25/08/2017 1:13 PM IST | Updated 25/08/2017 1:15 PM IST

The BJP's Latest Experiment With The OBCs May Be A Turning Point For Its Politics

It's not the first time the party has tried such a tactic.

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah probably believe that the division of the Other Backward Classes or OBCs, broadly along socio-economic lines, is an idea whose time has come.

On Wednesday, the Centre set up a committee to examine the sub-categorisation of the OBCs after the National Commission for Backward Classes had in 2015 sought the government's approval to avoid clustering the backward castes into an omnibus group. The commission was of the view that such lumping created inequalities of the sort that followed the statutory implementation of reservation in government educational institutions and jobs.

Those castes that were financially empowered from possessing large and medium land holdings and running businesses were better placed to reap the benefits of quotas than those who had small holdings or were landless and earned their wages from the unorganised sector. Therefore, the raison d'etre of sub-categorisation was to level the playing field for all the OBCs who make up the bulk of India's population.

It was an idea the BJP toyed with from time to time without succeeding.

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It was first experimented with in 2001, months before the assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh when Home Minister Rajnath Singh was the chief minister of the state. Perceiving the "creamy layer" of the Yadavs to be the principal and "disproportionate" beneficiaries of reservation quota, Rajnath's government tried to cap the reservation for the Yadavs at 5% within the 27% OBC quota, ostensibly to straighten out the "flaws in the quota structure". Rajnath divided the OBCs into "backward", "more backward" and "most backward" sub-groups who were to be handed out separate sub-quotas of 5% for the "backward" (Yadavs of different nomenclatures), 9% for the "more backward" OBCs (the Sonars or goldsmiths, Jats, Kurmis/Patels, Giris, Gujjars, Gosains, Lodh-Rajputs and Kambojhs) and the remaining 14% to the residual "most backward" OBCs.

The Supreme Court struck down the move, although Rajnath still lists it as one of his stand-out achievements.

The BJP could play up Modi's backward caste antecedents in a big way.

In the late '80s, ever since former Prime Minister VP Singh accepted the recommendations of the Mandal Commission, the BJP presciently grasped the political potential of the issue and the electoral dividends it could bring and refused to allow the socialists to appropriate it. Although the BJP is identified with Hindutva, it pursued and played the 'OBC card' with equal fervour and left a confused Congress way behind in wooing and winning over the OBCs of the north and west India.

It nurtured and promoted OBC leaders, starting with Kalyan Singh and going on to Modi, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Raghubar Das, Sushil Modi, Uma Bharti and Keshav Prasad Maurya.

From the BJP's standpoint, Gujarat could possibly be the first state to test the impact of the move towards sub-categorisation in the elections this year. Although the Patels are projected as the dominant caste, the Dalits and OBCs together comprise 70% of the state's population. Most of them work as casual labourers or are self-employed. After Mandalisation, those from the upper crust Koli backward caste, accounting for nearly 20% of the OBCs, migrated from the villages to towns and cities and joined the ranks of the white-collared employees.

If the BJP pulls off the 'OBC card' in Gujarat, the tactic might be embedded in its electoral template for time to come.

Gujarat's backward castes traditionally voted the Congress that in the '70s and '80s had forged a formidable social axis of the Kshatriyas, Harijans, Adivasis, and Muslims, known as 'KHAM'. The Patels, who seethed at the loss this coalition brought to them, latched on to the BJP once it became a force and did not desert the party until the last election, despite ventilating their share of complaints against its leaders.

However, the impending polls may be a different ball game. BJP insiders are voicing doubts over the Patel loyalty to their party following the agitation spearheaded by Hardik Patel for reservation, which the BJP government refused to accede. The government offered compensatory sops, but these were not good enough for the Patels, especially the youths, who have migrated to the cities in search of secure government jobs and fear the jobs are being cornered by the OBCs and Dalits.

Unsure of keeping the Patel votes, the BJP is refining a strategy it adopted in the 2012 elections of banding together the OBCs and giving them a fair share of the tickets. In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the BJP replaced three Patels with backward caste Koli candidates when it figured out that the Patels were not rooting for it enthusiastically. All three won.

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The BJP could play up Modi's backward caste antecedents in a big way, although he was always portrayed as a Hindutva mascot in Gujarat.

So far, the BJP has focused largely on the Koli caste who constitute the "creamy layer" in Gujarat. The sub-categorisation plank might be used to bring in the other castes in its ambit on promises such as land redistribution and jobs.

The government was spurred to make the move after the BJP's success in the last UP assembly polls. It drove a wedge between the Yadavs, who are loyal to the Samajwadi Party, and the other backward castes by giving away 40% of the tickets to the non-Yadavs and winning most of them. These included castes like the Chouhans (salt makers), Nishad (fisherfolk) and Kacchi (small farmers), who earlier never featured on any party's political radar.

If the BJP pulls off the 'OBC card' in Gujarat, the tactic might be embedded in its electoral template for time to come. This would spell bad news for parties like the SP, the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Shiv Sena that claimed to have a proprietary hold over the backward castes.

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