Terms of Trade | How will proportionate reservation demand affect politics?
An extra-parliamentary political churning of the kind that existed pre-1990s is in the offing if, or rather, when the BJP takes a stand
Other Backward Classes (OBC) have a share of 63% of the population of Bihar. This is the most important number from the caste census data released by the Bihar government earlier this week.
Academics, researchers and journalists who study and report on caste are genuinely excited about getting such data for the first time after 1931. They are (including our data journalism team) also hoping that the Bihar government will release entire unit-level data for the caste census which will help an understanding of the socioeconomic attributes of various social groups.
Politics, however, need not wait for such data. The fact that we now have an enumerated (and not extrapolated as was the case with the Mandal Commission report) population share of OBCs in one state is being used to demand that a similar exercise be conducted at the national level and OBC reservation is made proportionate to their share in the population. This demand is being raised not just by the usual suspects, namely the Mandal parties, but also by the Congress.
Will this resurrection of Mandal sink the BJP’s rainbow Hindu coalition? There are many who think it can. Whether or not it happens is a question best left to the future. However, it is useful to address some relevant questions.
The pressure is on
Has the publication of Bihar caste census results put pressure on the BJP?
The answer is an unambiguous yes. The signs are already there. In Uttar Pradesh, many small caste-based parties which are in an alliance with the BJP are already demanding a caste census. BJP leaders in Bihar are giving statements which try to take some credit for the caste census in the state and deny the RJD any role in this.
To be sure, this is easier said than done. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is by far the most popular mass leader in the country, has stayed away from publicly endorsing or rejecting the demand for a caste census so far. This, however, is a can, which cannot be kicked down the road indefinitely. It will be very interesting to see whether the BJP takes a clear stand on the demand for caste census, especially before the 2024 elections.
Pitting one ‘majority’ against another could be a possible BJP strategy.
What makes Mandal a potent political weapon is the fact that OBCs have a majority share of India’s population. To be sure, they are not the only majority in India. Even if one were to ignore the overwhelming majority of the ‘have-nots’ in class terms, religion and language are two predominant fault lines in Indian democracy. Hindus and Hindi speakers, the latter less so than the former, are in the majority here.
Narendra Modi’s speeches in Chhattisgarh and Telangana on Tuesday — he rhetorically posed the question of whether Hindus and northern states should also claim proportionate representation — suggest that the BJP will try its best to pit these two majorities against the OBC majority. More on this later.
Who gets to play Mandal’s vanguard?
Everyone who is arguing that traction for a demand for caste census and proportionate reservations will stop the BJP juggernaut must answer a historical question. At no point in time, before or after the Mandal Commission report was implemented, have Mandal parties enjoyed a vote share which even comes close to the overall population share of OBCs. This is also true of Dravidian parties in the South.
This underlines the fact that OBCs have never been a monolithic political block. There is nothing surprising about this political fragmentation within OBCs. It contains multiple sub-castes (read mutual interest networks) and it is normal to expect factions and alliances against each other, especially in a three-tier first-past-the-post system of democracy. Dominant OBCs led and consolidated the OBC assertion, and lower OBCs were happy with them playing vanguards back then. But once the upper caste dominance was broken, the promised trickle-down to lower OBCs never happened. This is what explains the recent lower OBC consolidation behind the BJP. It is more about settling scores with the dominant OBCs who usurped the wider gains of Mandal than the cause of OBCs as a whole.
Will lower OBCs be willing to repose their trust in the dominant OBC leadership of Mandal parties once again? Will Mandal parties learn from their historical mistake and offer a bigger role to the lower OBC in their political leadership and candidature? Will the dominant OBC cadre outside the immediate family controlling most Mandal parties be alright with such accommodation? Can the Congress act as the bridge between Mandal parties and lower OBCs by offering a bigger role to the latter within its ranks? Will the BJP finally play the Rohini Commission card to argue that an increase in OBC quota must necessarily be clubbed with sub-stratification within OBCs (to the disadvantage of dominant OBCs) to deal with this challenge? This set of questions will matter the most in the immediate politics around the demand for proportionate reservations.
