The Caste Card

The BJP’s desperation to woo OBCs ahead of the 2019 polls

On 24 February 2016, the BJP president Amit Shah unveiled a statue of Suheldev, an eleventh-century king, claimed by both the Rajbhar OBCs and the Pasi Dalits. The BJP has adopted and promoted the story of Suheldev to secure votes from these communities
Elections 2024
28 June, 2018

The battle for the 2019 elections today seems more open than expected. Three distinct and possible outcomes include the return of Narendra Modi as the prime minister of a Bharatiya Janata Party-led government that commands a majority; a National Democratic Alliance not led by Modi that manages to secure a majority; or a government comprising parties currently in opposition where the Congress plays a significant role. Key to any of these scenarios is how the BJP fares in Uttar Pradesh, where it won 71 of the 80 seats in 2014.

With the Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party and the Akhilesh Yadav-led Samajwadi Party bringing together their respective Dalit and Yadav-Muslim support bases, this number is set to decline. The questions that remain are by how much, and what the BJP can do to arrest the slide. The answer for the latter question, assuming that any decision on the Ram temple at Ayodhya rests with the courts and not the BJP, is to try and retain the consolidation of the non-Yadav Other Backward Classes that was largely the reason for its 2014 sweep.

Non-Yadav OBCs form over 30 percent of the total state populations of both UP and Bihar. Any strategy aimed at retaining the group would benefit the party not just in these states but across the country. In its most important initiative in this direction, the government set up a commission to examine the sub-categorisation of backward communities in the central list in August 2017. The commission, whose report is now due, was meant to examine the “extent of inequitable distribution of benefits of reservation among the castes and communities included in the broad category of OBCs, with reference to the OBCs included in the Central list.” Simply put, the report of the commission is meant to bring equity in the distribution of OBC reservation, which stands at 27 percent, among different castes and communities.

The OBC reservation dates back to the former prime minister VP Singh’s 1990 decision to implement the report of the Mandal Commission, which had been set up in 1979 by the Charan Singh government to identify certain castes as “socially and educationally backward classes” of the country. VP Singh’s decision was stayed by the Supreme Court but finally implemented in 1992. OBCs have since become the basis for a vibrant politics that has sustained parties such as the Samajwadi Party in UP and the Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar.

Any move to bring greater equity in the distribution of benefits from reservation would be welcome, but in this case the motives were clearly political. An editorial in The Hindu published a few days after the commission was announced noted:

The decision on sub-categorisation came on the same day the Cabinet decided to raise the ceiling for deciding who remains outside the creamy layer to those earning R8 lakh annually, an increase of R2 lakh. This is at cross-purposes with the move toward sub-categorisation, allowing as it does those with higher earnings to enjoy reservation benefits … Political mobilisation on the basis of caste is far easier than on the basis of income, and the BJP is clearly trying to splinter the vote banks of the Samajwadi Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The effort is to make other caste groups see dominant castes such as Yadavs as competitors for education and employment.

Since the time the commission was formed, the scope of the problem it was meant to tackle has only increased. The BSP and SP have not just come together, they have begun to counteract the BJP’s strategy. In the March 2018 Lok Sabha bypolls in two constituencies, the SP, backed by the BSP, snatched both seats from the BJP, and did so by fielding non-Yadav OBC candidates—Pravin Nishad from Gorakhpur and Nagendra Pratap Singh Patel, a Kurmi, from Phulpur. Both candidates received significant votes from their own castes.

The non-Yadav OBCs have been quick to leave the BJP fold since there is nothing exclusive the party has to offer the communities. In the 2017 UP assembly election, the BJP provided representation to non-Yadav OBCs in an unprecedented fashion, with over a third of the total tickets going to them, in keeping with their proportion in the UP population. But representation only goes so far, especially if other parties are also offering much the same.

