On the edge of Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh, India's largest province -- the same size as a large country, with nearly 200 million people -- a sandstone statue of the former chief minister and Dalit leader, Mayawati, stands next to statues of B R Ambedkar and Kanshi Ram. Both men are Dalit icons; Ambedkar led the assembly that wrote the Constitution of India in 1949 soon after its independence from the British raj, while Ram organised India's lower castes into a formidable political organization called the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP).
Such statues would not be unusual, given the penchant that Indians have of building them in memory of people they honor -- except that Mayawati, who has led the BSP since Kanshi Ram's death, is very much alive. By building several statues to herself, complete with a handbag hanging from her wrist, when she was in power in Uttar Pradesh from 2007-12, she so shocked the sensibilities of people across the country -- in India's major religions, Hinduism and Islam, statues are only built once you're gone -- that she was quickly accused of megalomania. Then came the stories alleging extensive corruption by her and several party-workers, as well as accusations of inciting caste violence.
In India's complicated, patchwork quilt of caste, community and religion -- and now 21st Century gratifications such as economic growth and reform -- the ancient blood code of caste is still overwhelmingly important. Ancient Hindu scriptures, such as the 5th century B.C. text "Manusmriti," codified the population according to a caste hierarchy. The scriptures' four categories of caste -- upper castes like the Brahmin, who mediated between men, king and god; the Kshatriya, or the warrior community; the Vaishya, or the trading castes; and the Shudra, who did the menial work and were therefore considered lowly and unclean -- have survived the passage of the centuries.
The upper castes consolidated their power by invoking their superior status, then passed it down to their sons. In fact, India's caste system remains so powerful that, in practice, it has retained its power across religions such as Christianity and Islam. Lower caste converts from Hinduism to these religions are often treated with the same disdain dished out by their former oppressors.
Indeed, Indian freedom-fighters like Jawaharlal Nehru, Subhash Chandra Bose, and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, hoping to build a brand-new country after centuries of foreign domination, often dreamt of a time when Indians would be known not by their caste or community, but by the content of their character.
In India's cities, which march to different drum-beats -- for example that of class -- this is already happening. But leave Delhi, Mumbai, and Bangalore, and the old poor as well as the new rich wear their caste on their sleeves. In India, caste is an undeniable fact of life -- which means that politicians, always looking to add votes to their kitty, are among the first to invoke it in the permutation and combination towards victory.
Elections in India are a yearning -- and an opportunity -- for making things better, a confirmation of the slogan that "your important and precious vote can make a difference." However, it is also important to note that the yearning (or "wave" or "wind") in favor of a particular candidate or party is often moderated by the caste to which he or she belongs.
As India has carried out the largest exercise in the history of democracy, in which 814 million people are eligible to vote, the contest between the main national parties, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party, has been hugely tempered by caste-based parties like the Samajwadi Party (SP), which largely caters to the backward castes, and the BSP, predominantly a party of the lowest castes. Both wield enormous influence in large states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, which together account for 120 seats in a house of 543 elected parliamentarians. Because politics is also the art of the possible, several BSP and SP candidates are also drawn from the upper castes, so as to attract upper-caste vote which would normally not go to these parties.
Certainly, the man with the most mind-space in these elections so far has been the BJP's prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi. While Modi has flaunted his image of being incorruptible, his ability to deliver economic growth and development (as he did in Gujarat, where he has been chief minister for 12 years), and the promise of a "clean and decisive" government (in sharp contrast to the corruption and scandals that have tainted the outgoing Congress-led government), he has also not hesitated to tell voters that he belongs to the "teli" backward caste.
This is giving him a bump in very poor areas in Bihar, where there is precious little education, employment, or hope. Bihar's chief minister, Nitish Kumar, also from a backward caste, has tried to bring a modicum of progress to several of these areas in the nine years he has been chief minister, but reports are that his party will lose several seats in this general election. The verdict is that caste has triumphed over development in large parts of Bihar.
Why? There as many answers to this question as there are rice shoots in a rice field. Some say that Kumar's schemes, such as free bicycles for girls who reached the ninth and tenth grades, were simply not generous enough. Or that expectations from new schools and primary health care centers, actually manned by teachers and auxiliary nurses and doctors, had become so high that Nitish Kumar became a victim of his own pace of change.
A third view points to the importance of caste, arguing that political leaders as well as followers are falling back on caste alliances to pull the vote together. The evidence for this view can be gauged by a recent alliance forged by the pro-Dalit Lok Janshakti Party, or Democratic Peoples Party, of Ram Vilas Paswan, a Dalit leader from Bihar who was among the bitterest critics of Narendra Modi after the 2002 Gujarat riots in which at least 1,000 Muslims were killed.
Paswan has been in the political wilderness for some time, but a few weeks ago, he allied his party to Modi's BJP. For a few days the media treated him like a laughing stock, but Paswan kept a low profile. Last heard, he was aiming to win seats for himself and his son, hoping that the addition of the BJP upper-caste and middle-caste vote would add to his Dalit vote-bank and pitch-fork him back into parliament.
Clearly, the BJP had the same idea. By allying with Paswan, the BJP hopes to win at least part of the lower caste or Dalit vote that it never would have got otherwise. Add this to the glue of "Hindutva," the aggressive Hindu religious nationalism that Modi has assiduously promoted and with which the BJP has become synonymous, and you have an unbeatable recipe for victory.
Caste or religious feeling, which factor will Modi bank upon more? Certainly, the frenzy in Varanasi last fortnight when Modi filed his nomination, the lanes and bylanes of this ancient city packed with people clothed in saffron, was unbelievable. But many old-timers also pointed out that the BJP's political strategists choreographed the outpouring in Varanasi that day so beautifully that it appeared totally natural. These Varanasi citizens questioned the motives of several media houses who had unhesitatingly bought into the "Modi story," thereby playing a key role in the cycle of creating paid news.
Certainly, Modi and his band of strategists are leaving nothing to chance. Supporters from Gujarat are pouring into Varanasi, as are BJP leaders, intending to campaign in the region until 48 hours before voting begins in the city on May 12. Several seats in the region have large Muslim populations, who, in the wake of the massacre of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, have set their heart on supporting the strongest candidate who can defeat Modi.
BJP leaders have admitted that they are attempting to pull out all the stops. In constituencies where there is more than one Muslim candidate, they hope to divide the anti-BJP vote. In places where the population is divided along ethnic lines, the party has given seats to people who will not hesitate to polarize the majority Hindu vote. And in places where caste feeling runs high, careful caste calculations rule the roost.
The stakes are so high in this 2014 election that each constituency has been mapped for its strengths and weaknesses. With 80 seats in Parliament, Uttar Pradesh has always taken itself seriously. Just like Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi, every citizen knows that the road to Delhi runs through their state.
Jyoti Malhotra is a political and strategic affairs commentator based in New Delhi, India. Follow her on Twitter at @jomalhotra.