The Bharatiya Janata Party under Prime Minister Narendra Modi has changed the “calculation of politics” by identifying and wooing the non-dominant sub-castes in various caste clusters in India, political commentators told The Sunday Guardian in a conversation aimed at tracking the ongoing OBC politics in the country. The discourse on OBC politics intensified recently when on 31 July the Rajya Sabha stopped the passage of a bill to provide constitutional status to the National Commission for Backward Classes. The bill, once again under the consideration of the Lower House of Parliament, is being seen as the BJP’s latest overture to the OBCs, whose support guaranteed it an overwhelming election victory in Uttar Pradesh earlier in March. This is being done while still being attentive to the forward castes that have for long been the backbone of the saffron camp.

“The BJP is going after the non-dominant castes both within the OBCs and the Dalits. Among the Dalits, they are trying to win over the non-Jatavs into their fold. They are trying to do what Nitish Kumar did in Bihar; they are trying to win over the non-Yadav OBCs. They are clearly looking at the caste matrix, in a way that no bloc is a homogeneous bloc. And in every bloc there are elements who are disgruntled because of the dominance of one sub caste that has been wooed for very long by different political parties. It has been a very successful strategy so far,” said Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, eminent scholar and author of the book Narendra Modi: The Man, the Times.

Soon after the ascension of PM Modi, an OBC himself, the BJP has been conspicuously attempting to diversify. It started with the formation of its OBC morcha in 2015, ahead of the Bihar and UP elections. Buoyed by winning 40 out of the 84 SC/ST reserved seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the party under PM Modi believes the OBC outreach will help it defeat regional satraps, as was the case in UP. 

A source in the BJP’s national OBC Morcha told this newspaper that in Bihar and UP, the Morcha’s wings were formed and they actively canvassed at the grass-roots level, collecting feedback from the community, based on which the state level leaders and their local team would chart their programmes and localise the election manifesto during campaigning. The source said the BJP is in the process of opening more and more sub-wings of the OBC Morcha, in particular in states going to elections, and the process would be stepped up a year or so before the 2019 elections, in which the party is hoping at an above 50%-60% OBC consolidation. The source said these volunteers will work at the district and block levels to dole out the party’s OBC specific messages in people’s contact programmes tailored for the purpose.

“The so called OBCs are articulate; they have political position and they have rural economic power to a certain point and, therefore, they will make very good allies. The BJP has done well because both demonetisation and GST, the way they were propagated, were seen to help the poor and nab the corrupt rich. This is the message they are putting across and they are so far doing rather well,” added Dipankar Gupta, noted Indian sociologist. Although the general perception is that it is the PM Modi-Amit Shah combine, who are the brains behind broadening the BJP base beyond its Brahmin-trader party image, some political scholars are of the view that the strategy had its roots in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which had been preaching the importance of diversifying in order to broaden the social base since long.

“This is not spontaneous. Within the BJP this has been consciously done since 1991. When Rajnath Singh was the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, he appointed the Hukum Singh committee to study the status of OBCs. Its recommendations could not be implemented because the government fell. In fact, the process began in the early 1970s when Balasaheb Deoras, just before he became the RSS sarsanghchalak, started talking about the need for the Sangh to widen its social base. In 1974, he delivered a very significant lecture in Pune, where he argued that the RSS must widen its social base. When the VHP conducted shilanyas in Ayodhya in November 1989, they chose a Dalit to do it,” Mukhopadhyay recounted.

At the same time, there are other scholars who believe that an all out attempt to woo the OBCs needs deft fine-tuning as, otherwise, it might become a limiting factor for the BJP in states such as Maharashtra, where other parties like Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party might tailor future political campaigns into a prestige issue. The BJP wants to grant the OBC Commission a constitutional status, citing that the present commission is “powerless” and cannot do justice to the OBCs.

“They want to send out every possible signal that they are committed to OBC welfare through reservation. You and I may disagree that reservation is not the best way to go about doing things, but so far it has been a sacred cow, which nobody wants to confront…,” Gupta told this newspaper, while maintaining that the Marathas in Maharashtra themselves want to be included as OBCs and it may not be difficult for the BJP to maintain peace with them.

However, some experts pointed out that the BJP might find it problematic by trying to include the educationally backward communities in the final OBC commission. They believe this would increase the sense of competition. The basic purpose of the BJP is to tide over the resentment of the Patels in Gujarat and Jats in Haryana, by extending to them the benefits meant for the OBCs, but independent political science scholars this reporter spoke to are of the view that since “you cannot increase the amount that is reserved, as it is fixed by the Supreme Court, there may be apprehensions among various castes already within the OBC”. 

But Mukhopadhyay contended that the BJP, in that scenario, “will try to unite caste on a bigger communal polarisation”. But Gupta has a different argument to offer for the BJP’s success in getting the majority consolidate behind it. “What I do know is that they (BJP) were able to expose the shortcomings of past calculations that depended on a mix of minority and Scheduled Caste votes. Instead, they focused on grievances growing out of economic under-performance, even corruption and nepotism, that cut across categories,” he argued.

He also dismissed the notion that the Congress’ continued attempt to portray the BJP as anti-farmer will hamper the latter’s overtures to the OBCs, most of whom belong to the farming community. “Too many people make a mistake in trying to see a continuity between everyday politics and elections. You can have farmers’ movements or workers’ movements, but at election time there is a totally different mindset. If the Congress is saying today that we are going to champion the farmers, that doesn’t make much sense because at election time, those same farmers will vote in terms of some national cause. The BJP can say that the best way to help farmers is to fight against corruption, and that strategy might work,” he said.