Election In Pincodes: Caste and welfare cocktail, with a southern flavour | Latest News India - Hindustan Times

Election In Pincodes: Caste and welfare cocktail, with a southern flavour

May 09, 2024 12:51 AM IST

HT looks at some key constituencies across the country that encapsulate the issues shaping the ongoing Lok Sabha electoral contest.

Lakshmi Tirupatamma has a ritual. On the first of every month, the 22-year-old grabs a bulging folder from her cupboard and her old workhorse of an Android phone before setting out on a familiar trek of 50 households. In her suburb of Navaluru, a peri-urban sprawl that sits at the edge of Guntur district in Andhra Pradesh, everyone knows everyone. Birthdays and weddings are communal, as is gossip about unmarried men and women seen holding hands over frosted bottles of soft drinks.

A volunteer collects data during the caste survey. (HT photo)
A volunteer collects data during the caste survey. (HT photo)

Though she is only a high school graduate, Lakshmi is an expert at small-talk, straddling expertly cosmopolitan aspirations and small-town morality like most of the town’s 25,000 residents. It’s a skill that serves her well, as a volunteer with the village panchayat secretariat office who is entrusted by the state government with a set of tasks – visiting 50 households, identifying beneficiaries of government schemes, facilitating the creation of all requisite identity cards, delivering pensions and ensuring the last-mile delivery of all welfare schemes.

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For this, she earns 5,000 a month. But more than that, the volunteers receive instant and universal recognition, an Android mobile phone, a government ID that can open almost every door in rural Andhra Pradesh, and the considerable bragging rights of their “government job”. For a high-school graduate who had to drop out due to poor finances, it is a godsend.

“I was very glad to be employed,” Tirupatamma said.

Last November, though, her already full plate threatened to spill over as the state government announced a caste survey – the second full-fledged such exercise after Bihar. In an eight-page letter to all senior government functionaries seen by HT, chief secretary KS Jawahar Reddy laid out the state’s plan that hinged largely on the 266,000-strong army of quasi government employees such as Tirupatamma who form the backbone of the welfare delivery system in Andhra Pradesh. After two sets of delays, the survey across the state was finally completed in February, putting Andhra Pradesh in a small club of states that have attempted to physically enumerate all castes, a colonial practice that independent India eschewed.

The outward goal of the exercise was straightforward – understand the penetration of welfare schemes among marginalised communities and take corrective action. “The caste survey has the potential to reveal the development gaps and disparities in the social and economic opportunities within various castes and can play a crucial role in enabling customised development strategies for the historically marginalised communities,” said the letter signed by Reddy.

But also entwined in this were the shifting caste dynamics in the southern state where assembly polls are being held alongside the general elections and where chief minister YS Jagan Mohan Reddy is hoping to become the first CM since his father, YS Rajasekhara Reddy, to win a second consecutive term – a feat no one has managed in 15 years. It held some similarities with an identical exercise in Bihar that was carried out for similar overt political purposes, but its fallout has been uncertain, courtesy the starkly different caste dynamics on either side of the Vindhyas.

The politics of Andhra Pradesh has revolved around the dominant Reddy and Kamma communities.
The politics of Andhra Pradesh has revolved around the dominant Reddy and Kamma communities.

The enumeration

In a pink salwar-kameez, Tirupatamma flicked unruly strands of hair off her face one searing afternoon in February. She was nearing the end of her round when she reached the house of K Nagaraju, already familiar with the family, their three-room house with its pale yellow peeling paint and faux-marble tiles. “I come here on the first of each month to hand over the family pension and ration,” she said.

This time, though, the exercise was more elaborate, and sensitive. Lakshmi flipped her phone open and logged on to the government app, Citizen Outreach. Lakshmi had to fill in the survey in two stages – the household and the member – with 14 questions each.

The household section sought details such as number of family members, type of house, access to toilets, drinking water and cooking gas, and if the family reared any animals. The member section asked an identical number of questions, including personal details, gender, age, caste, sub caste, religion, ration card number, educational qualification, job and extent of land ownership.

“Since I come here regularly, basic details such as name, age, and number of people living in the house were already inputted. However, before proceeding to seek information on the availability of basic facilities and services such as drinking water and toilets, I had to ratify Nagaraju’s credentials,” she said.

