Low-caste Indians hold high cards in election

By Yasmeen Mohiuddin

NEW DELHI, INDIA, April 13 : Omprakash Ram spends his days cleaning the streets of New Delhi. Passers-by usually shun him, but this is election season and that means Ram is suddenly getting a lot of attention.

As one of 165 million Dalits, the lowest rung in India's rigid caste hierarchy, Ram belongs to a community whose votes could swing the result of the national polls that begin on April 16.

Ostracized by much of society, most Dalits - or 'untouchables' as they used to be known - live in rural areas and lag behind upper-castes in education, employment and housing, often performing menial tasks such as cleaning sewers and collecting garbage.

But come election time, they find themselves courted by politicians of all stripes with promises of job quotas, free schooling and food subsidies. Ram, 21, said he is doubtful that the election results will improve his quality of life.

'I don't think much will change,' he said. 'Politicians are all the same.' But although the first-time voter professes to have little faith in the mainstream political parties, he is adamant that his ballot will be counted. 'It's the only time I will ever be important,' he told AFP.

In recent years, Dalit consciousness has risen to the point where they and other minorities turn out to vote in higher numbers than middle- and upper-class citizens.

'They know that for centuries they have been exploited and marginalised, and electoral politics is the one place where they can actually have an influence,' said Vidhu Verma, a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi who studies caste politics.

So-called 'Dalit parties' such as the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) have been successful on a regional scale but have had to co-opt other minorities and upper-caste voters to expand their base.

Mayawati Kumari, the BSP leader who serves as chief minister of India's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, has shown how far Dalits can come in politics, and has her sights set on becoming India's first 'untouchable' prime minister.

At a rally last week in the northern state of Haryana, thousands of supporters braved the heat to listen to her stump speech. Ram Kishan, a Dalit labourer with six children, said he came to see Mayawati because he believed she would make his life better.

'I think she will deliver her promises. All I need is two meals a day for my family,' he said.

But Mayawati cannot take nationwide Dalit support for granted as there are other regional parties vying for their votes, particularly outside the Hindi-speaking heartland of north India.

'They don't vote as a bloc throughout India, but they do vote together in different regions,' said Verma.

Politicians from all parties are often accused of wooing Dalit votes, only to abandon the community as soon as they get elected.

And those Dalits who have obtained elected office with mainstream parties - often as the result of affirmative action programmes - often find it difficult to push pro-Dalit policy.

'Once they get elected they work for the party, not for the Dalits,' said Udit Raj, chairman of the Dalit International Foundation, which fights against discrimination.

'That's the predicament,' he said, adding that many Dalit politicians are afraid to challenge their own parties' core policies.

Raj is also president of the Indian Justice Party (IJP), which he hopes will serve as a voice for Dalit concerns across the country.

The IJP is fielding around 100 candidates on a platform of compulsory and equal education, a casteless society, and job creation.

A bronze bust of Dalit icon and the architect of the Indian constitution, B.R. Ambedkar, sits in a glass case on Raj's desk.

Raj followed in Ambedkar's footsteps and converted to Buddhism to escape the constant persecution he was subjected to as a Dalit.

He has married outside his caste and risen to the top of the Indian civil service as a tax officer - and now he wants the Hindu caste system to be 'annihilated.'

Such views anger many upper-caste Indians, who resent quotas for Dalits in education and employment, and argue that continued benefits encourage Dalit segregation and limit their incentive to work hard.

But for Raj, such attitudes reveal a political elite unwilling to address deep-rooted social problems.

'Even educated people are not above the caste line,' he said. 'As long as caste is there, I don't think India is going to become a developed nation.'