Emergence of OBCs as a decisive factor in polls
By GVL Narasimha Rao
Other Backward Castes (OBCs) are the largest voter bloc amongst the Indian electorate. They constitute 40 per cent of India’s population according to the 62nd round (2005-06) survey conducted by the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO). OBCs outnumber Muslims in the country by nearly 3.5 times and are almost twice as the population of Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs) taken together. Some states with a high proportion of OBCs are: Tamil Nadu (72 per cent), followed by Bihar, Kerala (58 per cent each), and Uttar Pradesh (50 per cent), where the OBCs have had a decisive say in politics.
The OBCs comprise a multitude of castes and sub-castes and are a heterogeneous group. Such differences exist, though to a lesser degree, even among the SCs and STs. Curiously, while Scheduled Castes and Tribes are more stable in their voting patterns and exhibit long term political loyalties, OBCs have been more volatile in their voting preferences and have emerged as a major swing group in Indian elections bringing about a frequent change of governments in the states and at the Centre.
OBC vote demolished Congress
The most decisive changes in India’s electoral scene in the past 25 years have been fashioned by the assertive OBCs seeking political power. The decline of the Congress party in national politics and specifically in the Hindi heartland states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar began in the late eighties when OBCs supported viable political alternatives to the Congress to overthrow it from power. The rise of VP Singh-led Janata Dal in 1989, Kalyan Singh-led BJP in Uttar Pradesh, Mulayam Singh Yadav in Uttar Pradesh, Lalu Prasad Yadav and Nitish Kumar in Bihar, Telugu Desam Party in Andhra Pradesh etc were all a result of a strong OBC surge in their favour.
Until then, the Congress Party won elections repeatedly by adopting a winning formula whereby the party’s leadership in every state remained in the hands of the leaders of a dominant caste/s in the respective states (Reddys in Andhra Pradesh, Vokkaligas or Lingayats in Karnataka, Kshatriyas in Gujarat, Thakurs and Brahmins in Uttar Pradesh, Jats in Rajasthan etc). Support from Scheduled Castes, Tribes was ensured by offering “mai-baap” governments that kept them perennially poor and dependent on the government’s doles. It is the same case with Muslims who have been courted with mindless acts of appeasement which did nothing to enhance their economic status. All these sections have remained deprived and poor for decades while the Congress Party flourished with their support.
Realising that the Congress party did not look after their interests as it has the captive support of other social groups, the politically conscious OBCs began to look at political alternatives. Mandal reservations and the agitations that followed provided the perfect setting for the OBCs to organise themselves and exhibit their collective political power.
The BJP was a beneficiary of the OBC wave that swept the nation. The BJP’s ascension to power at the Centre in late ‘90s was powered by the OBCs who saw it as a countervailing political force to the Congress Party patronised by the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Muslims and politically influential, dominant upper castes. The urge for political power among the OBCs resulted in a surge of support for the BJP in the ‘90s all across the country.
Decline of the BJP in UP
The decline of the BJP in Uttar Pradesh since 2002 elections was primarily a result of its waning influence among the OBCs. The exit of Kalyan Singh from the party in 1999 contributed significantly to the loss of support of the non-BJP OBCs. Unlike other social groups that are strongly backing one party or the other in UP elections – Dalits rooting for the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), Yadavs and Muslims supporting the Samajwadi Party and upper castes favouring the BJP – non-Yadav OBCs are not firmly backing any party in the present UP elections. As a result, all parties are trying to mobilise the non-Yadav OBCs in their favour.
The BJP’s current assessment that it needs to expand its social base among the numerically strong OBCs in Uttar Pradesh to achieve political success is quite accurate. The induction of tainted ex-BSP minister Babu Singh Kushwaha is recognition of this compelling electoral necessity.
After receiving much flak for Kushwaha’s induction, a despairing BJP has now found a new opportunity in reaching out to the OBCs who are angry with the Muslim appeasement politics of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at the Centre which recently announced a separate 4.5 per cent sub-quota for Muslims within the reservation provided to the ‘Other Backward Classes’ (OBCs). The Congress Party has promised to do even more by way of a 9 per cent sub-quota for Muslims.
