Reviving OBC Politics

Caste continues to be a dominant factor in Indian politics. And it will continue to dominate Indian political scenario for years to come unless there is a social revolution radically changing the age-old status quo in the prevailing system, the possibility of which seems remote. As political parties, not excluding the communist and socialist parties, don’t talk of any revolution, socialist or otherwise, any more, no dramatic change will happen in the foreseeable future. There is a visible hesitation on the part of the Centre to seek a national data record, especially in regard to the Other Backward Classes (OBCs). The Modi government’s recent disapproval of a demand for a national caste census appears to be based on a fear that any such exercise would inflame caste-based social and political sentiments and harm the Hindutva-nationalist project.

Conventionally, the OBCs belong to the lowest Shudhra Varna–groups associated with the agrarian economy or engaged in artisanal, handicrafts or other manual labour services. They are often referred to as Bahujans. It was in the caste census of 1931 that the population of the OBCs was last published, where it was enumerated as 52% of the country’s population. Since then, no national government has conducted a similar exercise to count the OBCs.

In the early 1970s, leaders of the dominant agrarian castes emerged as the new claimants of political power, disturbing the hegemony of the Congress Party at the national level. The rhetoric of socialism, associated with the values of social justice, was impressive. It mobilised the ‘lower castes’ and the Dalits, especially in the north Indian states. Initiated by the Jan Sangh in 1951 and later carried on by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), right-wing politics is criticised by the proponents of social justice as being a platform that serves the interests of the ‘upper’ castes and the bourgeois class and is averse to the growing might of Dalit-Bahujan communities in politics. However, social justice politics soon lost its sheen, allowing the BJP’s aggressive politics of communal nationalism to play its divisive role.

Since 2014, the BJP’s mobilising strategy, using the cultural markers of the lower caste groups, has worked effectively. Its vote and seats share, both in the assembly and the general elections, has increased due to the growing support of the lower Dalit-OBC voters, especially in states like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh.

However, though the BJP has benefitted from the support of the lower caste groups, little has changed for the OBCs themselves. These sections remain static. They have not seen any particularly impressive empowerment in their economic or social conditions.

With a caste census, the players of social justice politics, especially in Bihar, wish to revive OBC politics. In Bihar, with the alliance between the RJD and the Janata Dal (United), the powerful Yadav, Kurmi and Muslim blocks appear to have consolidated. However, it will not be easy for the alliance to claim similar support from other OBCs, especially the economically backward classes. Even so, it is hoped that by raising the issues of the economic, educational and social backwardness of the OBC communities, a new cycle of social justice politics may churn and push the BJP back, at least in northern India in the coming Parliamentary Elections in 2024. But without a powerful mass movement nothing will change for the better.

For one thing the casteist parties like RJD, JD (U), Samajwadi Party, BSP etc do hardly bother about caste annihilation. Nor do they launch any social movement seeking abolition of untouchability and obnoxious graded casteism even among ‘untouchables’. In a sense they are no less responsible in perpetuating caste prejudices. They are more interested in gaining economic benefits through reservation as guaranteed under the Constitution. In other words they are creating a privileged class of their own. And this class will soon find their acceptability in the socially elitist club. So long as this process continues the upper caste hierarchy has nothing to lose. What is more the Dalit movement today faces split within split effectively eroding their whatever bargaining power they used to have even a few years ago.

 The hard reality is that government job opportunities are dwindling while technologically and educationally weaker sections find it increasingly difficult to compete in the job market. In a shrinking job market in traditional areas too many people are chasing too few jobs, often leading to riots as it happened in case of agniveer recruitment in the army.


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Vol 55, No. 36, Mar 5 - 11, 2023