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BJP and caste politics: A rabbit waits in the hat

The writer is a senior journalist based in New Delhi.
Published : Aug 14, 2018, 12:14 am IST
Updated : Aug 14, 2018, 12:56 am IST

The government could use the report to re-categorise the OBCs by providing quotas within the 27 per cent reservations as some states have already done.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s accusations that the Opposition is dividing society on caste lines therefore echo the RSS concerns for a homogenous Hindu community. (Photo: File)
 Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s accusations that the Opposition is dividing society on caste lines therefore echo the RSS concerns for a homogenous Hindu community. (Photo: File)

Ideologically the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has difficulty with caste-based reservations, but electoral considerations force it to take cognition of the issue. The BJP’s parent organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), believes in a unified Hindu identity achieved through reform rather than fragmented by reservation. It talks of “samajik samrasta” or “social harmony” and has launched movements like “one temple, one well, one funeral ground” to overcome caste discrimination.

The RSS is opposed to caste-based reservations in educational institutions and government jobs. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s accusations that the Opposition is dividing society on caste lines therefore echo the RSS concerns for a homogenous Hindu community.

Yet the BJP is aware that it cannot afford to ignore the issue of caste-differentiated reservations. Its caste calculations in Bihar were undone by RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat who made a public statement against caste-based reservations just before the Bihar legislative elections.

More recently, senior Union minister Nitin Gadkari instead of arguing for creating more jobs, chose to attack the social justice measure of caste-based reservations instead. He declared that caste-based reservations for jobs were useless as there were no jobs to be had.

This contradiction surfaces every time that it tries to use caste strategically. Perhaps its upper caste prejudices come in the way. Though Prime Minister Modi swears by Dr Ambedkar at every opportunity, his supporters do not desist from damaging Ambedkar statues or painting them saffron. To show his pro-Dalit credentials, Amit Shah goes to the Simhasta Kumbh, takes at dip with Dalit Sadhus at the Valmiki Ghat on the Shipra River, and even eats with them in a “Samrasta Bhoj (Social harmony feast)”. But a year later on the occasion of publicly breaking bread with a dalit family in Uttar Pradesh, the food, utensils and servers were ordered in commercially, completely voiding the symbolic purpose of eating with a dalit household.

However, the party is desperate to woo the OBCs and the dalits in the run-up to the 2019 general election as it fears heavy erosion in its parliamentary strength in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

In response to rising dalit anger against the party, it has reversed the dilution by the Supreme Court of the provisions and the ame-ndments to the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.  

Whether this single legislative measure, which does nothing more than establish status quo ante, will assuage the feelings of the dalits remains to be seen, especially when cow and cow-products related violence against them continues

However, the BJP has a better chance of success with the OBCs (Other Backward Classes) in the run-up to the general election. The Justice G. Rohini Commission report on re-categorisation of OBCs in the Central List might come in handy in fragmenting the OBCs and weaning some groups away from the established OBC parties that pose a challenge to the BJP in many states of North India.

Although the report is likely to be submitted by the end of September, early leaks from the Commission’s findings in the media suggest that it might conclude that of the 27 per cent reservation in the central OBC list, nearly 20 per cent have been cornered by just four castes – reportedly Yadav, Kurmi, Sahu and Nai (barber). If this is true, it would mean that then only 7 per cent reservation is left for the other OBCs.

The benefits analysed by the Commission cover admission to educational institutions, jobs in the government, public sector banks and financial institutions; and representation at the panchayat level. The government could use the report to re-categorise the OBCs by providing quotas within the 27 per cent reservations as some states have already done. These include, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Jharkhand, Bihar, Haryana, Karnataka, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Puduc-herry and Jammu and Kashmir.

Such a move would directly feed into the BJP’s electoral calculation. Once the benefits of reservations are shown as being skewed in favour of the dominant OBC castes, the parties dominated by these castes could see their electoral base fragment. It could well push the non-dominant OBC castes into the BJP’s fold. It is not for nothing that the Justice Rohini Commission has been referred to by some as “Mandal 2.0”, which could change the landscape of caste politics.

Reports also suggest that the Justice Rohini Commission may recommend the inclusion of Marathas, Jats and Patidars into the OBC list. This is beyond the brief of the Commission itself, but by emphasising the importance of economic and additional social criteria for equitable distribution of reservations, the Commission may open up the debate for making reservations more wide-spectrum. This will be handy for the BJP governments in the states facing reservation stirs from Marathas in Maharashtra, Jats in Haryana, Gujjars in Rajasthan and Patidars in Gujarat.

In the past, attempts by the BJP to isolate the traditional ruling castes to consolidate others behind it have not been successful. In Maharashtra, Devendra Fadnavis, a Brahmin, defies logic. Although Brahmins form only 4 per cent of the total population in the state, they are the most prominent faces from the state in the government and the BJP. The Marathas, who feel isolated, are targeting Fadnavis, demanding reservation and are ranged against the 19 per cent Dalits of the state, who in turn are directing their anger at the BJP.

In the Jat-dominated Haryana, the BJP appointed a Punjabi Khatri, Manohar Lal Khattar as chief minister and witnessed a massive Jat agitation for reservations. In Jharkhand, the party curiously chose a Baniya, Raghubar Das, to lead the government isolating the tribals. In the north Indian belt ranging from Himachal, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, the party has appointed Rajputs, traditionally identified with caste oppression, as chief ministers.

It may well be that these appointments were not made with caste in mind. The BJP, essentially an upper-caste Hindu party, now seems to be raring to go down the road of OBC politics. The Justice Rohini Commission may just provide the right push.

Tags: narendra modi, nitin gadkari, mohan bhagwat, 2019 general elections