BY SAEED NAQVI

So anchored is the Indian ruling class to caste as an essential variable that any discussion of politics or political leadership which steers clear of this basic fact will always be incomplete.

And yet it is in this “incompleteness” that most of the discussion on current affairs is sustained. Friends, who sometimes double up as colleagues too, generally avoid delving into intricacies of caste when conversation turns to classes of which they are a part. Only lower castes can be discussed. Period.

As a direct consequence of democracy in a developing society where it will always be accompanied by egalitarianism, upper castes have ofcourse been unsettled. Egalitarianism is a contentious turnstile which facilitates and obstructs different sets of people towards a deceptively distant equilibrium – deceptive, because equilibrium has been achieved pretty quickly, almost unnoticed.

Take for instance, Chattisgarh, Goa, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, all BJP ruled states where, but for exceptions, Chief Ministers are not from the upper caste.

The Congress which has carefully preserved the Caste structure, has undergone change too: Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Haryana, Maharashtra, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Rajasthan, Kerala, Delhi and Uttarakhand mostly under non upper caste Chief Ministers. Sheila Dikshit in Delhi and Vijaya Bahuguna in Uttarakhand are Brahmins and therefore exceptions. Who knows, Sheila’s may well be a future worth watching if she clears this round.

To these lists add UP, Bihar, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and you have the country fairly firmly in the grip of the “new ruling classes” who have come up the social ladder. Just as new converts are more orthodox in their religious outlook, the new ruling class is in its policies fairly imitative of the class it has replaced.

The problem is to find a leadership at the Centre which will hold the sum of the nation’s parts together. This is the conflictual zone where there is no resolution in sight. In fact caste conflict at the level of the Centre has in the past been extremely bitter.

End of October will be the 12th death anniversary of one of the most remarkable, homespun, “aam aadmi” of the Congress Party. He served in the Union Cabinet under Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and P.V. Narasimha Rao. He was President of the Congress for a spell. Above all, he was Treasurer of the Party for 16 years under three Congress Presidents. At a time when the Congress is wriggling against the wall facing charges of corruption, here was the longest serving Treasurer of the Party at whom no finger has ever be raised for corruption. His name was Sitaram Kesari. And yet such deathly silence about him!

Nothing became the Congress less than the manner in which this senior, but low caste Party President was thrown out of office. A fear grew that in the wake of the Congress withdrawing support to the Inder Gujral minority government that Kesari may sneak in as Prime Minister, advantageously placed as he was – Congress President.

Kesari was summarily removed by the Congress Working Committee and Sonia Gandhi installed in his place. Senior Congress leaders went about supervising his name plates being wrenched out of the Party office walls. He was even turfed out of his Rajya Sabha seat.

Why was so much humiliation heaped on Kesari? Because he was of lowly origin who dared to aspire?

There is another instance which sheds light on the Congress attitude to inner Party democracy and, coincidentally, caste: the All India Congress Committee session in Tirupati in April 1992 when P.V. Narasimha Rao attempted to replace the system of a nominated CWC. The AICC was invited to hold direct elections but the results upset the leadership’s caste calculations. Arjun Singh, a Rajput, led the field by a long margin. He was followed by Sharad Pawar and Rajesh Pilot, both intermediate castes.

Party Managers got into a huddle. The results of the election were declared null and void.

The moral ofcourse is that each one of the so called senior leaders seated in a circular formation at CWC sessions are under the alert gaze of their immediate neighbours just in case they, anyone of them, begin to nurse ambitions independent of the Party President. A strong gravitational pull keeps the caste hierarchy within the Congress leadership anchored to the ground.

These are the circumstances in which Congressmen are contemplating the general elections of 2014. Whom will the Party President select to take the lead as Prime Ministerial candidate? It is always easier to pick someone who is from outside the caste circle – like Dr. Manmohan Singh was. Or, if only he were willing, the Congress hierarchy would rapturously accept Rahul Gandhi, for the simple reason that he is not one of them. Dynasty gives him elevation and frees him from the gravitational pull that ties them down. Many in their ranks have taken heart from his visibility in Kashmir.

(Saeed Naqvi is senior Indian journalist, television commentator, interviewer, and a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. Mr. Naqvi is also a mentor and a guest blogger with Canary Trap)