How Modi Tapped the Wrath of ‘Lower’ OBCs for Political Mileage

ModiMandal1INSIDE UTTAR PRADESH’S Jaunpur town, not far from its landmark 16th century Shahi Bridge on the river Gomti, RK Maurya runs a teashop that sells hot samosas and excessively sweetened tea. He does brisk business, assisted by two young adults, and saves enough money to send his son to an English-medium school with the hope that the young Maurya, now 12, gets a “secure” government job.

He had financed his brother’s education earlier with a similar hope, but after failing to clear public service commission examinations for three straight years, his unmarried brother, who is in his late twenties, has gone off to Mumbai to work as a security guard. “Many of our people are not able to get onto the OBC list in lower bureaucratic jobs because our children are not as smart as those from rich families who are also OBC,” Maurya says ruefully before he is distracted by fresh orders for his snacks and beverages.

The term ‘OBC’, popularised by India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, stands for ‘Other Backward Classes’, describing groups other than Scheduled Castes and Tribals who were also marginalised by the Brahminical order of the past. OBCs formed a vast heterogenous population even at the time of the country’s independence. Some caste groups within this large category were just as socially, economically and educationally well off as the so-called upper castes, while some others were worse off than Dalits and other groups of former untouchables.

The trend seems to persist in parts, unfortunately. Professor DL Sheth, a political sociologist and Honorary Senior Fellow at New Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), says that the debate over ‘upper’ and ‘lower’ OBCs is very old, and that it is true that the more prosperous among the OBCs walked away with reservation benefits that in public-sector jobs and government educational institutions now stand at 27 per cent.

“A large chunk of such quotas was filled up by the upper OBCs because the lower OBCs can’t compete with others in the grouping. So it is only natural that sub-categorisations are made to target the most needy. I think it is a correct step to take,” says Professor Sheth, emphasising that the recommendation for this had been made by the Judiciary and even the National Commission for Backward Classes as early as 2011.

In what would be music to the ears of the likes of tea-seller Maurya, whose community had voted in large numbers for the BJP in the last Lok Sabha and Uttar Pradesh Assembly polls, the Central Government is busy setting up a commission to examine the sub-categorisation of backward communities on the central list of jobs to ensure that the benefits extended to OBCs reach all the castes that fall in the bloc.

“There is a marked difference in the way the upper OBCs and lower OBCs have voted in the past several elections. Across India, upper OBCs have been more reluctant to vote for the BJP compared with lower OBCs, who have lately become strong backers of the BJP. The party has made deeper inroads among lower OBCs than the upper ones,” observes Professor Sanjay Kumar, director of CSDS, adding that “creating sub-categories would also be an effort to form solid vote banks of lower OBCs for the party in power”.

The proposed panel is expected to submit its report in 12 weeks from the day it is constituted. While the Government has not taken any such major step so far, as many as 11 states have recognised such sub-categories in state government jobs meant for OBCs. The new commission will examine the extent to which the distribution of quota benefits has been inequitable among castes and communities, including the broad categories of OBCs included on the central list.

Professor Kumar of CSDS insists that there is certainly a political gameplan to this move, “besides ensuring the welfare of those who actually require OBC quota benefits more than others”. BJP leaders that Open spoke to do not contest this claim. “Our aim has been the upliftment of those who were sidelined by the so-called champions of OBC politics. Of course, there is a larger political strategy to wean away what you call lower OBCs or still-deprived OBCs away from the vice-like grip of these self- appointed messiahs of the OBCs,” says a senior BJP leader.

Thanks to this proposed measure, they expect to gain a clear edge over leaders who had for decades taken advantage of their OBC status and yet favoured their own castes over others. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP President Amit Shah—and also leaders such as Nitish Kumar of the JD-U who is now back in the NDA fold after briefly joining hands with the Rashtriya Janata Dal of Lalu Prasad—have zealously courted lower OBCs for years now. They had successfully tapped the rancour and frustration of non-Yadav OBCs in the cow belt and that of others elsewhere who had felt left out in the post-Mandal politics that saw upper OBCs acquire much political clout in the name of all OBCs.

Sudhir Panwar, a professor at Lucknow University who contested the last Assembly elections as a candidate of the Samajwadi Party, which is steered by Mulayam Singh Yadav and his son Akhilesh, says that “thanks to this plan, the likes of Lalu and Mulayam will become leaders of the Yadavs alone and not of the whole of OBCs that they were before”. Professor Panwar is of the view that the decision to create a commission to re-categorise OBCs is a purely political decision. “There is no welfare in their minds,” he avers, questioning the rationale of hiking the income limit for those who can avail of OBC benefits.

