The politics of reservations and the OBC vote

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More than a quarter century after the Mandal Commission recommendations on the implementation of reservations for Other Backward Classes (OBCs) was implemented in India, reservation politics is on the boil once again. Even as powerful middle castes across the country agitate for reservations, some politicians have begun advocating reservations in the private sector as well. The Narendra Modi-led Union government has, meanwhile, set up an OBC sub-categorization committee to ensure a “more equitable sharing of benefits”.

The government’s move could reframe the debate on caste and reservations in the country but is not without risks. The move is driven by the politics of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which wants to consolidate its support among OBCs as it seeks to cement its position as the dominant political force in the country. Data from National Election Studies (NES) conducted by the Lokniti research programme at the Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) suggests that the BJP has stronger support among lower OBCs. Any move that benefits this group might help the BJP consolidate its support base but such a move could also invite backlash from upper OBCs and powerful middle castes which are agitating currently for OBC status.

OBCs who constitute a little less than half of India’s electorate are a vastly heterogeneous group. There are some jaatis or sub-castes which have significant shares in land ownership but constitute a relatively lower proportion of the population. This section of OBCs (Yadavs and Kurmis in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, Vokkaligas in Karnataka, etc), accounting for roughly one-third of the OBC population in the country are what we define as upper OBCs. The other section of OBCs (such as Badhais, Lohars, Kewats, etc) who have traditionally had a smaller share in the rural economy, and account for roughly two-thirds of the OBC population in the country are what we define as lower OBCs.

The NES data show that the Congress had an edge over the BJP in terms of OBC support in all elections between 1996 and 2009. The BJP turned the tables in 2014, when it managed a 19 percentage point lead among OBCs. The BJP’s advantage over Congress was greater among lower OBCs than upper OBCs.
These headline figures, however, do not tell us about the state-wise differences in OBC support for the two parties. We consider three categories to analyse the state-level differences: states where the BJP and Congress are in direct contest (Arunachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Goa), states where they compete with each other in presence of strong regional parties (Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Karnataka, Haryana, Assam, Jammu and Kashmir, Maharashtra, Manipur, Punjab, Delhi and Jharkhand ), and states where the Congress has traditionally been stronger than the BJP (Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Kerala, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Odisha, Tamil Nadu, Tripura and West Bengal). NES data shows that in the first and second category states, the BJP has a significant advantage over the Congress when it comes to OBC support. In the second category of states, the BJP mainly competes with regional parties for support among OBCs. NES data also show a significant increase in BJP’s OBC support in both categories of states in 2014. The Congress, on the other hand, has been losing OBC support even in its traditional strongholds.

Almost half of both lower and upper OBCs did not identify themselves as traditional supporters of any political party in NES 2014. This is roughly similar to other social groups in the country. But there are differences between lower and upper OBCs in this regard. Nearly one in four upper OBC voters identified themselves as traditional supporters of regional parties. Among lower OBC voters, roughly one in five identified themselves as traditional supporters of the BJP.
Given that upper OBCs have representation through parties such as Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh, Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar, and Janata Dal (Secular) in Karnataka, they are less likely to shift loyalties. Hence, the BJP is trying to consolidate support among lower OBCs in these states with the narrative that regional parties have restricted wider diffusion of the benefits granted to OBCs by the state. It is this constituency which the party is trying to assuage when it speaks about more equitable distribution of benefits. The experience of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and the 2017 Uttar Pradesh assembly elections—when lower OBCs voted in larger numbers for the party—may have led the party to adopt this strategy.

This strategy is in no way fool-proof. The risk with this strategy is the alienation of a section of OBCs in states where it needs to consolidate support among the entire community for electoral gains. In states such as Kerala, Odisha and West Bengal, the BJP’s expansion prospects hinge on the OBC group at large rather than on just one sub-group. Also, the party will have to cautiously address the demands by middle castes such as the Patidars, Marathas and Jats for inclusion as OBCs. Accepting their demand for inclusion may lead to resentment among existing OBCs groups as they would have to share benefits. How the BJP manages these contradictions will have a large impact on the party’s electoral future, and the nature of the opposition it encounters.

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