But this was not like the other times. Keenly aware of the stakes involved, two officers were peering over her shoulder – the cluster monitoring officer and the taluk or zonal officer – to ensure that the most important question of all (that of caste) was asked and answered without controversy. Yet, as was the case with Bihar, the knowledge of caste is ubiquitous in villages, and the only hesitation is from those lowest on the caste rung.

“We all know each other. The volunteers are from our villages. We look forward to their visit on the first of every month. So, for me this process is just another task,” Nagaraju said.

By now, the sun was searing overhead, and Lakshmi was tapping away on her screen furiously; she had to double-check if Nagaraju owns chicken or cattle, and the data she uploaded on the app would have to be verified at two stages, before she could break for lunch. And she still had one house left.

The politics

Since it was carved out of the erstwhile Madras state in 1956, the politics of Andhra Pradesh has revolved around the dominant Reddy and Kamma communities, the former backing the Congress (and then switching over to the YSR Congress) and the latter the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), which have largely alternated in power. The land-owning Reddys rarely see eye to eye with the Kammas, who are local business magnates.

Nowhere is this more visible than in the rice bowl districts of coastal Andhra such as Guntur. One February afternoon, Venkat Kumar Jasti was quiet and cooperative as he spelt out his land holdings and the number of cows in his goshala. However, just as the mandal parishad development officer Pranavi made her way out of his house, the dam burst. “I moved from Visakhapatnam to Eluru three years ago after my father passed away but I haven’t been given my voter card yet despite requesting the officials quite a few times. Is it because I am a Kamma and the state is ruled by a Reddy?” he asked angrily.

Yet, the shifting sands of caste in the bifurcated state – it lost 10 districts and the financial powerhouse of Hyderabad to Telangana in 2014 – have made old patterns unreliable, forcing major parties to hunt for new social coalitions. Crucial in this new churning are scheduled castes (SCs) and other backward classes (OBC).

“The OBCs were first politically empowered by NT Rama Rao who figured that backward and Kamma vote was the only way to break the dominance of the Reddys who were with the Congress. Even today, a significant number of OBC community leaders are with the TDP. This is the pattern Jagan was trying to break,” said Sambaiah Gundimeda, a professor at Krea University.

Caste enumeration was a key node of this strategy. The government kept the sanctioned overhead low – 10 crore, compared to Bihar’s 500 crore – and leveraged its grassroots network of welfare volunteers to enumerate the 723 notified caste categories (Bihar had 215).

On this sensitive question, all four major parties - the YSR Congress, TDP, Jana Sena (which professes to represent the interest of the dominant Kapus) and the BJP – initially backed the caste survey, but the TDP soon raised objections, fearing that the government was using its welfare infrastructure to canvas for votes. “Basically, Jagan Reddy wanted to know who will vote for them and who won’t,” senior TDP leader Pattabhi Ram said.

The battle in Guntur is a straight fight between the TDP, which is in alliance with the Jana Sena and the BJP, and the YSR Congress. (AP Photo)
The battle in Guntur is a straight fight between the TDP, which is in alliance with the Jana Sena and the BJP, and the YSR Congress. (AP Photo)

North vs south

A tussle over the Opposition’s promise of a nationwide caste survey is a central theme of the nationwide general elections. Yet, the contours of caste look very different as one crosses from the heartland to the peninsula.

Take the two caste surveys. Bihar’s exercise was protracted and contested, and stretched over six months and a messy legal battle that spanned the high court and the Supreme Court. The survey was instrumental in upping the caste-based quota to 65% with an eye especially on the extremely backward castes (EBC) and Dalits, two segments chief minister Nitish Kumar has assiduously cultivated to re-ignite Mandal-era consolidations. To be sure, much of the survey’s fallout has been negated by Kumar’s return to the NDA.

In contrast, though, Andhra Pradesh’s process ended in two weeks. The results are not out even after three months, and general consensus on the ground is that it will have no major impact on social dynamics. “In the beginning, we felt that it might help our community but look at these elections. Only the Reddys and Kammas are calling the shots,” said Anand N, a Dalit autorickshaw driver in Guntur town.

In no election rally has CM Reddy talked about the survey as a major achievement of his government. “It now seems that the exercise was to sharpen YSR Congress’s welfare politics because the CM was looking at a last-minute push to overcome anti-incumbency,” said Kiran Kumar Gowd, president of the All India OBC Students Association.