One possible piece of logic behind this step—of raising the annual income of parents of potential beneficiaries of reservations to Rs 8 lakh per annum from Rs 6 lakh earlier—is that OBC quotas, especially in the higher bureaucracy and academic institutions, remain under-utilised. For instance, the response to an RTI application in 2015 showed that of the 27 per cent they are entitled to in public sector jobs and higher education, less than half the reserved positions and seats—12 per cent in all—actually had OBCs.

“Raising the income limit was to ensure higher representation for OBCs in government jobs. And when you hike incomes, it is the upper OBCs that will naturally enter these positions,” says Professor Panwar, who argues that creating separate categories for OBCs will worsen the under-fulfilment problem, with even more reserved slots likely to lie vacant. However, others contend that the extraneous factors that have contributed to this phenomenon may vary— from technical knowhow to a general lack of interest in such jobs.

AS THE MODI-LED Government prepares to create quotas within the broad 27 per cent quota—it is not yet clear how many categories would be formed and how the allotments would be distributed and who all will come under each group—it is expected to be an exhaustive exercise, considering the number of OBC castes recognised as such, not to mention those that may newly be included. OBCs account for up to 41 per cent of the country’s population after several inclusions and exclusions from the list.

The Modi Government’s priorities to reward the most backward among OBCs as well as lower Dalits who had also thrown their weight behind the BJP coalition in the past few elections are along expected lines. In the run-up to the General Election of 2014 as well as to various recent state polls (especially the one held in India’s most populous state Uttar Pradesh this year), the BJP had crafted meticulous strategies to pull in the lower OBC vote. The campaigns were also designed to work on the ancient heritage of these groups to instill a sense of pride in their caste identities.

The medieval king Suheldev’s name was invoked to woo Rajbhars, for example. Caste names were given a makeover by the high-octane campaign of the ruling coalition at the Centre, which began to address Kohars as Prajapatis and Nonias as Chauhans. Besides Kurmis and Kushwahas, the party also ferociously vied for the favour of several other non-Yadav OBCs, including Lodhs who had acquired some political influence thanks to one of their own, former UP Chief Minister Kalyan Singh.

“The idea was to ensure that the disproportionate influence of Yadavs should end. Again, a lot of Yadavs, too, are shifting their loyalties to the BJP,”Ashish Baghel, a key member of the BJP’s election war room based in Varanasi, had told Open. The BJP had fielded 150 non-Yadav OBC candidates in the UP elections of its total 383 seats; 11 were allotted to the Apna Dal, which is largely a party of Kurmis, and nine to Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party, which also represented non-Yadav OBCs, especially groups that have sought inclusion in the Scheduled Caste category.

“Certainly, our plan is to create a vote bank to rein in all existing purveyors of OBC politics and to empower those who had missed out on the OBC political blitz of the 1990s in which only the upper classes among them benefitted,” said Baghel.

When the demand for OBC quotas was first discussed decades ago, its opponents had argued that the privileged—or the ‘creamy layer’—among them will corner most of the benefits. Noted author and scholar Christophe Jaffrelot has pointed out that upper- caste rulers of the country were more amenable to offering quotas to Scheduled Castes than OBCs because the former offered no direct threat to their supremacy; also, that policy helped the elite defuse the ‘Ambedkarite mobilisation’ by co-opting Dalits to key positions.

Even the Constituent Assembly didn’t debate the issue of non-Dalit, non-tribal backward classes (Nehru was even reluctant to use the expression ‘caste’ and preferred ‘classes’ instead), and only included a provision under Article 340 for identifying socially and educationally backward classes in the future.

The first Backward Classes Commission, set up in 1953, submitted a report to the Government highlighting multiple criteria for backwardness and recommending suitable measures for the upliftment of castes that met these parameters: degraded status, lack of education, under-representation in the civil service and secondary and tertiary sectors.

The report was rejected, but it stirred intense debate especially after courts rejected legislative measures undertaken by states in the south such as Kerala and Mysore (now Karnataka), which had pioneered the policy of awarding backward classes reservations during the British Raj. Authors like Jaffrelot and others have done indepth analyses of the subject to track the rise of political movements against Brahminism.

