Author:
Andres Tennus

Can Democracy and the Caste System Interplay in India?

The author of the text is Agnieszka Nitza-Makowska (PhD) research fellow in the UT Asia Centre. India's soft power is also one of her research interests.


India stands as a notable fusion of democracy and non-Western cultures. In the Democracy Index 2023, India shares the 41st position with Poland, following Lithuania (39) and Malaysia (40). India is gearing up for its 18th general elections, from April 19 to June 1, 2024. They are well-organised into seven phases, colourful and colossal. With 969 million eligible voters, this year's elections will determine 543 members (two additional members are nominated) of the Lok Sabha (the Lower House of Parliament) from 2660 registered political parties.

This massive democracy has operated for over seven decades within a society structured along hierarchical caste lines. The concept of caste, defined in myriad and sometimes conflicting ways, is often described, as Louis Dumont proposed, as "the state of mind". More tangibly, caste identity is primarily linked to one's occupation or competence, alongside considerations of ritual purity. At the bottom of this hierarchy lie the untouchables, also known as Dalits, traditionally engaged in occupations deemed "polluting," such as leatherwork, waste disposal, and sanitation. While legally abolished, untouchability persists in India’s daily life to a significant extent, manifested in discrimination against Dalits by higher castes.

How can democracy thrive within this hierarchical social order? A key aspect lies in India's electoral system, which incorporates measures collectively known as the "reservation policy" to enable the participation of Dalits and other marginalised groups in governance. Among other provisions, this policy assigns special status to the societies that the Indian Constitution recognises as Scheduled Castes (SC) designed for Dalits, making up around 16.6% of 1.3 bln society, and Scheduled Tribes (ST) created for Adivasi tribal groups living in underdeveloped parts of the country. Seats in the Lok Sabha, Vidhan Sabhas (State Assemblies), Municipalities, and Panchayats (village councils) are reserved for these groups in proportion to their population within a particular state. In total, 84 Lok Sabha seats are reserved for SC and 47 for ST.

Through the reservation policy, Indian democracy has witnessed a political awakening among Dalits and lower castes, imbuing castes with a robust political identity. However, while constitutional provisions guarantee the representation of SC, ST, ensuring effective representation remains a challenge. Often, individuals from higher castes exploit those at the bottom of the social hierarchy for their own interests. Moreover, once in power, Dalit representatives, like their counterparts from other castes, may prioritise objectives divergent from the interests of their own electorate. In this context, the unfamous example comes from Kumari Mayawati, the first Dalit Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, who led this 240 million people India's state four times. Mayawati faced criticism for allegedly misappropriating public funds on monuments dedicated, among others, to herself and her political party's (the Bahujan Samaj Party's) symbol, the elephant.

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