A great deal of confusion exists on how to discuss, and theoretically characterize, political developments in India during the last decade and a half. There is, of course, a consensus that the Congress party, a towering political colossus between 1920 and 1989, has unambiguously declined. While there are legitimate doubts about whether the decline of the Congress party will continue to be irreversible, it is clear that much of the political space already vacated by the Congress has so far been filled by three different sets of political forces. The first force, Hindu nationalism, has attracted a great deal of scholarly attention (Basu 1997; Hansen and Jaffrelot 1998; Jaffrelot 1993; Varshney 1993). The second force, regionalism, has also spawned considerable research of late (Baruah 1999; Singh forthcoming; Subramanian 1999). A third force, not so extensively analyzed, covers an array of political parties and organizations that encompass groups normally classified under the umbrella category of “lower castes”: the so-called scheduled castes, the scheduled tribes, and the “other backward classes” (OBCs). How should we understand the politics of parties representing these groups? How far will they go? What are the implications of their forward march, if it does take place, for Indian democracy?

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