The centrality of OBCs in Indian politics
The politics of backward caste assertion in India is undergoing a new resurgence. The possible culmination of a series of events, mostly unrelated to each other, is likely to transform Other Backward Classes (OBCs) from an administrative category to a political one. And this has the potential to irreversibly change the nature and character of Indian democracy.
Let’s trace these events. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s victory in 2014 (and 2019) was not just due to greater consolidation of the upper castes, but also because of the deep inroads the party made among the lower castes, especially among the lower backward castes. The ascendance of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has helped the BJP to continue harnessing the electoral potential of these communities.
The BJP, for the first time, announced the formation of a national-level OBC Morcha in 2015 to be headed by SP Singh Baghel, recently inducted into the Union Cabinet. In October 2017, the central government announced a commission to sub-categorise OBCs into different groups. The commission, headed by Justice G Rohini, has, since then, received 11 extensions to submit its final report. The mandate of the Justice Rohini Commission, in principle, was based on the rationale presented by the Hukum Singh Committee (constituted by Rajnath Singh as the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh in 2001), to distribute the benefits of reservation equitably among the groups comprising OBCs.
After this, a series of constitutional amendments were introduced, with important implications for the reservation architecture in the country. The 102nd Amendment Act in 2018 made the National Commission for Backward Classes (NCBC) a constitutional entity. The 103rd Amendment Act in 2019 created provisions for 10% reservation for the economically weaker sections (EWS). The 104th Amendment Act extended the reservations for the Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (STs) for another 10 years. And the most recent 105th Amendment Act on August 10 restored the power of states to make their OBC lists.
It is in this backdrop that the emerging debate on a caste census needs to be understood. The political consolidation behind the idea of enumerating castes indicates that it is now inevitable. However, it is not clear at the moment who will be the eventual winners and losers from the exercise for a range of reasons.
One, a lot will depend on how political jostling shapes the mechanics of the caste census. But equally, there will be a political fallout from other associated demands such as lifting the cap of 50% on reservation, re-organising the status of each caste within their quota group, developing a better framework to identify the creamy layer (a threshold which is supposed to be made up of several indicators, but, at present, is limited to annual income), and perhaps extending reservation to the private sector. These associated demands will not remain limited to OBCs alone. The rise of a new discourse on sub-categorisation among the intended beneficiaries may even cast a long shadow on SC and ST reservations as well as on general category EWS beneficiaries.
Two, since the 1990s, many state-level parties have exclusively relied on OBCs as their political base. This has, however, seen a rupture in the past decade. While the BJP received approximately 20% OBC votes in the 2009 general elections and state-level parties around 42%, in the 2019 elections, the BJP’s OBC vote share increased to 44% and the share of state-level parties reduced to 27%. This period witnessed a political fragmentation with the rise of new parties that are exclusively mobilising non-dominant OBC castes. The BJP hopes to cement its political base further with the sub-categorisation of OBCs, while state-level parties such as the Rashtriya Janata Dal hope to emerge as champions of the larger OBC constituency by demanding a caste census.
But it is too early to determine who benefits from which demand. The BJP’s hesitation in taking a clear stand on the caste census, or the repeated extensions to the Rohini Commission, makes it evident that the party is unsure of the eventual fallout of a firm decision on any of these fronts. Similarly, state-level parties are nervous as they are aware that contradictions such as the one between dominant and non-dominant backward castes are now out in the open and it will be hard to put the genie back in the bottle.
Three, caste enumeration in the census will not only provide a more precise estimate of each group at a very fine-grained geographical level, but also associated information on the socio-economic conditions of each jati. This is likely to result in a million mutinies and multiple demands. This is not to argue that the fear of either should stop the project of bringing the groups, which have not received their fair share, into the mainstream. But it is to recognise that the project of democratising power is often marked by a backlash.
The decision to implement the Mandal Commission recommendations in 1989 saw violent protests across the country and several people died. In the second phase too, when OBC reservation was extended to educational institutions during United Progressive Alliance-1, there were marches and demonstrations across university campuses and state capitals. However, given the political consensus among parties on having some sort of reservation architecture, it is not clear whether the backlash will be limited to occasional rhetoric or lead to violence.
Four, the Rohini Commission’s initial assessments indicate that among the approximately 2,500 jatis in the OBC list, over 1,000 have no representation at all in the 27% quota. This has also led to a wide disparity in state-level representation in nationally conducted exams (such as IIT-JEE or Union Public Service Commission) to recruit candidates. The Rohini Commission is learnt to have drawn up a proposal to divide the OBC list into four categories. Once the fine-grained caste census becomes available, it will shed light on the intra-OBC differences in access to benefits. This may well open up a discussion, depending on the emerging OBC sub-categorisation discourse, on re-designing the formula for implementation of reservation policies for SCs and STs (remember Nitish Kumar’s politics of positing Mahadalits against the Paswans or the BJP’s gambit of positing non-Jatav Dalits against Jatav Dalits).
Finally, while caste has remained a primary marker of socioeconomic status and access to opportunities, social justice demands have to be rooted in the emerging political economy realities and challenges, even as they change them. The emerging discourse will not only reignite the debate on the basis of citizenship — individual or group-based. This may also lead to a renewed demand to tinker with the current electoral system too — moving from a first-past-the-post system to a more proportionate representation model.
As India celebrates its 75th anniversary of Independence, it is time that we must re-formulate our social contract for a more egalitarian power-sharing arrangement, especially with the thousands of invisible communities who make up the bulk of our population. However, we must be prepared to deal with the brewing million mutinies that might come along the way.
Rahul Verma is fellow, Centre for Policy Research (CPR), New Delhi.
The views expressed are personal