How the BJP went beyond its upper-caste bastion

Updated on Dec 18, 2021 07:38 PM IST

The BJP has become the most socially representative party in UP by caste. In the process, the party has reduced upper-caste dominance. However, this social engineering has been done without losing the support of the upper-castes

The BJP has long been considered an upper-caste-dominated party by those who study it.(Ashok Dutta/HTPhoto) PREMIUM
The BJP has long been considered an upper-caste-dominated party by those who study it.(Ashok Dutta/HTPhoto)
ByNalin Mehta

In June 2020, Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi pointed out to his party workers that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was represented by 113 Other Backward Class (OBC), 43 Scheduled Tribe (ST) and 53 Scheduled Caste (SC) Members of Parliament (MPs) in the Lok Sabha (LS). In other words, 37.2% of the BJP’s Lok Sabha MPs were OBC, 14.1% ST and 17.4% SC. This meant that 68.9% (209) of its 303 Lok Sabha MPs elected in 2019 were non-upper-caste, and from castes that were traditionally considered lower down in the caste hierarchy. This is strikingly on par with the widely accepted national share of the population of these castes: 69.2%. If you leave seats reserved by law for SCs and STs alone, non-upper castes still accounted for almost 60% of BJP MPs from general constituencies. Within this, as many as 50% (113) were OBC.

The BJP has long been considered an upper-caste-dominated party by those who study it. However, new caste data that I have put together shows that research and scholarship on the party have lagged behind the party’s reality and the charge of upper-caste domination is difficult to sustain.

Modi’s 2020 statement flew in the face of assertions in recent political science research on India that claimed a significant resurgence of upper-caste dominance between 2009 and 2019 within the BJP. Most recently, the Paris-based Sciences Po’s Christophe Jaffrelot declared that the 2019 poll marked “the revenge of the upper-caste elite” aligned with the “BJP against the Dalits’ and OBCs’ assertiveness”. Jaffrelot and Gilles Vernier argued that ‘‘the last decade has seen the return of the savarn (upper caste) … and the erosion of OBC representation … along with the rise of the BJP.” In a recent caste profile of the 2019 LS, they claimed that the BJP’s dominance in Parliament was driven by 36.3 % upper-caste MPs and only 18.8 % OBCs (the lowest OBC representation in a major party, compared to the Congress and the regional parties).

It is impossible to square these two claims. To critically reassess the emerging picture, the Mehta-Singh Social Index, which I came up with along with Sanjeev Singh, set out to study the caste backgrounds of thousands of Uttar Pradesh (UP) politicians across five domains between 1991 and 2019. This was important because caste in UP is notoriously difficult to pinpoint by only looking at names on a list. Vermas from Noida are Gujjars (OBC), Vermas from eastern UP are SCs, Vermas from near Bulandshahar are Sunars (OBC), Vermas from the Awadh region are Kurmis (OBC), and those from eastern UP are Kayasths. Similarly, Chaudharys from Ballia are Yadavs, those from western UP are Jats, while those from four UP districts are Kurmis. Kushwahas can be both upper-caste Rajput or OBC. Rawats from Uttarakhand are Rajputs/Thakurs while Rawats from UP are Pasi Dalits (SCs). Likewise, Chandras can be SC or Thakur/Rajput. Tyagis in western UP are Brahmins, but some Tyagis in eastern UP are SC and some Tyagis from Meerut are Bhumihars. This is why a revisionist look at caste names was essential.

A closer examination of these caste names allied with the findings of the Mehta-Singh Index shed new light on the BJP’s social engineering experiments in UP between 2009 and 2019. There are five salient points.

One, the party systematically increased OBC representation in significant numbers at every level of political organisation: From district-level presidents to state unit leaders to the council of ministers to assembly and LS candidates. Two, OBCs became by far the single-most represented caste category in the BJP at every organisational level. Three, not only did the BJP systematically increase OBC representation, this expansion was primarily based on non-Yadav OBCs (over 20 sub-categories such as Kurmis, Jats, Sainis, Mauryas, etc). These castes did not have a similar representation in the previous OBC-dominated Akhilesh Yadav-led administration of the Samajwadi Party (SP), which was dominated by Yadavs.

Four, the BJP systematically increased SC representation, though to a lesser extent than OBCs. Again, it did so by focusing on non-Jatav SC sub-castes (over 17 sub-categories such as Pasis, Dhobis, Valmikis) that did not have such representation in the previous SC-led administration under Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP)’s Mayawati where Jatavs were dominant. Five, this social engineering was done without losing the support of the upper castes.

Essentially, the BJP became far more representative of all castes in UP (barring Muslims) compared to its rivals. In the process, upper-caste dominance in the party was significantly reduced.

To give a bird’s eye view of the numbers, OBCs and SCs accounted for as many as 57.5% of the BJP’s UP LS candidates in the 2019 general election, 52.8% of its candidates in the 2017 assembly poll that it swept, 50% of its office-bearers in the state in 2020, 48.1% of UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath’s council of ministers and 35.6% of the BJP’s district-level presidents.

To give a bird’s eye view of the numbers, OBCs and SCs accounted for as many as 57.5% of the BJP’s UP LS candidates in the 2019 general election.
To give a bird’s eye view of the numbers, OBCs and SCs accounted for as many as 57.5% of the BJP’s UP LS candidates in the 2019 general election.
BJP UP leadership: Representation of OBCs and SCs%
BJP UP leadership: Representation of OBCs and SCs%

These numbers revealed by the Mehta-Singh Index show why it is misleading to characterise the new BJP under Modi and Amit Shah as a party dominated by upper-castes. It is quite the reverse. The BJP, between 2013 and 2019, saw a remaking of not only its social support base, but also of its internal organisational systems, with OBCs being given centre stage. In UP, a state where OBCs are 54.5% and SCs 20.7% of the population, the BJP was ahead of all other major political parties in providing proportional representation to candidates from these castes in the LS and Vidhan Sabha polls and inching closer towards this in other political structures. The BJP in UP, after 2013, put up significantly more OBCs as candidates than its political rivals: SP, BSP, and the Congress. It also gave them more space in its internal power structures in the state, radically redoing its organisational DNA.

To be sure, upper-castes, who account for about 24.2% of the population in UP, are still over-represented and remain integral to the party, but the proportion is much less than before. This caste mobilisation — without caste wars or confrontations — has brought the party’s composition closer to that of the overall population’s in UP than any of its rivals had managed. And its success may well rest on that.

Nalin Mehta is the author of the forthcoming book, The New BJP: Modi and the Making of the World’s Largest Political Party

The views expressed are personal

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