The fact that a ‘large representation’ was given to OBC leaders in the Cabinet was prominently presented before the media by the BJP.
New Delhi: With Kamandal (Hindutva) politics giving rich political and popular dividends and possibly outliving its utility, BJP and RSS thinkers are now swiftly moving towards consolidating hold over Mandal (social justice and OBC centric) politics. And this is being done at the very top. The BJP hasn’t abandoned Kamandal, and is focusing on both Kamandal and Mandal.
Following the recent Cabinet expansion carried out by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, there are now 27 ministers from the Other Backward Classes (OBC), 12 from the Schedule Caste (SC) and eight from the Schedule Tribe (ST) in the Cabinet which adds up to 47 out of the total 78 ministers. Five are from the minority community (one Sikh, one Muslim, one Christian and two Buddhists).
The fact that “such a large representation”, as one BJP party functionary termed it, was given to OBC leaders in the Cabinet was prominently presented before the media by the BJP to ensure that it was well covered. This “achievement”, as another BJP functionary handling the party’s media affairs, described to The Sunday Guardian, is one of the many steps that the party has taken in recent times to emerge as the new fulcrum of Mandal politics in India. “It is a significant example of how the present BJP government is pro-backward and does not believe in giving just lip service to the community,” he said. As per the central list, there are 2,633 Other Backward Classes in India.
Earlier on Tuesday, for the first time in the ongoing monsoon session of Parliament, a legislation was passed unanimously without disruptions after 385 members of the Lok Sabha approved the 127th Constitution Amendment bill. The bill was introduced to restore the right of states to identify and provide reservation benefits to OBCs. The same was passed in the Upper house on Wednesday with all the 187 MPs present voting in its favour. The amendment was brought by the Modi government to restore the powers of the state governments to maintain and make a state list of OBCs which was taken away by a Supreme Court May 2021 interpretation in the Maratha reservation ruling case. If this Supreme Court order was not changed, about 671 OBC communities would have lost access to reservations in educational institutions and in appointments.
As per various government figures, OBCs constitute nearly 41% of the total population of the country and hence, none of the political parties and their leaders want to antagonize them. Due to the political benefits that the OBC community provides, the said bill was debated over six hours with none of the MPs from any party opposing the bill and everyone supporting it vociferously.
During the debate, many of the MPs, including from the BJP, demanded that the present 50% cap on caste-based reservation in government jobs and educational institutions should be lifted. According to BJP political observers, this was not a “stray or a passing remark” and it was being deliberated seriously within the party. A nine-judge Supreme Court bench in 1992, in the Indra Sawhney case, had capped caste-based reservations at 50%. Interestingly, Shiv Sena MP Vinayak Raut’s amendment for giving the state governments the power to breach this 50% cap, too, was moved in the Lok Sabha. It was negated with 71 votes in favour.
On Wednesday, during the passage of the bill in the Rajya Sabha, which saw members demanding the removal of the 50% cap on reservations and reservation in the private sector, the government gave an indication of what its line of thinking was on the topic.
“The government understands the sentiments behind the calls for removal of the 50% cap imposed by the Supreme court 30 years ago, but it will need to be studied and discussed further,” social justice minister Virender Kumar said.
Abishek Manu Singhvi, Congress national spokesperson and Rajya Sabha MP, while speaking on the issue in Parliament, spoke on the 50% cap on reservation and indicated that the Congress, too, was in support of changing the 50% cap. “The OBC list cannot be effective on the ground as if the state government implements reservation on the basis of the state list, the 50% cap will be breached. This amendment won’t work without legitimizing it constitutionally. You cannot stick to the 50% cap as sacrosanct. There are exceptions in the Indra Sahwney case which are given in the judgment itself. The government should have thought, would have to think about this 50% cap. Why is the government running away from caste census? This is because the number of OBC is likely to be 45%,” he said.
Earlier in July, the Modi government announced that medical and dental courses will now have a 27% reservation for OBC and 10% for Economically Weaker Sections (which includes forward castes) under the all-India quota for undergraduate and postgraduate programmes. This reservation will be implemented from the current academic year 2021-22. As per government officials, this is likely to benefit nearly 1,500 OBC students in MBBS and 2,500 OBC students in post-graduation and around 550 EWS students in MBBS and 1,000 in post-graduation.
