With the entry of actor Chiranjeevi into the political fray in Andhra Pradesh, the discourse has shifted to the emerging caste loyalties of parties. Such discourses are not new; the interplay of caste and political democracy has always been an issue of interest and controversy in this country, as the process of group dynamics and web of power alignments in Indian villages are infinitely complex. The process of secularisation and democracy gave a new fillip to caste mobilisation, especially electoral mobilisation in pursuit of 'victory' for a majority.

But how are such majorities constructed, and what is their exact relationship to caste? What is the role of dominant castes in this process? These are all questions yet to be addressed satisfactorily. There aren't enough studies that deal with the changing political allegiances and reasons behind them, especially since the advent of democracy. In view of the ever changing nature of caste and allegiances being attempted to be formed through it, in this essay I attempt to examine M N Srinivas's concept of 'Dominant Caste', to what lessons such an analysis offers for the prospects of Chiranjeevi's new political party in Andhra Pradesh.

A 'dominant' caste

Srinivas laid down four criterion by which a 'dominant' caste may be identified. First, it should be numerically much larger than the other castes in a region. Second, it should wield disproportionately high economic strength in the region. Third, it should also wield political power that is similarly disproportionate. If these criteria appear to be fairly self-evident, the same cannot be said about his fourth one. Srinivas argued that any particular caste can only become dominant if its position in the caste hierarchy is not too low; i.e. even the strength of numbers or the force of political clout would not be sufficient to become dominant if a caste were too low in the formal hierarchy to begin with.

How do these characters individually and collectively function in manufacturing a caste as a dominant one? Is numerical strength alone enough? Apparently not, for in the case of Andhra Pradesh the ruling castes thus far have been numerically not particularly large. The dominant Kamma and Reddy communities of Andhra Pradesh - predominantly land owning castes aligned with the Telugu Desam and Congress parties respectively - are numerically small; Kammas are 4.8 per cent of state's population, while Reddys are 6.5 per cent. But these low percentages have not affected their chances of occupying the highest echelons of power. Clearly, other factors besides their numbers have contributed to their dominance.

The UP experience reinforces the above understanding that numbers alone are not enough. Despite its mastery of social engineering, the Bahujan Samaj Party, representing a significantly sized population of Dalits, could not begin to dominate the state politically until it diversified its base and get a few upper castes too into its fold. It is not clear how 'dominant' even such a rainbow coaltion can become, but clearly the political clout could not have been mustered by the support of the Dalits alone.

The UP experience reinforces the view that numbers alone are not enough.

 •  Us, them and us
 •  Classy cast(e) of mind

The next criteria M N Srinivas identified were the economic and political preponderance of a caste in a given area. Here his sequencing of the terminology is fascinating. He uses political preponderance next only to economic preponderance. This implies that economic might is essential for a caste to construct a working alliance at village level to have political preponderance at the larger level. Economic leadership empowers a caste to move across different sections of the economy by controlling and expanding resources, making available the means of influence to control political as well as social life.

Land has been the mainstay of economic power in our society, and rural-based castes hold the keys to power in the past. Now, with the widespread capitalist nature of the economy, not only does the ability to own and control the land constitute an economic hegemony, but also a caste's presence in trade and industry matters counts for a lot. Unfortunately, though there is scarcity of data about the caste wise landholdings in general throughout the country and particularly in AP. This forces us to analyse the role of these two criteria in establishing a caste as dominant caste on mere perceptions or assumptions.

The Government of AP's Land Committee under the chairmanship of Urban Development Ministry pointed out the ever increasing concentration of land among a few big hands thus gradually leading to the loss of ownership among others. Though it did not mention caste-wise landholdings, the essence it gives us is the same. One more example I can place here. In 1995 I was part of a team that surveyed one village, Lingarao Palem of Guntur district, where we found more than 80 per cent of arable land under the village limits was concentrated in the hands of the dominant caste in that village. As the village inhabits more than a dozen castes, the remaining 20 per cent of land is scattered among the other castes of that village. The situation in the rest of the state is similar.

Except for the fact that the governments are forced to implement the reservations in local bodies, since the establishment of the village we surveyed, the reins of power have been in the hands of the dominant caste. Even after reservations came into force, the Backward Caste and Scheduled Caste panchayat presidents have been the power centres only on record, while real power remained unchanged. Clearly, a numerically small caste with considerable landholdings and say in the political affairs remained 'dominant'.

The last criteria in Srinivas's list is 'caste position' on the hierarchy. By mentioning hierarchy in the local caste system, Srinivas agrees that caste hierarchy differs from place to place, and even village to village. Also, it is well understood that a dominant caste needs to be in a position to sustain the local social relations, if it wants to remain dominant. The Dalits on their own, irrespective of their numbers and notwithstanding the textual differences among them, could not constitute a dominant caste primarily because they would not have any interest in maintaining the status-quo in social and political structures. This explains the BSP's inability to establish its key constituents as a dominant caste until the party diversified its caste base and absorbed prominent figures across the social spectrum.

