For 21st-century India, eager to modernize and spread its economic wings, the caste system is its ball and chain, holding down the lower castes while the higher ones get rich on digital innovation and snap up thousands of new jobs produced by economic liberalization, many outsourced from the West.

Despite affirmative action programs, laws against discrimination and the voting power they have once again demonstrated in the recent election, little has changed -- or is likely to change -- for the multitudes of India's low castes, including the lowest layer known as Dalit, meaning "the oppressed."

The 12-party alliance that won the April-May election, and the nine parties backing it from outside the government include lawmakers from seven groups campaigning almost exclusively for Dalits and other lower castes.

They will be a powerful lobby, though probably too divided among themselves to threaten the new government's stability. What is changing is the number of parties openly campaigning for low-caste votes and the growing assertiveness of some men in the lowest castes, who are willing to challenge what many consider to be the world's oldest surviving system of social discrimination.

A Dalit, K. R. Narayanan, was India's president from 1997 to 2002, and 120 of the 543 seats in Parliament's lower house are reserved for lower castes. More than half of all government jobs are supposed to be earmarked for lower castes.

But the president is a figurehead with no real clout, and many of those government jobs go unfilled because few know about them or have the education to qualify.

The lower castes, 80 percent of India's 1 billion people by government estimate, are still at the bottom in most social indicators -- education, income, employment, asset ownership and debt.

It is extremely rare to find a Dalit software engineer, scientist or bank executive. Dalit youths are not found at discos or shopping malls. They're in the fields where they toil next to their parents from the time they are tots.

Thousands have been killed over the past decades in cyclical violence that erupts over use of a well, a boy and girl talking to each other, a dispute over payment for labor.

Private militias protect caste interests, sometimes massacring sleeping villagers. Dozens of men and women have been shot, hanged or publicly humiliated for falling in love with someone from a different caste. A cricket match between village children this year erupted in a caste clash and the killing of two Dalits from the winning team.

"The divisions have always been there, but we never wanted to hurt each other like this," said Ram Asrey Singh, 70, a retired schoolteacher from the underclass in Hanumantpur village. "My grandchildren also hear the same rants of enmity. I fear that one day there will be a huge civil war."

Millions of lower-caste Hindus have sought escape over the centuries by converting to Islam, Sikhism, Buddhism or Christianity. But the caste biases followed them.

Ali Anwar, a Muslim author, maintains in his book "War of Equality" that it's a myth that Indian Islam is caste-free. "Neither the Muslims' ruling elite nor the religious leaders have so far made any meaningful efforts to remove the disease of inequality that has made Dalit Muslims suffer for centuries," he writes.

The same goes for Christianity, according to a 1992 study by a Dalit Jesuit, the Rev. Antony Raj, showing separate chapels, cemeteries and Communion ceremonies for Dalits in southern Tamil Nadu state, and a bar on their becoming altar boys and lectors.

Last Christmas Day, more than 250 Christian Dalits were shut out of a Mass in Manjakuppam, a village about 1,100 miles south of New Delhi where caste has long divided Dalits and Vannia, high-caste Hindu converts to Christianity.

"I know it is against the teachings of Jesus," the pastor, the Rev. Christopher Rethinasamy, said at the time. "But I had to go along with the decision of the Vannia Christians. I did not want the situation to deteriorate into violence."

The caste system began as a social division of labor based on one's profession, which demarcated society into Brahmans (religious teachers), Kshatriyas (warriors), Vaishyas (traders) and Shudras (servants of the Brahmans).

Over time, castes became hereditary. A 19th-century listing by British colonial rulers counted 2,000 castes and subcastes.

Mohandas K. Gandhi, the revered independence leader, fought hard to end the system, and it was formally outlawed in 1955, eight years after India won independence from Britain. Yet it thrives still, defended by many like Jagdamba Prasad Bajpai, 53, a Hindu priest from the highest Brahman caste.

"Discrimination between castes is necessary. Society cannot function unless you have this hierarchy," he said, sitting in front of a temple to the 10-armed warrior goddess Durga, a sacred red mark daubed on his forehead. "After all, you can't just decide one fine morning to start calling your father your son."

Bajpai acknowledged some injustices, however, such as the ban on low-caste people entering temples or taking part in religious ceremonies. "This is unfair. I don't believe in this," he said.

The return to power of Gandhi's Congress party may boost the morale of Dalits who remember Congress as a force for secularism and unity.

The hordes of political candidates seeking lower-caste votes would also suggest things are improving.

But in the village of Narsinghbhanpur, 310 miles southeast of New Delhi, where he lives in the Dalit section separated by farm fields from the affluent higher-caste neighborhoods, Prasad sees little cause for rejoicing.

"Everyone seeks our votes. Everyone talks about us in their speeches. But look at what we wear, look at what we eat," he said. "We are more than 80 percent of this country. But what did we get?"

Not much, analysts say.

"The entire social ladder has gone up a bit. But those who were at the bottom remain there," said Ajit Kumar Singh, a professor at the federally funded Giri Institute of Development Studies in Lucknow. "The only difference is that earlier, the voices were suppressed. Now the downtrodden have a voice. It has had a huge psychological impact."

But in Deora, a northwestern village, a scene plays out that looks little changed from 50 years ago -- five Dalit children in ankle-deep muddy water alongside a grandfatherly laborer, planting mint saplings for 60 cents a day.

"We hear that a lot of work is being done for the lower castes. But I don't see it anywhere," said Ram Nath, a teenage worker. "We still face discrimination every day. These are ancient laws that we cannot erase."

What change there is comes in small, everyday gestures.

In nearby Jankinagar, Meva Lal, a Dalit farm laborer, relishes the simple dignity of chatting face to face with a high-caste visitor.

"If I was meeting you earlier, or going somewhere with you, I would have had to sit on the ground," said Lal, 35, sitting on a bed surrounded by children and bleating goats. "We have acquired more confidence now. . . . But apart from that, our lives have not changed at all."

In some parts of Uttar Pradesh, the heartland of Indian caste politics, some Dalits have started a social revolution of sorts. Instead of being led in Hinduism by a Brahman, they have devised their own religious text, or patra, to be read at religious ceremonies.

"The low-caste people followed our ways for centuries, but they are now questioning them. . . . They think our religious laws are discriminatory," said Bajpai, the priest. He now gets far fewer Dalit devotees.

"There is no use of a Brahman pundit in our village now. . . . We do our own thing," said Pyare Lal, 38, in Karua village. "There are no Sanskrit hymns, no ostentation. We are happy with this."

Members of a Dalit family, the lowest caste in India, walk in their village in Uttar Pradesh state. Political parties are now openly campaigning for lower-caste votes.