinkers and academics for long. For one group, political mobilisation on the basis of caste has led to the empowerment of the lower caste. But the other view is that highlighting one’s caste, creed or religion poses a challenge for national integration. Caste is essentially a social phenomenon but has come to play an integral part of politics.
From the selection of candidates and thrust of campaign pitches to selection of cabinet ministers and policy- making, caste is something no party, however progressive it may claim to be, can ignore. If it is the Nairs, Izhavas, Kammas and Lingayats in South India, it is the Gujjars, Jats, Mazhabi Sikhs and Kurmis in the North. Electoral politics is shaped by caste.
It is perhaps for this reason that the Supreme Court last year ruled that “religion, race, caste, community or language would not be allowed to play any role in the electoral process.” But, as the cases of Atishi and Ashutosh illustrate, the situation on the ground is far from what the apex court had hoped for. The hold of caste and religion in politics continues.