The persistence of identity

In August 1990, the Prime Minister of India, Vishwanath Pratap Singh, made a historic speech to implement affirmative action to lower castes in central government jobs and higher education — domains that had long been dominated by upper-castes.  The speech, that came be known as “Mandal”, was the start of a profound realignment in Indian politics.1 The figure below drives home this point. It shows a dramatic rise in the vote-share for the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) before and after the speech in state elections around the country. What caused this shift?

Figure 1: Right-wing vote share before and after Mandal announcement

One way to understand this political realignment is to focus on inter-ethnic caste competition in that era. Ethnic voting is considered to be central to understanding the politics of many low-income and multi-ethnic democracies. India is often as cited as the paradigmatic example case of ethnic politics. Much of post-colonial writing on India has emphasized both the expressive and instrumental usefulness of ethnic identities for electoral politics.  These theories suggest that Prime Minister V.P Singh’s policy agenda to support backward castes galvanized upper castes to seek parties that would promote their agenda. In this way, the speech opened the door for “ethnic head counting” in politics and to the rise of the BJP that sought to consolidate its upper caste votes.

In a recent paper, I offer a different explanation that focuses on the historic legacy of caste inequality in Indian society. The BJP gained more vote-share in places where the preservation of caste status emerged as more salient to upper castes. In these places, the status inequality between upper-caste Brahmans and other castes, going back to the colonial era, had remained a dormant factor in politics until it was activated by a status threat with the Mandal  announcement. In these places, upper caste voters shifted their allegiance to the BJP, and were possibly more persuaded by “ethnic head counting” strategies, because they were more keen to preserve caste status rather than their shared class interests with lower castes.

In my previous blog post I discussed how historic institutions shape contemporary outcomes, long after these institutions have disappeared. More recently, scholars have shown that a similar logic also applies to racial or ethnic inequality. Take Acharya, Blackwell and Sen’s recent research that shows that higher levels of slavery at the county-level before 1865 continues to shape racial attitudes and right-wing support amongst contemporary Southern Whites. They argue that the end of the civil war and the emancipation of Black Americans increased the salience of a white racial identity, and shaped anti-black racism that has persisted through an inter-generational transmission of attitudes on race.

Importantly, they raise three challenges in their study. First, how do we show that ethnic attitudes are not being shaped by the present-day characteristics of ethnic groups such as their size, or their spatial sorting, but instead by the legacies of the past? Second, what are the mechanisms of transmission that connect the past to the present? And third, how do we solve practical challenges in the study of historical legacies? What data will we need to bolster our claims that history matters and how do we establish spatial continuity?

These challenges are even more stark for studying the historic legacies of ethnic cleavages in India. Unlike the well-preserved census records of the 19thcentury US (the 1891 census being an exception as records burned in a fire), the last comprehensive census survey of caste was done in 1931, and recent attempts to ask Indian citizens about caste have been met with political resistance. Additionally, while the Indian census collects a variety of data at the village, sub-district and district levels in India, elections in India take place in totally different state and national electoral districts created under the auspices of an independent election commission. The task of merging historic census data into present-day census data, and then synching them with electoral districts, therefore, presents a daunting task.

Even if we tackle the data challenges, how do we begin to measure which identity mattered in a multi-ethnic country like India in that pivotal moment?

The historic shadow of status inequality

Caste has been a basis for the organization of Hindu society for around two millennia. The contemporary caste system rests on the ancient four-fold ascriptive classificatory scheme of varnas – Brahman (priests), Kshatriya (warriors), Vaishya (merchants), and Shudra (farmers, laborers and craftsmen). As priests, brahmans had long held a monopoly on educational access in Indian villages. In order to maintain their “ritual purity” brahmans in local, village-level settings often segregated themselves from other groups and maintained exclusive control over educational institutions, water sources, and temples.