“Observers and opponents are tying all the pro-OBC initiatives being carried out by the Modi government to the February 2022 Uttar Pradesh elections, which is a narrow way of looking at what we are trying to achieve. We want to ensure that by 2024, we have executed a set of affirmative actions that not only helps the backward communities, but also helps us politically. The backward communities are not the exclusive right of Congress and regional parties like Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samajwadi Party or the RJD,” the BJP party functionary quoted above said.
On Tuesday, at the book launch of BJP national spokesperson Guru Prakash Paswan and Sudarshan Ramabadran titled “Makers Of Modern Dalit History”, the Sah-Sarakaryavah (Joint General Secretary) of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) Dattatreya Hosabale, spoke at great length on the work done by the RSS for the benefit of the backward communities. Hosabale categorically reiterated that he and his organisation “are staunch supporters of reservation” and that it “should continue as long as there is inequality being experienced by a particular section of society”.
In September 2015, during the Bihar polls which the BJP lost, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat in an interview to Sangh’s in-house publications—Panchajanya and Organiser—had said that reservation had been politicised since inception and had called for a committee to be formed to decide who should get reservation and for how long. This statement, according to political observers, was turned into an anti-reservation statement by BJP’s opponents in Bihar. Since then, every RSS functionary ensures that its statement on reservation is first preceded by the disclaimer that RSS is not against the OBC or the backward reservations.
Earlier this week, the BJP in Delhi organized an event to felicitate the 27 OBC ministers in the Modi cabinet, which is another step towards seeking more support of the backward communities, electorally. According to a national party functionary, the BJP was now not just a Brahmin-Baniya centric party which it was during Vajpayee’s time. “The upper castes, especially the Brahmin community, are with us, they have not deserted us despite allegations from the Opposition that we have been neglecting the Brahmins. This has been proven in the general elections and the Assembly elections. No party can neglect the numerical value of the backward communities,” he said.
The sentiments were echoed by Guru Paswan, who is being groomed by the party leadership for a bigger role in the coming days. “I think the BJP is a party where every community, people from across the region, across gender, are represented and their aspirations addressed. People generally form a narrative that it is dominated by one caste, community, but as we have seen over the course of time, the BJP has accommodated a large sections of Dalits, OBCs, women and Schedule Tribes. We believe in ‘Sabka saath, Sabka vikas aur Sabka Viswas’. And this is not just our slogan, but our commitment regardless of one’s religion or caste or financial status. The 1.3 billion of people of India belong to us and we are tirelessly working towards collective development and realizing the vision of PM Narendra Modi. BJP is a party for all, not just one community. This one community party enterprise is a tendency of parties limited to Hindi heartland who have restricted themselves to one family party,” Paswan told The Sunday Guardian.
A senior BJP Rajya Sabha MP told The Sunday Guardian that while there was no consensus within the party on carrying out a caste census, there were several prominent voices in the party who were advocating for it. The last of India’s caste census was done in 1931, almost 90 years ago which had found that almost 52% of the population of that time belonged to the “backward castes”. This number, if taken at face value, has likely increased manifold as life expectancy has improved as has the number of communities that are classified as backwards. In 2011, the then UPA government conducted a Socio Economic Caste Census to get data on the caste and economic status of every household in the country. The data from the census was made public in 2015, but the caste data was withheld citing “discrepancies”.
In case the caste census, which is also demanded by BJP’s allies including Nitish Kumar of JDU, shows that the population of OBC is much more than 52% which it is supposed to be now, then the power groups within the community will start demanding more reservations that the present 27% and will open the proverbial Pandora’s box.
However, this new-found focus of the party towards the backward community has also raised questions from within the BJP. “Including everyone is welcome, but due to that inclusion if someone starts feeling left out, then it will create problems. Already in states like UP, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh, the Brahmins and the forward castes have been marginalized by the party leadership apart from token representation. And this has already been brought to the notice of a few senior Union ministers who too agree with the fact that this ‘discrimination’ is happening. The prominent voices of these communities in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, too, have shared this input with respective state leaders.” a functionary of one of the affiliates of the BJP told The Sunday Guardian.
When Modi took the oath in May 2019, out of the 58 ministers who were sworn in, there were 32 ministers from the upper castes. Other Backward Classes constituted 13, while six were from the Scheduled Castes and four from the Scheduled Tribes.