The other major initiatives are cultural, seeking to appropriate caste icons as defenders of Hinduism. For instance, the BJP has adopted and promoted the story of Suheldev, an eleventh-century king, claimed by both the Rajbhar OBCs and the Pasi Dalits, to seal an alliance with the Rajbhars’ Suheldev Bhartiya Samaj Party and secure the communities’ votes. Suheldev is portrayed as a king of Bahraich who rallied opposition to Mahmud of Ghazni’s army after the sack of Somnath. Such iconography, however, once promoted by one party, will be appropriated by every other. While the RSS may gain from a community assuming the role of avengers of the plunder of Somnath, indicating Hindutvisation, this does not stop caste groups who are searching for power where they can find it from switching sides. The Yadavs and the Jats have repeatedly demonstrated this despite the consistent increase in religious fervour in these communities.

This is where BJP and RSS’s aims diverge. The RSS desires long-term Hindutvisation, but sees caste identities as inimical to the process. Thus, its stated position on caste-based reservations is clear—it wants them replaced by economic-based ones. Apart from the fact that this denies the very rationale for reservations, this is not a position that the BJP, encumbered by short-term political calculations, can endorse. The party needs reservation to cement the relationships with certain castes it has forged through representation and Hindutvisation.

Any attempt by the OBC commission to disrupt the status quo on reservation is likely to be problematic. Much as the BJP may like it, the panel is unlikely to place the Yadavs in a category of their own, neither is it possible to break down reservation to the level of each individual caste in the list. The likely recommendation will be a two- or three-tier structure with some formula for apportioning the 27 percent OBC quota among the tiers. The top tier, or the “creamy layer,” is likely to see a significant reduction in their existing access to reservation. The BJP can then take it for granted that this segment—the best off and hence the most powerful of the OBC castes—is unlikely to show any preference for the party.

Considering that the party already enjoyed the support of nearly two-thirds of the non-Yadav OBCs in the 2014 elections, even a report in keeping with the BJP’s wishes might not be enough to achieve the same vote share. Even if it somehow does achieve it, the combined BSP and SP vote share exceeded that of the BJP in 2014, making a repeat of its performance highly unlikely if the BSP and SP are able to pull together.

There is one remaining countermove left for the BJP in UP that would not only take care of the problems raised by the commission’s report, but also potentially create a rift between the SP and the BSP. Just recently, news reports from Lucknow suggest, the Adityanath government has revived an old proposal to move 17 of the extremely backward castes on the OBC list to the SC list. These 17 castes include Kahaar, Kashyap, Kewat, Nishad, Gond, Bhar, Prajapati, Rajbhar, Bind, Batham, Turha, Manjhi, Mallah, Kumhar, Dheevar, Dheemar and Machua. If the party succeeds in doing so, the number of claimants to the OBC quota will decrease, allowing a reapportioning that may not disrupt existing privileges.

This move would leave the SP in a quandary, because the initiative was first proposed by Mulayam Singh in 2004, when the SP saw the BSP as its main opponent in the state. The SP has subsequently attempted on several occasions to implement the proposal while Mayawati has strongly opposed it. In 2017, the Allahabad High Court had ordered a stay on any such proposal but the Adityanath government may directly move the centre, which has the power to make changes to the SC list. The central government had earlier struck down such a proposal fearing a reaction by Dalits who would see this as a shrinking of their quota in UP, but with Mayawati already commanding much of the Dalit votes, this is a risk the BJP may be willing to take if it can hold on to the non-Yadav OBC vote.

In the long run it seems clear that the jostling for the privileges of reservation between various castes, as well as the construction of caste symbols of assertion such as Suheldev, are continually strengthening caste identities in UP and Bihar rather than weakening them. Under exceptional circumstances, such as the Ayodhya movement or the disenchantment with UPA in 2014, the BJP may have been able to consolidate its vote share and its number of seats, but under ordinary circumstances 2014 should count as the high water mark for the BJP in UP and Bihar.

The BJP recognises this fact, which is why it has consistently worked on expanding its presence in the Northeast and the south of the country. But at least for 2019, the growth is unlikely to offset the likely losses in UP and Bihar, as well as the anti-incumbency cycle likely to impact the party in states such as Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. Modi’s charisma is not what it was in 2014. Judging by the moves he has made over his political career, Modi is unlikely to go into the general elections on this note. The results of the OBC commission can only form a part of a strategy to impact public perception, but he will need much more. The worry, given that he has already attempted a surgical strike on Pakistan and a demonetisation of Indian currency largely as public-relations exercises, is what that much more is going to be.