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: