Until the 1970s, it was customary to ensure seats for specific under-represented castes in the Sri Lankan Cabinet. It was only in 1989 that a non-leading caste politician got elected President. Caste-bloc voting has ceased to be a major factor in elections in at least the Western Province. These progressive changes are catching on in North India, it appears. South India is more progressive in economic and cultural terms, but caste is deeply embedded in the political practices in the South. The hypothesis that is suggested by the report in the Economist is that political transformations occurring in tandem with the cultural changes associated with the mobile may be eroding caste as a key element of identity politics in the North.
There are more hopeful studies, though. One of them, designed and run by dalit researchers including Chandra Bhan Prasad, who works for the University of Pennsylvania, suggests “huge” changes in dalit social life in UP. The researchers tracked stark new consumer, dietary, grooming and work habits among dalits in two districts. In one, where only 3% of dalits had used toothpaste in 1990, 82% did so by 2007. Those who ate tomatoes rose from 3% to 57%. In another area only 23% of dalits reported sitting with guests of other castes at weddings in 1990, but, by 2007, 91% did so. The studies are now being repeated in five more areas.
Seemingly trivial, such trends in fact describe a rapid weakening of caste identity, says Mr Prasad. He praises the arrival of “caste-neutral” jobs such as delivering pizzas, and says visible consumerism that shows wealth is quickly becoming more important as a sign of status than caste. “You can be any caste you like, but if you don’t have a mobile phone you are nobody”, he says. If so, pink elephants and bronze statues may prove less effective in getting out the dalit vote.