Election 2009 has been remarkable in more ways than one. The most obvious of course is that, in this era of fractured mandates, the Congress has got such a solid base—the party has more seats within the UPA than even the BJP had in the NDA during Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s tenure, and that makes it relatively less open to blackmail. This means Manmohan Singh can provide a clean government this time around and a lot more reforms—whether he can do this despite the Congress’s internal Left is a different matter. Second, the caste warriors like Lalu Prasad, Ram Vilas and Mulayam Singh have taken a severe beating and Mayawati’s elephant didn’t quite conquer the country. Lalu’s down from 24 seats to 4, Mulayam from 36 to 23, Paswan from four to zero, Mayawati’s up from 19 to 20 but a far cry from the 40 she was looking at.
So is caste dead? You just have to look around to know it isn’t—it’s like saying the BJP’s drubbing shows India is a lot more tolerant than it was in 2004 when the BJP got 182 seats. But caste is dead in the caste qua caste sense. Of course Dalits are discriminated against and earn just around half what upper castes do on average (Rs 45,900 per household per annum versus Rs 86,700 respectively), but how will 12 statues of Mayawati and 8 of Kanshi Ram or 11 of elephants help narrow this difference? OBC households, on average, also earn (Rs 59,700 per year) much less than upper castes do, but after 15 years of voting Lalu, OBCs in Bihar still earn just Rs 40,800.
Given that even the upper castes in Bihar earn just Rs 51,200 today (against an average of Rs 86,700 across the country), how can you say Lalu never improved the lot of the OBCs in Bihar? Since there is no historical data at a sufficiently disaggregated level, this is difficult to prove (all income data cited here are from a book that Rajesh Shukla and I are writing, explaining how income and expenditure patterns vary among various castes, across various education and occupation groups, in different states, and so on). This is what brings us to Nitish Kumar and his campaign across Bihar.
Data from the NCAER’s latest all-India income survey, on which the book is based, clearly show the big differences in income levels across castes doesn’t have as much to do with discrimination as is commonly believed. As compared to a Scheduled Caste family living in a village, an SC family living in a town with under 5-lakh persons earns Rs 62,300 per annum, or 60 per cent more. The average SC family in a city with more than a million persons earns Rs 82,560 a year. While an illiterate SC family earns Rs 30,630 per year, the average income goes up to Rs 52,434 if the head of the family studies till Class X, and to Rs 109,147 if the head is a graduate.
This is what Nitish Kumar is aiming at. He may play the caste card to perfection in Bihar—in the sense of developing infrastructure in certain caste-pockets—but he knows this can only be a short-term strategy. The overall strategy has to be to move villagers to towns and cities, to move them from agriculture to industry, to educate them—he’s promising 100 per cent literacy, bicycles for girls who reach high school, and more. Since even the poorest fifth of the population spend 6-7 per cent of incomes on education, it’s obvious they realise its importance.
The essential point is that you can’t fight election campaign after campaign on an old idea, and the BJP hasn’t had a new idea for a very long time. When Rajiv Gandhi was alive, LK Advani would taunt him for being weak and not pursuing Pakistani terrorists across the LoC—it’s almost 30 years since, but the taunt remains much the same, never mind if the BJP’s track record is equally poor with the attack on Parliament, Kandahar, and so on; kamandal versus mandal brought the party to power and worked very well when VP Singh was dividing the country into as many castes as possible, but it has ceased to matter since most Hindus think the Ram Mandir issue was over the day the Babri Masjid was demolished. The issue is not of LK Advani who, at last, has offered to do the right thing by quitting; even tomorrow’s bright hope, Narendra Modi, speaks the same language of the past—he’s tackling critical issues like getting water to different parts of his state, developing roads and ports, getting more industry to the state, and so on, but when he’s campaigning outside the state, it’s primarily about Christians and Muslims.
This may draw crowds, but the BJP’s not going to win by preaching to the converted—the core or the hardline Hindu vote has got the party to where it is, it won’t get much better. Here’s a thought: reach out to the Muslims. All data show education is the most critical input to raising income levels and it is equally clear that none of those who harness Muslim votes are interested in educating their youth since this may upset the clergy: Muslims are just slightly better off than SC/STs when it comes to being educated beyond secondary school. The BJP, however, has little to lose from this—it doesn’t get any Muslim votes anyway. Will this alienate the BJP’s traditional voter-base? Possibly, but this is where leadership comes in. Gujarat would be a good place to start, considering the party’s prime ministerial hopeful has the administrative capacity to make it happen.