During India's last general elections in 2004, I made the mistake of asking my New Delhi maid, Radha, who she was voting for. Her face creased into a line of dismay. I was always disappointing my proud, illiterate housecleaner with my ignorance about the way the world works.
"Why would I bother? What difference does the Indian prime minister make to me?" she asked, squatting heavily on her haunches. "Will he give me good city land to build a shanty on? Will he give me a better job?" She pulled the bucket of soapy water violently toward her and dunked the floor cloth into its center. "Even the politicians from high castes and good families, even the ones who went to school, still they do nothing for us—not even their own caste people," she grumbled, slapping the wet cloth onto the floor.
On April 30, another group of India's 700 million registered voters will head to the polls in the third phase of a multistage, multiweek democratic challenge. It's a cynical cliché that casting your vote in India always means voting your caste; one that is all too often true. Many voters will unashamedly admit they make their choice based on a candidate's name (a sure sign of caste affiliation). Indian politicians most often pitch themselves to voters based on caste, community, or religion; it's easier—and wins them more votes—than talking about the issues.
Radha is a Brahmin, the highest caste in the Hindu social hierarchy. She regularly reminded me that it was bad fate and early widowhood that had forced her to mop my floors, cook my food, and wash my clothes by hand. Radha had resigned herself to a work life beneath her god-given status. But she refused to be categorized along with my other maid, Maneesh, a Dalit or "untouchable." I had hired Maneesh to do the tasks Radha said she would not tackle due to her high caste: collecting my garbage, cleaning my cat litter.
In every other realm of her life, Radha strives to live according to the Brahminical code. In return, she expects her fellow high-caste tribesmen to stand up for her interests. Tribal loyalty is an essential aspect of India's caste system, which for centuries governed everything from occupation to marriage.
Today, caste has loosened its grip on urban Indian life. It is now possible for the rural immigrants who power India's booming economy to show up in a city like Mumbai or New Delhi and escape their hereditary occupations. Although caste continues to cripple the lives of millions of Indians in the countryside, there are signs of change there, too.
One ambitious Dalit politician—instantly recognizable across India by a single name, Mayawati—has styled herself as a symbol of low-caste ascendancy. Mayawati rose to power by billing herself as a defender of the oppressed at a time when class and caste warfare was becoming a viable national political strategy. At her early rallies, she urged fellow Dalits to beat higher-caste people with their shoes. Her aggressive rhetoric, reputation for personal corruption, and penchant for extravagance—she has acquired a personal fortune of at least $12 million and famously celebrated her 52nd birthday with a 52-kilogram (115-pound) cake, which she justified as a repudiation of her people's long history of bitter poverty—have made her a much-chronicled figure in the Indian media.
Mayawati's strategic brand of identity politics is sometimes called "social engineering." She used her "politics of the oppressed" to get elected, repeatedly, as chief minister of India's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh. Now Mayawati makes no secret of her ambition to become India's next prime minister.
There's nothing like a national election in India to underline the divisions between poor and rich, rural and urban. More than 70 percent of the population lives in the countryside, where rates of poverty are high, education levels are low, and caste always matters. It is a mistake to judge India by its cities or to expect its elections to be decided by the visible minority of upscale (and usually upper-caste) young Indians who wear Tommy Hilfiger jeans, drink Budweiser at TGI Friday's, and declare that caste is irrelevant in today's India.
India's middle class may set the agenda in the media and in Washington, but the poor dominate Indian elections. That's because voter participation is highest among the rural, poor, and low caste. These voters are even more likely to participate in local elections—upward of 80 percent turn out for village council races—a stark contrast with the United States and other advanced democracies, where many more people vote for president than for city council.
Indian democracy "defies what was once considered a law of political participation in the world, the higher up you are in the socio-economic hierarchy, the more you participate in politics and voting," says New Delhi-based political scientist Yogendra Yadav. Because "the poor vote as much, if not more, than the urban middle classes," the global recession barely rates among this year's election issues in India.
Although India has been opening up to the world for almost two decades, many sectors remain sheltered from globalization. Partly by protectionist design, and partly by default, India has failed to transfer its agricultural success onto the world market. India's inability to gain the necessary efficiencies to export its goods has been deeply frustrating to international investors, but it has also protected Indian farmers from the contracting global economy. Although the recession has slowed India's overall growth, rural Indians aren't yet suffering the way Chinese factory workers are.
In many ways, life has changed little for the masses of India's poor in the six decades since India won its independence from Britain. Still, there are indications that rural life has improved in the last decade, thanks to government investments in education and infrastructure. In 2004, the Indian government allocated more than $2 billion to improve basic services in India's villages. An employment-guarantee act helped bring money into rural areas by guaranteeing 100 days of work to every household that needs it. India recently announced a stimulus plan to try to meet some of its development needs, like improving schools, roads, and power plants.
Indian politicians learned an important lesson during the 2004 national elections, when the Hindu nationalist BJP Party campaigned with the slogan "India Shining," hoping to capitalize on India's IT boom. The rival Congress Party, which promised to take care of the "aam aadmi," or common man, gave them a thorough routing
The outcome of this year's election, which will be announced on May 16, will turn on which party managed to speak most effectively to the aam aadmi—the Congress Party recycled the phrase for this year's election. Concern that it would again misjudge the concerns of the poor forced the BJP to abandon its pet issue, terrorism, even in the wake of what many refer to as "India's 9/11." Less than six months ago, horrifying attacks in Mumbai forced the ruling Congress Party to admit police and intelligence failures.
YetBJP attempts to whip up anti-Pakistan and anti-Muslim fervor completely failed to take root among the poor, who, like Radha, are more concerned with local issues like schools and roads than about India's sadly routine terror incidents. India's Facebook-savvy minority has organized activism around the Mumbai attacks, but the elite don't win elections.
Neither of India's two major national parties, Congress and BJP, is expected to secure a majority in the election. India's next government is likely to be another shaky coalition, and Mayawati may emerge as the kingmaker. If an untouchable is elected prime minister, it would be a milestone. It might also launch a new era of bitter caste-based politics in India. Just ask Radha.