Spectre of caste census limits BJP's OBC politics

Topics OBC quota | BJP | BSP

For the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Kalyan Singh represented both the potential of its OBC (Other Backward Classes) politics as well as its limits. On his demise, Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised the faithful that “to fulfil the void left by him, we should work hard for his ideals.” As an OBC, the PM often presents himself as the product of the marriage between Mandal and Kamandal when he seeks votes in UP and Bihar. Why then is he reluctant to go forward with a caste census, which most other political parties support? That would be .....
For the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Kalyan Singh represented both the potential of its OBC (Other Backward Classes) politics as well as its limits. On his demise, Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised the faithful that “to fulfil the void left by him, we should work hard for his ideals.”

As an OBC, the PM often presents himself as the product of the marriage between Mandal and Kamandal when he seeks votes in UP and Bihar. Why then is he reluctant to go forward with a caste census, which most other political parties support? That would be a real tribute to Kalyan Singh going beyond symbolic acts like renaming Aligarh airport, a few roads and government welfare schemes after him.

Perhaps the “Brahminwadi conspirators” of the Hindutva pantheon will not allow it. That was the term used by Kalyan Singh for Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, when he ejected him from the Chief Ministership of UP and the party.

While the BJP wants OBC votes, perhaps it is not comfortable with OBC empowerment. It has acquired OBC support largely through clever alliance formations and fomenting communalism. If there is a caste census however, the Arab might well find himself pushed out into the cold with the OBC camel occupying the tent.

Surveys conducted by Lokniti-CSDS indicate that OBC support for the BJP has nearly doubled in parliamentary elections. In the 2009 general election, the BJP got 22 per cent OBC votes with regional OBC parties receiving 42 percent. However, by the 2019 general election, the BJP’s OBC vote share doubled to 44 per cent and that of the regional parties declined to 27 per cent. In assembly elections however, the OBC vote tends to remain predominantly with regional OBC parties.

The surveys also show that in Northern India, the BJP was more successful in mobilising the support of the non-dominant OBCs than of dominant OBCs who stayed loyal to the regional OBC parties. They also underline the important fact that the upper caste vote remains firmly with the BJP irrespective of the party’s electoral fortunes, while OBC support is more uncertain. The actual share of OBCs in the BJP’s power structure also fluctuates with the exigencies of the next election.

The BJP would therefore be wary of the proportion of OBCs in the population turning out to be much higher than the figures in the1931 census on which the OBC reservations are based. The Mandal Commission estimated the OBC population to be 52 per cent of the total but recommended 27 per cent reservation for them in government jobs and higher educational institutions. After the OBC quota was implemented in August 1990, the Supreme Court put a 50 per cent ceiling on reservations.

Comparatively, reservations for Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes (SCs/STs) have kept pace with their relative increase in the overall population and their quotas increased after the 1961 and 1971 censuses. In 1981, no change was made as the census could not be completed in Assam.

A new caste-based census could threaten the legal status quo of 50 percent on reservations. Based on new figures both the OBCs as well as the SCs/STs could demand an increased share in proportion to their population. The OBC population share is likely to increase also because the Constitution (127th Amendment) Act gives states the power to add or delete (unlikely) castes to their OBC lists. This potentially makes the 50 per cent ceiling on reservations untenable.

A new caste-based census might also lead to demands for reservation for sub-quotas within reserved caste groups. The census enumerations could reveal the extent to which benefits accrue unequally within the OBCs. Canny political leaders like Nitish Kumar have already milked this divide by creating an “Ati-Pichda” (Most Backward) quota within OBC reservations and “Maha-Dalit” (Most Oppressed) quota within the reservation for SCs/STs. The BJP has also successfully mobilised support among non-Yadav OBCs and non-Jatav SCs based on the uneven distribution of the reservation benefits.

The OBC parties support a caste census hoping that a “Mandal-II” like environment would revive their fortunes. This could be a miscalculation. The basic problem lies in the fact that the Mandalite parties of North India, socialist in name but largely family-run ‘Mom and Pop’ shops or one-man bands, are increasingly seen as only representing the dominant castes among the OBC.

Indications of separate political mobilisation of the lesser beneficiaries among OBCs are on the rise in Uttar Pradesh, such as the formation of the Apana Dal, the Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party or the Nishad Party. They have sought their political fortunes through opportunistic alignments. In Bihar, a Kurmi-based Janata Dal (United) broke away from the Yadav dominated Janata Dal, while the Hindustan Awam Morcha-Secular, the Vikassheel Insaan Party, and a Rashtriya Lok Samta Party now represent smaller OBC segments. Even the Congress, traditionally an upper caste party, is organising OBC Sammelans (conferences) of  the marginalised OBC like Sainis, Kushwahas, Mauryas, Shakyas, Pals, Dhangars, Gaderiyas, Kumhars, Nishads and Mallahs! These developments point to uneven access to benefits of reservation and to political power structures.

Therefore, after a caste census, the cleavages of OBC and even Dalit politics of today may deepen and generate multiple leaderships and parties. But while the emergence of deeper caste fault lines could be a step towards greater equity through reservations, it would threaten the BJP’s larger Hindutva project, which though theoretically premised on abolition of caste actually represents a homogenised consensus on Brahmanical social and religious order.

The fractures of Mandal-I were effectively countered by the BJP by the Ram Mandir project, including the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Mandal-II with its socially and economically fragmented electorate may prove to be difficult for the BJP to surmount. Its inroads into the OBC vote could become infructuous. Neither Prime Minister Modi nor the Brahmin coterie of Nagpur which controls and shapes the Hindutva agenda would, therefore, want a caste-based census. Beyond it could lie political wilderness.



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