POLITICS

Why OBC Sub-Categorisation Will Be Modi’s Ultimate Surgical Strike

The move will formalize the BJP as the party of the ‘most backward’.

03/10/2017 1:46 PM IST | Updated 03/10/2017 1:48 PM IST
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The President of India has notified a commission to explore the idea of OBC sub-categorisation. It's an idea long overdue, and one that is sure to pay off rich dividends for the Bhartiya Janata Party in the 2019 general elections.

Sub-categorisation will divide the OBCs into two groups: the more affluent ones and the less affluent ones.

Currently, the more affluent OBC communities are better placed at taking advantage of the 27% reservation for OBCs in central government jobs and educational institutions.

Dividing this 27% pie into two will mean that the less affluent OBC communities – such as, say, Teli, the prime minister's caste – will be able to get somewhat more seats in jobs and colleges. It will also mean that the number of seats taken by the more affluent communities, such as, say, Yadavs, will reduce.

Sub-categorisation will divide the OBCs into two groups: the more affluent ones and the less affluent ones.

The political impact of such a move will be obvious. The lower OBCs will be thrilled and are likely to vote for the BJP for many elections to come. In short, it is the ultimate 'surgical strike'.

The upper OBCs, however, will be unhappy with the BJP and this may reflect in their choices before the electronic voting machines, but that's fine for the party. You can't please all, but lower OBCs are a very large chunk of the population – around 35% of the population in Uttar Pradesh for instance.

This is in keeping with the big picture of how the BJP has been positioning itself. In many state elections, the BJP campaign has sought to marginalize and polarise against the dominant OBC or upper caste community. In Uttar Pradesh, it can not just an anti-Muslim but also anti-Yadav campaign. BJP leaders accused the incumbent Samajwadi Party government of benefitting 'only one caste and one religion' through its schemes.

The lower OBCs will be thrilled and are likely to vote for the BJP for many elections to come.

Similarly, the BJP has alienated Jats in Haryana, Patels in Gujarat and Marathas in Maharashtra – all upper caste peasant communities that have been demanding inclusion in the OBC list. Their agitations for reservations are proof of how politically potent an issue reservations are even today.

Reservations remain a powerful political tool because they affect government jobs. In absence of a manufacturing growth, India's jobless growth keeps alive the politics of reservations. Government jobs are as prized as they ever were. They give communities access to power and privilege.

The move is also in keeping with the Modi-Shah duo's broad intention of rebranding the BJP as a party of the poor, rather than a Brahmin-Baniya party. Its upper caste core, as well as its Hindutva ideology, mean that the party can have limited success with Dalits. Dominant OBC communities tend to be better mobilized by regional satraps. Wooing them also alienates the large but disparate chunk of lower OBCs. The lower OBC – such as a Teli selling tea for a living – is the bull's eye of the target audience of the new BJP.

India's jobless growth keeps alive the politics of reservations.

Before every state election, governments add new communities to some OBC list or the other – the states have their own lists for reservations. That OBC sub-categorisation works politically is proven by the 9 states that have already done it: West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka, Jharkhand, Bihar and Haryana. And the union territory of Puducherry too.

Sub-categorisation of the central OBC list is an idea that has been long overdue. It would have been politically beneficial for the Manmohan Singh-led UPA to do so, but they didn't. In UPA-1, HRD minister Arjun Singh had managed to push OBC reservations on prestigious central educational institutions. He died in 2011, by which time the UPA had forgotten how to do the right thing politically.

It's unthinkable for the Yadav-dominated Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh to have hurt Yadav chances at jobs and college seats through OBC quota. But why did Mayawati never do it? Caste politics rules in UP as much as in Bihar. Nitish Kumar's main instrument in creating long-term space for himself in Bihar politics has been OBC sub-categorisation.

That this has so far not been done in UP, or at the central level, are political gaps waiting to be exploited. The Modi government's intention to do OBC sub-categorisation of the central list could soon be replicated in Uttar Pradesh.

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