Democracy and voter turnout in India, the largest democracy in the world, is influenced by the caste structure of India providing a large voter turnout by the least privileged people-it is their day in the sun. Tasha Wibawa published an article in ABC News entitled India’s Caste System Could Play a Pivotal Role in This Week’s Coming Elections. The author first encountered the caste system’s impact in real life in the home of an Indian couple living in Bangkok over fifty years ago. The wife was cooking chicken curry but wearing rubber gloves. When asked whether she was allergic to chili peppers, she responded absolutely not. However, as a member of the Brahmin caste, she was a strict vegetarian and could not touch any food that was not vegetarian. However, her lower caste husband was two levels down and loved chicken curry which was fantastic! Who knows what caste a Texas cowboy would occupy - but the prize-winning recipe was handed over and followed to prepare the best curry known to man.
The caste system in India is the oldest form of surviving social stratification and was formalized in 1,000 B.C. It continues to impact most every form of social interaction in India, e.g., what jobs they are permitted to undertake, whom they marry and, fundamentally, what their lives will be on the day of their birth. The five castes range from Brahmins at the top to the Dalits at the bottom.
The caste system separated Hindus into four main categories based on the different parts of the body of Brahma, the god of creation, with castes ranked from highest to lowest depending on their position from head to toe. Interestingly, the “unclean” Dalits are not afforded a position on Brahma’s body. They are the “untouchables” and relegated to the work no one else will do. Interestingly, some of the Hindu teachings of karma (fate) and dharma (duty and order) and the insulting nature of feet are very similar to those of Buddhism which comes as no surprise given their similar origin in India.
When opening an Indian newspaper for the first time, it is most surprising to stumble across a wedding section with men seeking wives based on their castes. Surprisingly, many western-educated Indian friends have observed that the success of their marriages was due to them being arranged by their parents. Who is to say that is a bad concept as the parents cannot blame the couple if the arranged marriage should fail.
Dalits, or the lowest caste, make up on the order of 15 percent of the population of India or 200 million, which is some three times the population of the UK, their former colonial masters. Accordingly, each Indian political party appeals to the Dalits which is their moment of attention every five years.
The complicating factor is that the BJP or Hindu Nationalist party led by the former tea salesman and member of the Vaishyas merchant caste, Narendra Modi, and Rahul Gandhi, member of the Brahmin caste, had to appeal to the members of the higher castes as well, so as not to alienate them. Nonetheless, Rahul lost to Modi and resigned from the leadership of the Congress party and Modi became prime minister. The message is that no political party can win without the right balance in caste equations. Who can say that a balance in every political process is a bad thing?