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India's new body politic splintered by caste

As voting continues in the national election, shifting allegiances in the Hindu heartland of the north grow more evident

By John Stackhouse
First published March 5, 1996

Biharipur, India

In the 40-degree heat of early summer, Rajinder Kumar walked a kilometre across the parched wheat fields of Biharipur yesterday to cast his vote at the nearest school as he has in every Indian election since 1952.

"I will vote for the Congress Party," he said. "I have always voted for Congress. I am not a rolling stone."

But after stamping the Congress symbol on his ballot - something he has done in 11 consecutive elections - Mr. Kumar took his place in the shade of a tree and quietly acknowledged that he sees something very new in 1996. In Biharipur, as in much of India, he said, there are many rolling stones.

"I think the Congress will be superseded," he continued in broken English. "There are too many groups now competing for power."

As the villagers of Biharipur voted yesterday in the second stage of India's national election, they joined what is emerging as a new body politic splintered by caste, divided by religion and driven by local interests.

About 200 million Indians were eligible to vote yesterday. The final round of polling is scheduled for next Tuesday.

For the first four decades of India's independence, Biharipur was a convenient, if impoverished, vote bank for the ruling Congress in Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous and politically important state. In the 1990s, the village has become a microcosm of the vast changes in Indian politics.

Like tens of thousands of other farming villages in the Hindu heartland of northern India - the so-called cow belt - Biharipur's 379 registered voters no longer vote as one. As they made their way to the polls by bullock cart, bicycle, tractor and foot, the voters were as divided as the 55 names and voting symbols on the ballot paper, which ran as large as a page in a broadsheet newspaper.

The village's dalits (untouchables) have moved almost unanimously to the young Bahujan Samaj Party, which uses an elephant symbol and claims as its constituency the lowest of the low in Hindu's caste hierarchy.

Meanwhile, members of the land-owning yadav caste, along with Biharipur's one Sikh and one Muslim family, have joined the Samajwadi Party, which is symbolized by a bicycle and sells itself to India's backward caste.

The remaining few dozen voters find themselves divided among Congress, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party and an array of 50 independent candidates, whose ballot symbols (designed for illiterate voters) ranged from an ice-cream scoop and telephone to a hydro dam and ocean liner - icons not likely to be found in Biharipur any time soon.

"I've been noticing the political scene and worry about the way votes are being split," said Jagdish Chandra, 30, a farmer whose mud hut was the only one in Biharipur to fly a plastic Congress flag.

"What will happen to our country if no party can govern for five years? Only Congress is stable. Only they know how to govern the country. What roads we have, what schools we have, the Congress gave us."

When Mr. Chandra was alerted to the fact that after so many years of Congress rule, Biharipur still has no roads or schools, his neighbours laughed.

"Don't look at Biharipur," the young farmer shouted. "No one cares about this place. The candidates don't come here, and when they win they forget about us."

The local seat of Shahjahanpur was once a Congress stronghold for Jitendra Prasad, a close friend of the Gandhi family. But in 1989, Biharipur and most of the surrounding villages shifted allegiance to the left-leaning Janata Dal, which nominated a candidate from a lowly caste. He won narrowly, and by the next election in 1991, Congress had fallen to third place with only 9.2 per cent of the vote.

The shift was as much about economics as politics. Thanks to land distribution in the 1950s and agriculture's Green Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s, the yadavs of Uttar Pradesh had emerged as a rural middle class.

There was a political awakening, too.

"Twenty years ago, not many people here paid attention to politics," said Kartar Singh, patriarch of Biharipur's only Sikh family. "They are much more interested now. The level of literacy is much higher. Voters can't be taken for granted."

Soon, the yadavs broke away from the Janata Dal and formed their own Samajwadi Party. At the same time, the dalits fled the Congress to form their own Bahujan Samaj Party, the elephant party.

If the split in Biharipur's lower castes will help the upper-caste BJP, which finds most of its support in the cities and towns, it has not dampened caste pride.

In the dalit corner of the village, rich with handpumps and building material supplied by Congress governments, the houses are now a splash of blue, the elephant party's colour, with party flags hanging from every roof and posters of the female dalit leader, Mayawati, plastered to every door.

"All the dalits will vote for the BSP," said Ram Singh, 25, a dalit farmer. "No one else listens to our needs. A few years ago, no one wanted us to vote. Here is a party that wants us to vote."

As a few men pored over the voters' list in Mr. Singh's hut the night before the polls opened, they reminisced about the late prime ministers Indira Gandhi and her son, Rajiv, who opened the floodgates of government spending to win dalit votes in northern India.

"They built us houses, they brought us water, they built roads," Mr. Singh said. "Now there are no more Gandhis."

As he spoke, no one in the room could name the current prime minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao, save a high-school student visiting from a city 30 kilometres away.

Nor were any of the voters familiar with national issues such as the massive corruption scandal involving the hawala (black market in foreign exchange), which has shaken New Delhi's political elite to its core. "What is hawala?" one man asked.

Indeed, the only issues among Biharipur's voters were a school, electricity and caste. They have never lived with the first two. They have never lived without the last one.

When the polls opened, the dalits, most of them small-scale farmers and day labourers, walked across the blistering fields to a dark, peeling two- room school house where voting took place. The yadavs loaded their supporters into a cart that they pulled by tractor.

The tractor driver, Chandra Prakash Yadav, managed to cast his first vote at age 16, two years below the minimum age, by using a deceased person's name on the voting list. His older brother, Sath Prakash Yadav, marshalled voters through the polls, telling his young friends to cast more than one ballot if they could.

For Chandra Prakash, the under-aged voter, the new choice of Indian politics was clear. "How could a yadav," he asked, "not vote for a yadav?"

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