Prime Minister Modi had effectively changed the OBC narrative and the BJP is seen on the side of the more-backward and most-backwards.
This has the potential of making Modi the leader of OBCs at the national level.
With the appointment of a new panel by the President Ram Nath Kovind on Gandhi Jayanti to examine sub-categorisation of Other Backward Classes (OBCs) for “more equitable distribution” of reservation benefits ahead of assembly polls in Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and also Lok Sabha elections 2019, many became sceptical about its motive as they saw it from the lens of electoral politics and not from the perspective of the last person among OBCs that Mahatma Gandhi always kept in mind.
In a country like India, any policy initiative to benefit the poor and marginalised must naturally be electorally rewarding. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), under leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is pushing its boundaries from limited Brahmin-Bania-urban traders party to a constituency that intends to be all inclusive, trying to assimilate excluded ones like OBCs, Dalits and even Muslims, from both urban and rural India, even at the risk of annoying its traditional supporters.
Two things need special mention.
One, the effort of the BJP to attempt sub-categorisation of the OBCs and Dalits dates back to 2001, when the Rajnath Singh government in Uttar Pradesh formed Hukum Singh Committee for Social Justice that recommended reservation within reservation leading to the amendment of ‘Uttar Pradesh Public Service (SC/ST and OBC Reservation) Act 1994’ that tried to redistribute reservation benefits among the more marginalised among them as shown in Table-1.
However, one minister in Singh government, Ashok Yadav, challenged the amendment in the Supreme Court, which stayed the appointment of SCs/STs and OBCs under the amended Act by its order dated 14 December 2001. When Mayawati came to power in May 2007, she dumped the amended law and reverted to the old one though she had supported Singh’s move earlier. Thus, the first efforts of the BJP government in UP to rationalise social justice among OBCs and Dalits fell in 2001.
Second, what BJP attempted in UP was not novel, but had been achieved in several states by non-BJP governments earlier. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government headed by M Karunanidhi had done that in Tamil Nadu in 1989 splitting OBC reservation: 30 per cent for OBCs and 20 per cent for the most backward among them. Even in Maharashtra and Karnataka, the sub-categorisation had been done earlier (Table 2-3). Today, in nine states, West-Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka, Jharkhand, Bihar, Haryana and Union Territory of Puducherry, the sub-categorisation of OBCs is a fait accompli. Why attempts by these state governments were not seen politically motivated and electorally rewarding? Why apply double standards when the same is being done by BJP at national level?
The exact share of OBCs in population is not known. The last caste census was done in 1930. Since then, only SCs and STs had been counted, not middle or upper castes. But rough estimates are available though with some degree of difference. While Mandal Commission put the OBCs at 52 per cent of the population of India, the National Sample Survey Office says they are about 41 per cent.
However, the OBCs are not homogenised. Since reservations to OBCs in jobs and educational institutions in 1990, the affluent among them seem to have monopolised the benefits. The less fortunate among OBCs suffer double discrimination; one, inter-caste i.e. at the hands of higher castes, two, intra-caste i.e. at the hands of those up in sub-caste hierarchy within the community. In 2015, the now defunct national commission for backward classes had recommended three categories for OBCs — extremely backward classes, more backward classes and backward classes and proposed dividing 27 per cent quota among OBCs, according to their population and degree of backwardness. Hence, sub-categorisation of OBCs at national level and granting proportional reservation to the lower ones is much awaited move that will empower the most disempowered and weakest among OBCs. The same needs be done for the SCs/STs too.
Interestingly, when Mandal was implemented by the then prime minister V P Singh, BJP was pushed to appear like anti-Mandal and anti-OBC. Lal Krishna Advani, the party stalwart, had to resort to rath yatra to shift the national narrative from Mandal to mandir to keep Hindus together. Today, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had effectively changed the OBC narrative and the BJP is seen on the side of the more-backward and most-backwards. Modi has achieved what Advani failed to do 27 years back. That has the potential of making Modi the leader of OBCs at the national level.
One may not miss the political implication of this. The BJP is on a constituency transformation mission. Even at the risk of losing its traditional supporters, it is pushing deep down to connect with subalterns. That is by far the most vehement ‘right’ move to browbeat the ‘left’ and self-proclaimed liberals that can have long-term implications for Indian politics and can substitute the erstwhile Congress-system with a new BJP system. Whether this transition will happen at all and whether the last man will really benefit, only time will tell.