Cardinal Numbers

Why the EBCs are the key to the 2024 election

A potter arranging earthen lamps during Diwali, at a workshop in Ahmedabad. Artisanal castes such as potters, carpenters, and blacksmiths are a set of thousands of castes that have been confined to their traditional caste-based occupations for centuries and deprived access to social, economic and political advancement. Administratively, they are often termed the “atipichchdi jati”—extremely deprived castes—or “Extremely Backward Classes.” Amit Dave / Reuters
01 March, 2024

A DAY AFTER Narendra Modi consecrated the Ram temple in Ayodhya, his union government launched another crucial political maneuver. On 23 January, it announced that the prime minister had conferred a Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian honour, upon the late Karpoori Thakur, who had served two brief stints as the chief minister of Bihar in the 1970s. The union home minister Amit Shah addressed Bharatiya Janata Party workers in Delhi after the announcement. He praised Thakur’s commitment to affirmative action for the backward classes. “Modiji did Ram kaaj on 22 January and gareeb kaaj on 23 January”—work for Ram and work for the poor, respectively—Shah said. He claimed that Modi, like Thakur, belonged to an “atipichchhdi jati”—an oppressed caste group that has been socially, financially and educationally deprived for centuries.

On 24 January, Thakur’s birth centenary, the prime minister wrote a rare op-ed, praising the socialist politician. Modi highlighted details of Thakur’s life that mirrored his own, prime among which was Thakur’s caste background and strong opposition to the Congress party, which came from his mentor, Ram Manohar Lohia, India’s tallest socialist politician and a votary of “non-Congressism.” The prime minister wrote that Thakur had stood up for affirmative action despite “heavy opposition,” although he neglected to mention that the opposition had come from his party’s own political predecessor, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh.

Thakur was a die-hard socialist and freedom fighter, having risen into politics from the Congress Socialist Party, under Lohia. Like his mentor, Thakur championed reservation—anathema to most upper-caste leaders that populated the Jana Sangh and the Congress—for oppressed castes who had come to be referred to as “Other Backward Classes.” Even among the OBCs, several castes were identified as extremely deprived, and administratively referred to as “most backward classes,” or “extremely backward classes.” Thakur hailed from an EBC caste, the Nai community, whose historical occupation was hairdressing.

The 1960s and 1970s were a heady time for OBC leaders, especially in the Hindi heartland. The Congress had suffered a significant setback in the 1967 general elections, making room for non-Congress parties, such as Lohia’s, to grow. There was a rising political consciousness among the OBCs of north India, and OBC politicians began to emerge among the ranks of most parties and governments. The most prominent among them—Thakur, the future prime minister Charan Singh, and future Bihar chief ministers BP Mandal, Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad Yadav, among others—would go on to change the nature of OBC politics in the country.