For decades (if not centuries), caste and class almost coincided in India. As a result, for social scientists, caste was often seen as a proxy for class and class ceased to be considered as a useful concept for analysing Indian politics. The Rudolphs, in their masterpiece on India’s political economy, wrote “India does not have class politics” (Rudolph and Hoeber Rudolph 1987). Things are changing today. Certainly, caste-based discrimination continues to affect Dalits, but class is emancipating itself from caste in some intermediary sectors of societies to become a full-fledged, independent variable. The growing importance of class is largely due to the post-1991 liberalization of the economy, and more especially to the social impact of a decade – from the late 1990s to the late 2000s – of unprecedented wealth creation, rising inequalities, rapid urbanization and deep transformation of the rural economy. As a result, caste groups, which were rather homogenous because of their common occupation, have experienced a degree of socio-economic differentiation, especially when some of their members migrated to the city. This phenomenon is particularly pronounced in the case of large jatis of the dominant castes or the OBCs.
While the upper castes almost monopolize the upper strata of society – which in India is known as “the middle class”, an understatement -, these lower castes have started to form what Prime Minister Narendra Modi calls the “neo-middle class”. The upper layer of this category is made of new rich who have not gone to “English medium” schools but have benefited from the recent economic boom and India’s rapid urbanisation, especially because of their real estate business.
Several research organizations, such as the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), have started to redraw the social map of India by paying more attention to class. MIDIIPE will contribute to this endeavour by focusing on political personnel. Indeed, I will propose a class-based analysis of the members of the Indian political elite, using a series of criteria including education, occupation, assets (as declared in the candidates’ affidavits which are available since the early 2000s), and the urban, rural or “rurban” character of their locality in order to differentiate the urban middle class from its emerging rural and semi-urban counterparts.
SPINPER measures the representation (and therefore, influence) that peasants retain in the assemblies and governments of India. Villagers are still about 60% of society according to the Indian census. Because of this demographic advantage, Indian elective assemblies were traditionally dominated by farmers. But Indian agriculture is declining quickly and does not benefit from supportive public policies any more because of the rise of new urban or semi-urban politicians at the expense of the peasants. SPINPER emphasizes the recent surge of elected representatives coming from a business or local industrial background, as Indian elections are attracting more and more individuals who seek office in order to pursue local private, non agriculture-related interests.
Among the lower caste rural politicians who have risen to power, many of them belong to this “neo-rich” strata. These new elected representatives seem to come from new dominant groups made up of peasant castes whose land has become very valuable because of urbanisation and real estate speculation – an activity they have sometimes indulged in as contractors. This evolution suggests that the rise of the lower castes and even Dalits among the MPs, MLAs and ministers does not necessarily imply a plebeianisation process in terms of class, especially when they belong to an upper-caste dominated party like the BJP.