How will this affect the non-OBC vote?
Anybody who has followed India’s political history knows that the category of Bahujan (everybody except upper castes) is easier to evoke in rhetoric than reality. Scheduled Castes (SCs) have had as antagonistic a relationship with dominant OBCs in many places as they have had with upper castes. Will they be happy with a politics which could end up making dominant OBCs even more powerful? It is important to remember that SC-ST groups already enjoy proportionate reservations and do not stand to gain anything from this demand.
Even more interesting is the question of dominant peasant castes (Jats, Patidars, Marathas etc.) who are currently not recognised as OBCs in the Central list. If the OBC quota is increased, they stand to lose rather than gain because the unreserved pool gets smaller. Their inclusion within the OBC ranks will not just have to pass judicial muster but will also be less appealing to existing OBCs who will see more competition within the designated quota.
Upper caste voters
Another important question is the role of upper caste voters of the Congress in states such as Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. Will Congress’s aggressive Mandal posturing make them jump ship for the BJP? Will this exodus be compensated by a new pool of OBC voters for the Congress?
One might argue that these arguments are trying to trivialise the issue by introducing microcontradictions. But this is exactly how politics operates in a parliamentary democracy. A rationalist Dravidian rhetoric against Sanatana Dharma might work very well for the DMK but it can end up making things very difficult for its allies in North India. There is no reason why proportionate reservation politics could have a geographically differentiated impact.
Are we at the cusp of a resurgence of extra-parliamentary politics in India?
Contrary to what a lot of people may believe, Indian politics has become much more peaceful than what used to be the case in the past. The 1940s and 1950s saw militant peasant uprisings such as Tebhaga and Telangana struggles. The 1960s saw violent protests in southern states, especially Tamil Nadu, against Hindi imposition. The 1970s and 1980s saw the proliferation of ultra-left and secessionist violence in many parts of the country. The 1990s saw widespread communal violence in the wake of the BJP adopting the Ayodhya issue.
While some of this violence was devoid of a larger political vision and even bankrupt in nature, a lot of it was also associated with large-scale extra-parliamentary mobilisations which sought to exploit political fault lines within different sections of the society. It is only in the last couple of decades or so that political mobilisations have become what can be described more as event-managed than spontaneous or organic events with some exceptions such as farmers’ protests.
Will the demand for proportional reservations resurrect the extra-parliamentary politics of the kind which used to exist pre-1990s? One can argue that unless that happens the BJP might not feel pressured enough to take a stand on this issue before 2024.
Will the BJP try to counter this with another round of Hindutva mobilisations or by pitting the Hindi-speaking North against the South (on the lines Modi suggested in his speech mentioned above on the delimitation question)? Will these two countervailing tendencies of Mandal versus Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan end the relatively short period of truce in Indian politics? All of these are possibilities worth engaging with without getting swayed by one’s own subjective beliefs about any of these issues.
Last but not the least, there is one factor which has changed significantly compared to the period up the 1990s as far as India’s political economy is concerned. This is the rapid pan-India growth of domestic capital thanks to three decades of economic reforms. There is more than enough evidence to suggest that India’s big capital has been happy with the emergence of the BJP as a national political hegemon despite the latter being programmatically invested in communal polarisation to secure its political fortunes. Will this relationship change if the BJP is also forced to open antagonistic flanks on the caste and language fronts? Or will big capital align itself even more firmly with the BJP fearing a demand for reservations in the private sector?
The publication of the Bihar caste census is perhaps the first act in what is bound to be a turbulent political drama. And 2024 could just be the beginning of this churn in India’s political economy.
Every Friday, HT’s data and political economy editor, Roshan Kishore, combines his commitment to data and passion for qualitative analysis in a column for HT Premium, Terms of Trade. With a focus on one big number and one big issue, he will go behind the headlines to ask a question and address political economy issues and social puzzles facing contemporary India. The views expressed are personal