A desperate Congress Party, fearing an impending rout in Uttar Pradesh polls, has stirred the communal pot to polarise Muslim votes in its favour and unwittingly delivered a potent issue in the hands of the BJP. The BJP has readily seized the opportunity to galvanise the support of non-Muslim OBCs. The sharpest attack came from Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, hailing from the OBCs, who has called the UPA’s decision to allot a sub-quota to Muslims as a betrayal of the OBCs and an instance of appeasement politics.
Promoting OBC leadership
The BJP is fortunate that it has many popular OBC leaders in states. The most prominent among them is Narendra Modi who has been rated as the most popular chief minister for many years. Similarly, dynamic Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh Shivraj Singh Chouhan , deputy Chief Minister of Bihar Sushil Kumar Modi and Gopinath Munde are popular OBC leaders in their states.
Many political observers wonder as to why the BJP which had been successful in state elections has lost two consecutive parliamentary elections decisively. The answer lies in the diversity of party’s leadership profile in the states. Two of the chief ministers of the BJP ruled states are OBCs (Narendra Modi, Shivraj Singh Chouhan), two are Thakurs (Raman Singh of Chhattisgarh, Prem Kumar Dhumal of Himachal Pradesh), a scheduled tribal (Arjun Munda, Jharkhand), a Vokkaliga (Sadananda Gowda, Karnataka) and a Brahmin (B.C.Khanduri, Uttarakhand).
A look at the party’s organisation and leadership profile at the national level however, shows that such social diversity is missing. Most party organs have a disproportionate representation of upper castes and a smattering of presence of Scheduled Castes for maintaining social balance. The OBCs which had catapulted the BJP to power in the ‘90s at the Centre have either negligible representation or no representation at all. Surprisingly, the BJP has all-India level Morchas for SCs, STs and even minorities but not one for the OBCs. Undoubtedly, these aberrations have contributed to the successive defeats of the BJP led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in parliamentary elections by limiting the party’s social reach.
A dynastic party like the Congress can never bring OBC leaders onto the national stage, whereas a democratically functioning party like the BJP can be socially more inclusive.
A strong backing from the OBCs would be highly rewarding for the BJP and strengthen the NDA’s base as many present and potential allies of the BJP – like Janata Dal (United), Telugu Desam Party, Dravidian parties etc. – rely heavily on the OBCs for their political success. The same parties which fear that cozying up to the BJP may cost them Muslim votes will start eagerly seeking its company if it succeeds in consolidating support among OBCs.
The BJP’s inability to counter the polarisation of Muslims against it was another important factor in the defeat of the party in the last two parliamentary elections. Many analysts and party bigwigs believe, though naively, that the tactical voting of Muslims can be averted in national elections by diluting or tweaking party’s ideology. Take it from me, whatever the BJP does and whomsoever it projects as its face at the national level, Muslim polarisation will happen once again in 2014 polls (or whenever general elections are held) in favour of the Congress Party led by the community’s new poster boy Rahul Gandhi.
Enlisting the support of the OBCs through their aggressive mobilisation is the best insurance that the BJP can get to offset the impact of polarisation of Muslims against it in parliamentary elections. This will also serve as the best antidote to the Muslim appeasement politics of Mandal parties that rely heavily on the support of OBCs and Muslims for their electoral success.
The leadership of the country has always been in the hands of the dominant upper castes. All the prime ministers so far, 14 in all, hailed from dominant upper castes and for 51 years since independence, Brahmins have occupied the high office of Prime Minister. Against this background, projecting a governance icon like Narendra Modi, hailing from the OBCs, on the national stage would hugely galvanise the OBCs in BJP’s favour and the resultant electoral impact would be electrifying. Promoting the leadership of OBCs and espousing their causes is the only way for the BJP to ensure their unstinted support.
Building strong social coalitions is an imperative for electoral success. Political parties that have survived and thrived longest are those that have enduring and broad-based support of castes and communities. Caste voting is a harsh reality of Indian politics and aggressively pursuing OBCs is the surest mantra for BJP’s return to power at the Centre.
(The writer is a well known psephologist)