Widening the Frame

The perils of a monolithic approach to OBC politics and identity

Supporters of the BSP and Mayawati—a former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh—wait for her rally to begin in April 2009 in Palwal, Haryana. The consistent lack of support for Mayawati from among the Yadav and other dominant Shudras of UP requires closer scrutiny, especially by writers focussing on Shudra issues. Daniel Berehulak / Getty Images
31 May, 2021

ONE OF THE FREQUENT TROPES in the analysis of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s electoral successes offered by mainstream upper-caste journalists, especially in the English-language media, is the idea of the “consolidation of OBC votes.” In this view, the Other Backward Classes, wooed by enterprising social engineering and the lure of a common spiritual identity and purpose offered by Hindutva, have been animated en masse to vote for the BJP. It centres the belief that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has successfully framed Muslims as common historical antagonists and that the OBCs are ready to align with the Sangh at any cost, even though it is a deeply Brahmanical order that has not made space for OBCs in intellectual or social leadership. This implies that the OBCs are easily manipulated to work against their own interests. Given that OBCs are estimated to form 52 percent of the Indian population, such an analysis has wide-ranging implications and could neatly explain the political hegemony of the BJP under Narendra Modi.

The only problem with this analysis, however, is that it is comically reductive in assuming a collective homogeneity in both the material and political interests of OBCs. Over the last few years, there has been some attempt to complicate this understanding, with media commentary now increasingly referring to “upper OBCs” and “lower OBCs” as behaving with divergent agendas and the two groups requiring differing strategies from the political parties pursuing them. However, this binary formulation also blurs the social and cultural experience of caste within the OBCs, and reduces it to the perspectives offered by the few dominant OBC caste groups observable to English-media journalists in urban newsrooms.

Much has already been written about the overwhelming dominance of urban, especially Delhi-centric, English-language media organisations in mainstreaming political narratives, and of their structural inability to respond intelligently to caste issues owing to a chronic under-representation of Bahujan journalists. Reductive commentary on OBC politics is unfortunately, by now, to be expected from those quarters. What is surprising, however, is to encounter similar reductive generalisations offered by OBC academics and intellectuals. The Shudras: Vision for a New Path, a volume edited by Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd and Karthik Raja Karuppusamy, repeats a similarly narrow framing of OBC identity and oversimplified political analysis, without laying out any concrete agenda for a future path for the OBCs.

The editorial intent behind the book is welcome and timely. Despite achieving political independence over seven decades ago, the Indian state has not managed to provide social opportunities or justice to large sections of its population. This is because it has not worked towards annihilating historical axes of oppression and exclusion that are intrinsically tied to the caste system. While there have been some limited successes for non-upper-caste political parties in various regions of the country, the centres of cultural hegemony—such as the media, academia and judiciary, the institutions of big capital and even social work and the development sector—remain deeply Brahmanical in their overall structural composition and politics. The most consistent and serious intellectual challenge to this hegemonic order has come from the Ambedkarite project of building consciousness and grassroots activism among Dalits. Ambedkarites have routinely pointed out that the political leadership of the RSS, the Congress and the Left in India have all been historically Brahmanical, and that any intellectual output from platforms aligned with them recreates the same exclusionary ideology. Instead, Dalits have long mobilised—most notably in the Marathi- and Tamil-speaking regions as well as in the Gangetic north—around the ideologically separate and radical epistemology offered by Jotirao Phule, BR Ambedkar and EV Ramasamy (popularly known as Periyar), among others.