The British, in many parts of India, from the very beginning of the colonial era in late 18th century began to rely on the brahman castes as a skilled labor force to staff the government bureaucracy, and in return let them set the agenda on educational spending in the colonial era. Economist Latika Chaudhary shows that between 1857-1920, upper castes often redirected government spending away from primary schooling and into secondary schooling to benefit their children and to restrict education to lower castes. Educational inequality was an especially stark measure of social status inequality in the colonial era.

Fifty years after independence, the specter of educational desegregation following the the affirmative action announcement galvanized upper-caste support for the BJP, a peripheral player in Indian politics up to that point.

To test this, I used newly digitized data at the sub-district (taluk) level from the 1931 colonial census. I use this to create a variety of historic measures including a measure of status inequality: Brahman Dominance— an over representation of brahmans in the literate population compared to their share of the taluk population. I then manually  merged these data into the 1971 census taluks. Then using the interpolation techniques developed by Francesca Jensenius, I was able to merge the administrative and electoral data.

I show that the increase in support for the BJP in state legislative elections was greater in places where upper-caste brahmans had enjoyed greater status dominance in the past. In Figure 2 I show that no such correlation existed between brahman dominance and BJP voting prior to the announcement.

Figure 2: Right-wing voting and brahman dominance in 1931

But how do we know that historic cleavages are doing the work and not contemporary ethnic dynamics? The early 1990s were also a period of incredible turbulence in Indian politics. Beyond the issues of affirmative action, the 90s witnessed the assassination of a former prime minister, the rise of the Hindutva movement, and to cap it all off, India was forced to undergo economic liberalization following a balance of payments crisis. A different way to understand political realignment would be to see BJP’s electoral fortunes as being driven by a combination of a “Hindu first” agenda, a weakening Congress party, and market-oriented policies.

In order to accommodate for contemporary caste dynamics I control for present-day populations of Scheduled Castes (the only caste category the census continues to collect data on at a disaggregated level), the historic populations of muslims, and the “backward caste threat” that increased due to the success of the agricultural Green Revolution. The Brahman Dominance variable remained significant even after the inclusion these controls.

Finally, to test a mechanism – that historic status inequality activated an upper caste identity in preservation of caste status, and that such an identity emerged where historically upper castes had been more dominant — I examine individual-level contemporary survey data. The individual-level regressions show that Brahmans were more likely to vote for the BJP and held more anti-poor and anti-affirmative action views compared to other brahmans in constituencies with higher levels of brahman dominance in 1931.

Figure 3: BJP support by caste in National Election Study surveys 2004 in high and low brahman dominant constituencies

This historic exploration of how caste inequality continues to shape contemporary politics raises interesting new research agendas. For instance, how did these same dynamics come to fore when Indian first gained the right to vote in 1920 under limited franchise explansion in Colonial India? Are there pathways of of persistence that operate through parties and partisan indenties that could produce the same results because of these early elections. It has been a hundred years since Indians first went to the polls. I will be back next month to write about how caste dynamics shaped the very first elections in November 1920.

1 The “Mandal announcement” referred to the recommendations of the the Mandal Commission, or the Socially and Educationally Backward Classes Commission (SEBC) established in 1979 with a mandate to “identify the socially or educationally backward classes” of India.


  • Pavithra Suryanarayan

    I am an Assistant Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). I received a PhD in political science from Columbia University in October 2016 and my dissertation won the the Mancur Olson Award for the best dissertation in political economy at the American Political Science Association in 2018. I specialize in comparative political economy with a focus on identity, redistribution, and state development in India. My work combines quantitative analysis, including spatial and survey methods, with extensive archival research. My papers have been published or are forthcoming at the American Journal of Political Science, Comparative Political Studies, Journal of Politics, Party Politics, and World Politics. I teach classes on Indian Politics and Comparative Politics. I am currently working on a book manuscript on Social Status and Redistributive Politics.

2 thoughts on “The persistence of identity

Leave a Reply