At the root of these differing dynamics is the trajectory of caste politics in south India, which has very little in common to the Mandal churn responsible for widening space for backward castes in the heartland. Erstwhile united Andhra Pradesh, for example, got India’s first Dalit chief minister in Damodaram Sanjivayya in 1960 (north India had to wait till Mayawati in 1995). The first stirrings of OBC politics began in Andhra in the late 1970s and consolidated in 1982 with the formation of the TDP. In two years, the community had tasted power when NT Rama Rao swept the assembly polls. “Caste politics in this region is the confluence of diverse factors such as the Naxal movement, caste violence, local resistance movements and land ownership,” said Vageeshan Harathi, an assistant professor at NALSAR University in Hyderabad.

One consequence of this complex history is sub-categorisation of backward classes quota – a conversation that is still in nascent stages in the heartland. In Andhra Pradesh, for example, the OBC quota is classified into five groups – A, B, C, D and E – with 7%, 10%, 1%, 7% and 4% respectively. In theory, this means better targeted delivery of quota benefits. But this has also caused a splintering of political power, with backward communities vying against each other for more reservation benefits. In effect, this means that no EBC-type macro mobilisation is possible because caste groups are vying with each other within each bracket.

A second consequence is a very different understanding of what caste and religion mean. Mary Rathnakumari, for instance, classifies herself as SC but is Christian. When the enumerator asked her to produce her Baptism certificate, she said she never got it from the church because she did not want to lose out on quota benefits. “There are many like her who straddle both worlds,” a staff member of the chief planning officer said, requesting anonymity.

Fierce battle

These three intertwined narratives of caste, welfare and politics come together in the parliamentary constituency of Guntur, among the most fiercely contested seats this time.

Since 1999, when assembly and Lok Sabha elections have coincided in the state, the party or alliance that has done well in the former has also done well in the former, even as this correlation has frayed in other states where voters now make distinct choices based on whether they are voting for the government at the Centre or in the state.

The battle in Guntur is a straight fight between the TDP, which is in alliance with the Jana Sena and the BJP, and the YSR Congress, which is fighting alone. The TDP’s sitting MP Jayadev Galla, one of only three party candidates to win in 2019, abruptly declared his retirement months ahead of the polls.

The party has named Pemmasani Chandra Sekhar, a medical doctor who is among the richest candidates in the Lok Sabha fray in the state, to defend a seat it won by a wafer-thin margin of 4,200 votes the last time. To add to the party’s core vote of Kamma, dominant and peasant castes, the party is talking about its development plan for the state, focussing on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pitch of Viksit Bharat, hoping that economic aspirations in a city that sits close to the state’s largest commercial hub of Vijayawada will trump caste allegiances. The Kapus, who form around 10% of the state, are a crucial element in this equation.

The YSRCP, on the other hand, has nominated K Venkata Rosaiah, who is the incumbent lawmaker from the Ponnur legislative assembly seat, one of the seven segments that make up the Lok Sabha. The party holds six of these seven assembly constituencies. The party has repeatedly focussed on its welfare architecture – known as navaratnalu or nine stars that include health care, monthly financial support, payments to farmers, pension and housing support – and promised to expand it if it comes back to power. Welfare is a key pitch because Dalits and tribals, many of whom are poor, make up the core of the party’s base, alongside the dominant Reddys.

Holding the balance are the 140-odd castes that form the OBC grouping in the state. The CSDS-Lokniti Post-Poll Survey 2019 suggested that backwards were almost evenly split between the two major formations. The YSRCP has underlined its record in setting up 50-plus backward caste corporations while the TDP alliance released a separate backward classes declaration, promising a separate law to protect the community, expanded finances and more quota benefits.

These are all promises that Chaitanya N has heard before. The small tin-roofed shanty that he shares with three other men, all labourers from the hinterland who have migrated to Guntur, comes alive every night as the friends open the cornucopia of videos and clips they’ve received on WhatsApp and Instagram. As elections approach, videos of politicians – sometimes dubbed and edited – are slowly squeezing out their usual fare of actors, reels and movie clips. The 23-year-old doesn’t have the time to go to a rally, but for the sake of his primary school teacher father, he has made a voter identity card. “They keep talking about (Microsoft CEO Satya) Nadella and the IT boom, but here, I’d be happy with a permanent municipal job. When the caste survey guys came, they said it was to ensure we could demand what was our due,” he said. “But we have since heard nothing, only promises of more doles. Where are our jobs?”

In that respect, at least, the north and south seem united.

This is the 20th in a series of election reports from the field that look at national and local issues through an electoral lens.

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