While Nehruvian politics overshadowed any efforts to secure rights for OBCs, it took the intellectual and forceful presence of Ram Manohar Lohia to resurrect the argument in the 1950s and 1960s and assert that caste in India was the equivalent of class in the West. Socialist leaders like him and various others took every opportunity to highlight the plight of the backward castes and women that suffered the most inhuman stigmas in society.

Notably, speaking on an occasion in Parliament on November 23rd, 1965, to pay a tribute to the late lawmaker from the joint Lok Sabha seat of Bhagalpur and Purnea, Kirai Mushar, a socialist leader from Bihar belonging to a most backward caste, Lohia called upon the House to take drastic steps to end caste atrocities. He also said, in response to a vapid announcement by the Speaker of the House, he was glad that just like Mushar, many others from similar underprivileged backgrounds, too, have over time acquired confidence thanks to political empowerment.

An apocryphal story is that Kirai Mushar, a member of the first Lok Sabha (1952-1957), was forced to share his official accommodation with an upper-caste secretary of his. Mushar was so unaware of his rights that he slept on the floor of the train while travelling to Delhi to attend the first Parliament session. On one occasion, he was found crying in the Central Hall after he was beaten up by his secretary. However, he learnt to stand up for his rights later.

While the social status of most OBCs was much better, several of the very backward OBCs and Dalits led piteous lives and were yet ignored by our politicians who were too scared to take on upper-caste hegemony. Nonetheless, an incessant debate, thanks to socialists and various others who focused on caste atrocities in and outside legislative bodies, would soon help lower castes outstrip their former masters in Indian politics.

The big shift was effected by the Mandal Commission appointed by the Janata Party Government in 1978. As Jaffrelot notes, its report ‘identified 3,743 castes that it found to form India’s other backward classes, representing 52% of the country’s population. Noting that OBC only occupied 12.5% of civil service posts, it recommended a 27% reservation for them’. Drafted in 1980, the report was dusted out from the archives ten years later by VP Singh for implementation in a political move to consolidate his position as a prime minister presiding over a fractious coalition.

Incidentally, BP Mandal, author of the report that bears his name, had warned against a few prominent castes among OBCs cashing in on the opportunities that a reservation policy offered. As he wrote in it: ‘It is no doubt true that the major benefits of reservation and other welfare measures for Other Backward Classes will be cornered by the more advanced sections of the backward communities. But is it not a universal phenomenon? All reformist remedies have to contend with a slow recovery along the hierarchical gradient; there are no quantum jumps in social reform. Moreover, human nature being what it is, a ‘new class’ ultimately does emerge even in classless societies. The chief merit of reservation is not that it will introduce egalitarianism among OBCs when the rest of the Indian society is seized by all sorts of inequalities. But reservation will certainly erode the hold of higher castes on the services and enable OBCs in general to have a sense of participation in running the affairs of their country’.

IN 1990, WHEN Congress rebel leader VP Singh—who had fielded a sizeable chunk of OBC candidates in the 1989 General Election—opened the floodgates of mid-caste politics with his resolve to implement the Mandal Commission Report which had been ignored by the successive Congress governments of Indira Gandhi and her son Rajiv, it created confusion within Singh’s Janata Dal alliance, but the political momentum was clearly on his side (albeit briefly).

As pointed out by scholars, the loud opposition of upper castes to Singh’s move resulted in a massive OBC mobilisation that would alter the country’s political climate like never before. OBC politics became the ‘order or the day’, as pundits recount, and changed the rules of Indian politics that had been written by Brahmins and upper castes.

Until the Mandal movement catapulted several OBC and lower caste leaders to the national scheme of things, Choudhary Charan Singh and Karpuri Thakur were two notable OBC leaders from the Hindi heartland who had national recognition, but they drew their strength as leaders of farmers, not as OBCs.

Since 1952, when the first General Election was held, Brahmin prime ministers have ruled India for almost half a century. With the exception of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who was at the helm for 10 years, no non-Brahmin prime minister has completed his term in office. Remarkably, Lal Bahadur Shastri (Kayastha), Charan Singh (Jat), VP Singh (Rajput), Chandrashekhar (Rajput), Deve Gowda (Vokkaligga) and IK Gujral (Khatri) together ruled the country for only four years.

However, things were changing too and the days of caste blindness would soon be a thing of the past. The watershed moment came in 1991. The General Election of the year also saw the likes of veterans Vasant Sathe, Madhu Dandwate, VN Gadgil, Rama Krishna Hegde and others biting the dust amid a backward class awakening.