Caste arithmetic and equations in AP

With that, let us turn to the possible impact of Chiranjeevi and his Praja Rajyam in the coming elections. Now there is a common understanding or impression in the state that the well-off sections of the Kapu community are propping up Praja Rajyam, with Chiranjeevi at its head. Despite the promises applicable to all voters that Chiranjeevi has made, his entry into politics has been viewed through this caste equation. In that case, it becomes important to judge - in light of the undestanding above - the potential for Praja Rajyam to achieve dominant caste status for the Kapus, and also to project the community towards leadership of a broader coaltion of castes in the political arena.

The Kapu community meets only one criteria to become a dominant caste in full - its numerical strength (Kapus are 15 per cent of the state population). One other criterion - local social hierarchy - is met partially, in the fact that its caste position is not very low - Kapus are mong the 'forwards of the backward castes'. This suggests that Kapus themselves cannot be a dominant caste leading a rainbow coalition which includes the other backward communities, a section from SCs, and minorities.

There are three possible scenarios:

First, Praja Rajyam can hamper the winning chances of a good number of candidates belonging to rival parties, thereby leading to a hung assembly. The second possible scenario is that Chiranjeevi wins on his own, forming a rainbow caste coalition to buttress the Kapu base. The last scenario is that he wins a majority of the seats in Kapu-dominant constituencies, and impacts the winning chances others in the rest. The realisation of the second and third scenarios depends not only on his own attractiveness to voters, but also on the ability of his community to forge a rainbow caste coalition, but that question arises only when the Kapu community becomes a dominant caste. This kind of rainbow caste coalition will also infuse confidence among the dissatisfied sections in other parties which will tilt the results decisively.

When caste articulation transcends the boundary line of individual social life aided by issues such as under representation, discrimination, identity, it will propel this articulation beyond the limited sphere of individual in to a larger sphere of society, and reflects in political articulation. As mentioned above the first scenario is possible if Chiranjeevi and Kapu community succeed in generating awareness about the above mentioned issues, to establish himself as leader of that community. Still it won't be sufficient to project him as a leader of under-privileged or under represented backward castes. That needs to accommodate the issues of other castes and communities also into his agenda.

As the above table indicates there is nearly half of the population falls under the category of Backward castes that include Munnuru Kapu and Balija, two important sub castes of Kapu community. The caste wise population is also distributed in different geographical scales; the Kapus are mainly concentrated in coastal districts, while the Munnuru Kapus are concentrated in the Telangana region, and the Balijas in Rayalaseema. If all these three are put together in to single head it comes around 22 per cent of the total population. If Chiranjeevi succeeds in inculcating the sense of caste mobilisation around discrimination, under-representation and other such issues, he may prove himself the sole representative of that caste and can win considerable seats from the areas of community domination, and also split the voting in other parts of the state.

The Kapu community meets some criteria to become a dominant caste - its numerical strength, and the fact that its caste position is not very low.

 •  Us, them and us
 •  Classy cast(e) of mind

In the past, except certain well-off sections of this community in the coastal region, the general masses of the Kapus have been with the Congress party. According to some observers Kapu, Balija, Munnuru Kapu communities have already started drifting their political loyalties towards Chiranjeevi. Various individual Kapu leaders are quitting their parties to join him. In this case the main loser will be Congress since, through a carefully crafted coalition of castes, the majority of these communities have leaned towards it so far.

Electoral jostling

Realising the potential threat of Chiranjeevi's presence in the political battle, Chief Minister Y S Rajasekara Reddy's government has moved pawns to show that it can protect the interests of the Kapu community, and there is no need to shift political loyalties. Steps initiated by government a day before the Tirupati Public meeting of Chiranjeevi, saying that the students from the Kapu community are also eligible to get equal amount of scholarship at par with other students from BC communities, must be seen in this backdrop. Another issue YSR dug out is the notification that seeks to consider Kapus as BCs - which was been kept unimplemented for a decade.

With these two steps Congress government has initiated, its hope is to divert the attention of the Kapu community from Chiranjeevi. If Chiranjeevi were to pick up the issue of enumerating Kapus as BCs, that may well boil the political scene in the near future similar to what was witnessed with the Gujjars in Rajasthan, and that situation may become too hot to handle even for the Congress government.

If Chiranejeevi's party succeeds in bringing about this kind of coalition he is definitely a winning choice in the state. Once this situation emerges the two dominant castes of the state won't take much time to flirt with Chiranjeevi's party to protect their economic interests if situation arises as they had done with Communists in the late 50s and early 60s, though the comparison between Chiranjeevi of today and Communists of 50s is an odd one. But to project this kind of rainbow caste alliance it needs time to construction, and resources to pour in.

As the general elections are around the corner in April 2009, it may be difficult for Chiranajeevi and his outfit to form a rainbow coalition and prove its sustenance in this sharp and short gap. But if we go by the public pronouncements of its official spokesperson and Chiranjeevi himself, it seems the party is in no mood to forge this coalition which is vital for the emergence of Kapus as a dominant caste.