Politics

Casting the Candlesmith: The Rural Artisan in Times of Economic Change

If an economic slowdown occurs due to demonetisation, the self-worth and honour of the extremely backward castes communities may be affected. How this plays out in the upcoming state assembly elections remains to be seen.

Indian labourers are silhouetted against a sunset as they return home after day-long work at a construction site in the northern Indian city of Chandigarh, December 18, 2005. Acceleration in economic growth has made India amongst the 10 fastest growing developing countries. Yet, about 30 percent of India's more than one billion people live below the official poverty line of 2,100-2,400 calories a day. REUTERS/Ajay Verma - RTR1BVF2

Indian labourers are silhouetted against a sunset. Image for representation only. Credit: Reuters /Ajay Verma/Files

The politics of the so-called extremely backward castes (EBCs), or the most backward castes, as this officially designated category is know, is profoundly understudied by political scientists and social-anthropologists alike. This is interesting given that this category includes one-fifth of UP’s electorate and has become a politically salient category in Bihar. Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar has been able to use his time in power over the last decade to craft a coalition of these communities in a manner that creates a potent constituency for the Janata Dal (United).

The 1990s represented a time of great social churning across the Hindi-speaking states of UP and Bihar. The federal system, long existing on paper, came into its own over this period. Two administrative processes were responsible for the devolution of power. Firstly, the top-down processes of decentralisation, encouraged by Rajiv Gandhi, came into their own in the 1990s. Secondly, the rise of regional parties associated with one state (and very often also with just one or two caste clusters) also resulted in a redistribution of the balance of power away from New Delhi and into the hands of chief ministers in various state capitals. Smart and creative political entrepreneurs, such as Kumar, used the first political process in order to shore their political capital and cultivate their own states as bastions of self-empowerment.

The Panchayati Raj institutions that were sanctioned by the 73rd constitutional amendment of 1993 enabled innovative and dynamic politicians like Kumar to cultivate support among historically excluded communities who are not Dalit, yet have not been able to benefit from reservations provided for other backward caste (OBC) communities. These communities do not have the political connections, wealth and numbers available to dominant OBC communities such as Kurmis, Lodhas, Telis and Yadavs. Landowning and commercially successful OBC communities have joined the ranks of the urban middle class in large numbers. Artisanal OBC communities have also made urban transitions and found gainful employment as security guards, vegetable wholesalers and distributors, skilled workmen in ancillary services such as light transport and construction. Some have gained important niches in the dairy industry. This is especially those from the Pal-Bagel caste whose village occupations involves herding goats and selling goat’s milk, cream and curd.

These communities represent another understudied and highly under-appreciated concept in Indian political science – a swing vote. These communities have no party of their own, yet gaining a sufficient number of votes from them can enable sizeable margins of victory at the individual constituency level. Kumar realised this and worked very hard at cultivating their support. Partly, he did this through the creation of a special official category – the EBC – providing, among other things, reservations at village and district level elected bodies. This enabled support from communities who, for the first time ever in independent India, benefitted from the election of gram pradhans and elected members to district councils. Kumar’s strategy bore fruit. He was able to attract sufficient support from these communities in a manner that defeated the BJP, who mobilised skilled artisans, potters, carters, tinkers, carpenters, vegetable vendors, market-gardeners and ironsmiths for the first time ever during the Ram Janamabhoomi agitation. This was a deliberate policy, as the BJP offered (and continues to offer) these communities the chance to escape the worst indignities of the caste order through the promise of a Hindu national community. Nonetheless, these communities do not always see the BJP as supporting their interests, given the central role dominant landowning communities such as Lodhas, Kurmis, Jats and Yadavs in rallying behind the Ram Mandir movement. Conflict between artisans such as barbers, ironsmiths, potters and dominant communities exists, as does their sense of being oppressed by communities far wealthier and more empowered than they. This is another social cleavage Kumar has exploited in Bihar.

In the past, Mayawati has also benefitted from the support of this section of society in Uttar Pradesh. In 2007, the BSP emerged as the party of first preference for non-dominant OBCs. These communities remain, to a considerable extent, more deprived than Dalits who have been able to benefit from affirmative action in education and state employment, and have used these positive discrimination measures for electoral politics. In Agra, urban, educated Dalits first reached out to Nishads (boatmen) and Kushwahas (market-gardeners and vegetable sellers) in 1969. It was in 2007 that the BSP first secured a very high tally of votes from the non-dominant OBC communities at the state assembly polls (along with 30% of the poor Brahmin vote and 17% of the poor Rajput vote).

In 2012, many of the most backward castes decided the BSP was too partial to the interests of Dalits and deserted it for the Akhilesh Yadav-led Samajwadi Party.

In 2014, it was Narendra Modi’s turn to benefit from the support of this swing vote, whom his strategists described as belonging to the ‘neo-middle class’, a term coined in 2014. Modi held special appeal to members hailing from these communities as Gujarat’s high level of urbanisation and advanced economy during his tenure as chief minister held up the possibility of a prosperous future, free of the insecurities associated with economic change and uneven urbanisation in much of north India. At the same time, far too many people from these communities remain trapped in insecure employment and depend on the urban service industries which rely on economic growth for their profit margins.

Demonetisation has had a significant impact on the livelihoods of auto-rickshaw drivers (a lucrative profession), bricklayers, masons, carpenters, joiners, painters and decorators, as well as electricians and vegetable vendors, who turned to construction and urban service sector employment as their traditional rural occupations became obsolete in the 1990s and 2000s. It remains to be seen if these segments of society will be in any position to benefit from a transition to a cashless economy given how important cash flows are to their businesses. These communities are effectively self-employed business-owners and skilled tradesman who rely on cash in hand for their livelihoods. The consequences of demonetisation on their incomes may be serious. This relates to the inability to pay for school fees, tuition and the simple luxuries of urban life. There is an overlooked yet important social and cultural dimension to a cash-based urban economy for erstwhile rural artisans. Self-employment is as much about honour and social status as it is about money.

If an economic slowdown occurs due to demonetisation, then the self-worth and honour of these communities may be affected. How this plays out in the upcoming state assembly elections remains to be seen. Perhaps the regional parties, competing with the NDA for their vote in UP and Punjab, would be wise to invest higher levels of political capital in panchayati raj institutions that empower communities hitherto overlooked and neglected by every single effective political party.

Ravi Shankar Jayaram is an associate at Koan Advisory, responsible for political risk analysis and electoral mapping. He has a PhD in political science from the India Institute, King’s College London.