Political parties may deny in public that they are choosing candidates on the basis of caste or community, but caste configurations weigh heavily on the minds of party strategists starting from the selection of candidate to choosing star campaigners and even identifying issues related to the dominant caste in a region for speeches.
A look at their lists released so far shows while the BJP is targeting non-Yadav OBCs, Congress has set its eyes on the upper caste-Muslim-Dalit combination, particularly in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar to revive its electoral fortunes. Of the 77 candidates so far fielded in the Hindi heartland of UP and Bihar, the grand old party has fielded 11 Muslims, 13 Thakurs and 19 Dalits.
In Bihar, where the party has announced 10 candidates, the caste breakup involves 4 Brahmins, one Muslim (sitting MP Maulana Asrarulhaq from Kishanganj), one Thakur (Akhilesh Pratap Singh from Purina) and four Dalits, which include Lok Sabha speaker Meira Kumar from Sasaram and Purnimasi Ram from the general seat of Valmiki Nagar.
The last had earlier been fielded from Gopalganj, the seat reserved for SC/ST. Dr. Jyoti, a relative of Lok Jan Shakti leader Ramvilas Paswan who has aligned with the BJP, is the candidate from Gopalganj.
In UP, the most significant state electorally, that sends 80 MPs to Lok Sabha, Congress has so far banked on 12 Thakurs, 15 Dalits, 8 OBCs, 11 Brahmins and 10 Muslims. It is still to announce 14 candidates, including the one from Varanasi to contest against BJP's prime ministerial nominee Narendra Modi.
Of the 70 seats in UP for which it has declared candidates, the BJP has given tickets to 26 OBCs, including Modi. Besides this, the list includes 15 Brahmins, 12 Thakurs, 12 Dalits and two Vaish.
A party leader from the state said while winning factor, clean image and background had been given priority in selection, caste equations were also kept in mind
BSP, which has announced all 80 candidates from UP, has given tickets to 21 Brahmins, 19 Muslims, 17 Dalits, 15 OBCs and 8 Thakurs.
Another main player in the state, Samajwadi Party (SP), has distributed 78 tickets so far, amongst 30 OBCs, 18 Brahmins and Thakurs, and 13 Muslims.
In nearby Haryana, the Congress continues to bank on Jats and Dalits by retaining its six sitting MPs and fielding new candidates from Ambala, Sonepat, Hisar and Gurgaon. The party has fielded a Jat to take on the non-Jat Kuldeep Bishnoi in Hissar.
Caste politics is not limited to the two main Hindi-speaking states. In the south, BJP was forced to open its doors to tainted former chief minister BS Yeddyurappa to get back his Lingayat vote bank, which had tilted in favour of the Congress which won 67 of the 118 areas dominated by the caste group in the last assembly elections.
Other important caste groups that are electorally important include the Nairs, Christians and Ezhavas in Kerala, Brahmin and non -Brahmins in Tamil Nadu, Khamma and Reddy in Andhra Pradesh, Vokkaligas and Lingayats in Kamataka, Marathas and Mahars in Maharashtra, Patidarandtht Rajputs in Gujrat, and Jat, Rajput, Meena, Brahmin and Vaisyas in Rajasthan,
Except for Maharashtra where Marathas constitute about 33% of the population, in other states no caste group dominates the numbers in any constituency. Therefore, in a typical war room, party strategists prefer a combination of two-three castes to form a winnable combination, like a chef who adds spices to make his dish delicious.
Sociologist Dipankar Gupta believes that people don't vote for their castes alone. Among other factors, the tendency is to go for a strong and a winning candidate, as people don't want their vote to go waste.
This explains why Western UP, where Jats constitute 8-10% of the population, has not always favoured Jats, and why the rest of the state, where Yadavs constitute more than 12-15% in most parliamentary constituencies, have not returned Yadavs alone.
The Congress party hopes to gain the support of the Jats in the national elections having included them in the OBC reservation list in nine states. But the party's master stroke to gain from caste politics has come a cropper as its ambitious socioeconomic and caste (SEC) census, which is already two years overdue, could not be completed as it wanted ahead of the elections.
Started in June 2011, the census figures were to be available in January 2012, but sources in the rural development ministry overseeing collection of data say the findings may not be available before August. The Registrar General of India, that conducts the once-a-decade census, is believed to have sought Rs 1,000 crore more to complete the exercise.
Once this data becomes available, an expert group will be constituted to categorise and classify it for profiling the poor as also the socio-economic status of each caste. That will mean more delay before government schemes can be fine-tuned for 'priority households', a new name for the poor to end the controversy over poverty lines.
The BP Mandal Commission had extrapolated the 1931 survey figures to estimate the OBCs to be 52% of the total population in its report submitted to the government in December 1980. This estimate was contradicted by the National Sample Survey Organisation which found they did not exceed 40 per cent of the population.