Until then, the Congress party had been on a winning streak on the back of its political mix of Brahmins, Dalits and Muslims. As Jaffrelot observes, ‘The old vertical, clientelistic brand of politics inherited from the Congress system simply broke down.’ A year later, the courts also began to think differently.

Unlike in the 1951 case of State of Madras vs Champakam Dorairanjan and the 1963 MR Balaji vs Mysore legal battle, when the courts had disapproved of higher reservations for backward classes, in the 1992 Indira Sawhney vs Union of India case, the Supreme Court upheld the Mandal Commission Report and stated in its verdict that ‘a caste can be and quite often is a social class in India’.

LOOK AT THE figures: from 25 per cent of all MPs in 1952, Brahmins make up less than 10 per cent now. The decline and fall of Brahmin strength in the Lok Sabha has been sharp since 1984, when it was 19.9 per cent; the figure slid to 12.4 per cent by 1998 and 11.3 per cent in 1999.

In the Hindi heartland states of UP and Bihar, OBCs, who hold the key to government formation, had been backing regional outfits since the late 1980s, an era that saw the rise of the Janata Dal and later various other non-Congress, non-BJP parties as breakaway entities. With his emphatic win in 2014, Modi, himself an OBC, brought greater acceptability of OBC power (see ‘OBC is the New Brahmin’, Open July 4th, 2014).

Interestingly, though the BJP was seen as a Brahmin-Bania party in the 1990s at the height of the anti-Mandal agitation and the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, it has over the decades changed tack and accommodated more OBCs than most other parties have. “The BJP and RSS understood that they had to change with the times, and they did, perhaps faster than most other parties. After all, the Bihar polls were enough proof of the rise in consolidation among weaker OBCs, too,” notes a Delhi-based BJP leader.

And now, following Modi’s ascent to power and a series of state poll wins, political trends are changing further thanks to the BJP’s efforts to mobilise OBCs that didn’t gain much from power shifts of the 1990s. Perhaps, the political behaviour of OBC leaders who hitched a ride on the Mandal bandwagon was too reactionary for comfort.

Speaking of the OBC upsurge, Oxford University’s Faisal Devji said in an interview: “The OBCs can also be the most ‘reactionary’ caste, especially as far as Dalits and other groups are concerned.” He also noted that it’s interesting what happens to old merchant castes and Brahmins. “Have they abandoned the public sector to exercise a new kind of influence from the private sector instead? This would indicate a new division of power and influence made possible by the new economy. In other words, the competition now is between OBCs and Dalits (and others) in the public sphere, with Brahmins and Banias operating out of the private sector,” he said.

Whatever be the case, pundits expect OBC politics to be transformed by the newfound aggression of lower OBCs who resent their continued marginalisation. “It is a major design of the BJP,” says Professor Panwar of Lucknow University. He argues that it offers the BJP a win-win situation: “If the BJP moves a bill in Parliament to create sub-categories, credit goes to them if it gets made into a law; if it doesn’t becomes a law, the blame falls on the opposition.”

According to him, the BJP may also use the ‘whole exercise’ to appease groups that are currently demanding OBC reservations in Haryana, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and so on. Meanwhile, he rues that there is no effort to study how proportionate the representation of various castes is, compared with the population. “If such a caste census-based analysis is done, all the hue and cry over higher Yadav representation in legislatures may not hold true.”

Such complaints may or may not be valid, but the politics of the Centre’s exercise is clear. “Efforts to formulate a new vote bank are a foregone conclusion,” says Professor Kumar. It is also worth recalling what Mandal had to tell anti-OBC quota protestors in his 1980 report: ‘In fact, the Hindu society has always operated a very rigorous scheme of reservation, which was internalised through caste system. Eklavya lost his thumb and Shambhuk his neck for their breach of caste rules of reservation. The present furore against reservations for OBCs is not aimed at the principle itself, but against the new class of beneficiaries, as they are now clamouring for a share of the opportunities which were all along monopolised by the higher castes.’

This accurate prognosis of a situation from a different time, when caste was far more deeply entrenched in Indian society, now appears prophetic vis-à-vis the frustration of upper OBCs in the face of ‘the clamouring for a share of the opportunities’ denied so far to the most backward among them. If some of the recent election results are any indication, winds of change have already begun to buffet the country.

First published in Open magazine

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