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Explained: The OBC vote in Uttar Pradesh

OBC voters, especially non-Yadav OBCs, could be key to who rules UP after the March 10 results. A history of the castes that the BJP has cultivated since the 1990s, but some of whom could now be breaking away.

In Lucknow in 1991, two of UP's tallest OBC leaders: outgoing CM Mulayam Singh Yadav and his successor Kalyan Singh. (Express Archive/ R K Sharma)

Since the late 1960s, communities that are now identified as Other Backward Classes (OBCs) have been an important factor in the politics of Uttar Pradesh. For the last 30 years, the BJP has worked to build a base among non-Yadav OBCs to take on the Samajwadi Party’s formidable Yadav-Muslim combine; in the weeks leading up to the Assembly elections, however, several non-Yadav OBC leaders broke from the BJP and joined the SP. On March 10, the choices made by OBC voters could determine who forms UP’s next government.

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Numbers, reservation

The National Commission for Backward Classes (NCBC) lists 76 castes (using 156 surnames) from UP in the central list for 27% reservation. The Mandal Commission report, submitted in 1980 and implemented in 1994, said OBCs were 52% of India’s population. The report of the National Sample Survey Organisation’s (NSSO’s) 61st round, released in October 2006, however, put it at 41%.

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In UP, a Social Justice Committee set up by then Chief Minister Rajnath Singh in 2001 estimated OBCs to be 43.13% (54.05% in rural areas). Among OBCs, the report estimated Yadavs to be 19.4%, Kurmis 7.46%, Kachhi-Kushwaha-Shakya-Maurya-Saini-Mali 6.69%, Lodhs 4.9%, Jats (who are OBC in UP) 3.6%, Kewat (Nishad) 4.33%, Shepherd-Pal-Baghel 4.43%, Kahar-Kashyap 3.31%, and Bhar-Rajbhar 2.44%.

There has been no caste census since 1931, so these numbers are only estimates. Political parties collect seat-wise information on castes from their workers on the ground.

A Commission for Backward Classes constituted in UP in October 1975 under the chairmanship of Chhedilal Sathi recommended 29.50% reservation for OBCs, with 17% of that going to the most backward communities.

Ram Naresh Yadav’s Janata Party government implemented 15% reservation in government jobs for OBCs in UP in 1977. In 1994, the SP-BSP government headed by Mulayam Singh Yadav increased it to 27%.

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At the central level, the Kaka Kalelkar Commission, constituted in 1953, submitted its report in 1955. The B P Mandal Commission was set up in 1978. Leaders such as Ram Manohar Lohia raised their voice for the welfare of OBCs.

Charan Singh to Mulayam

The UP Assembly election of 1967 saw significant shifts in social equations. The Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS), precursor to the BJP, won 98 seats, riding the support from backward farming communities. OBC leaders and future CMs Kalyan Singh (BJS) and Mulayam Singh Yadav (Samyukta Socialist Party) entered the Assembly for the first time, and Jat leader Chaudhary Charan Singh became CM after defecting from the Congress.

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In eastern UP, where there are no Jats, Charan Singh received support from communities such as Yadavs and Kurmis. A significant number of BJS MLAs in the 1967 Assembly were from these communities, but in the years after that, their bases shifted loyalty to Charan Singh, who remained their most widely accepted leader until his demise in 1987.

V P Singh, who broke from the Congress in the late 1980s, received support from OBC leaders Mulayam in UP, Lalu Prasad in Bihar, and Sharad Yadav from MP. The Jats of UP, Haryana, and Rajasthan too threw their weight behind him. His announcement during his Independence Day speech of 1990, on implementation of the Mandal Commission report, strengthened OBC consolidation further.

In UP, Mulayam, who had become CM in 1989, got the support of Muslims with his hard opposition to the BJP’s Hindutva, and of several non-Yadav OBC communities, and emerged as the pre-eminent leader of OBCs in the 1990s.

BJP’s Kalyan and Rajnath

The BJP mounted its own OBC face against Mulayam, and after the elections of 1991, Kalyan Singh, a Lodh Rajput, became CM. As Mulayam’s support base outside its Yadav-Muslim core started to fragment, Kalyan rallied several smaller OBC communities behind the BJP. It was around this time, as several communities started to assert their identities in the post-Mandal years, that ‘non-Yadav OBC’ entered the political lexicon of UP. Kalyan nurtured this constituency, and ensured their representation in party posts and in the distribution of election tickets.

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Kalyan’s successor Ram Prakash Gupta (Nov 1999-Oct 2000) granted Jats OBC status in UP. Working to weaken Mulayam and BSP chief Mayawati, the government of Rajnath Singh, who succeeded Gupta, came up with the idea of “reservation within reservation” to divide OBCs and Dalits.

The Social Justice Committee constituted by Rajnath’s government in June 2001 submitted its report that August. Its purpose was seen to be to alienate Yadavs from other OBC castes, and Jatavs from other SC castes. A committee headed by Hukum Singh recommended that the 21% quota for Scheduled Castes should be split between Jatavs (10%) and the remaining 65 SC castes (11%). In the 27% OBC quota, the share of Yadavs should be kept to 5%, the committee recommended, with 9% going to eight other castes, and the rest to 70 other castes.

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The plan was quashed by the Supreme Court, and in the elections of 2002, the BJP was reduced to 88 seats out of 403 in the Assembly.

OBC politics post 2002

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The success of identity politics inspired several other leaders to seek recognition for themselves and their communities. Sonelal Patel, a Kurmi leader who was earlier with the BSP, had formed the Apna Dal in 1995. In 2002, he fielded 351 candidates including 59 Kurmis, and won three seats; all three MLAs, however, defected to the SP later.

In October 2002, another former BSP leader, Om Prakash Rajbhar, formed the Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party (SBSP), with its base in the Rajbhar community. Several years later, in 2016, Sanjay Nishad formed the Nirbal Indian Shoshit Hamara Aam Dal (NISHAD), claiming support from the Nishad community.

After Sonelal Patel’s death, his daughters went their separate ways. The faction led by Anupriya Patel is in alliance with the BJP, the other faction, led by Pallavi Patel, is with the SP. Rajbhar is now with the SP alliance, while Nishad is with the BJP.

Modi-Yogi years

Ahead of the Lok Sabha polls of 2014, Narendra Modi focused strongly on social engineering. In UP, with the help of Kalyan Singh who had returned to the BJP, Modi and Amit Shah devised a strategy that would bring the party 73 out of 80 seats, with two more going to its ally Apna Dal.

The strategy paid off again in 2017, when Amit Shah camped in UP and Keshav Prasad Maurya was made president of the BJP’s state unit. The party won 312 seats, and its allies Apna Dal and SBSP (which was then with the BJP) won 9 and 4 respectively. The BJP’s sweep indicated that barring a few OBC castes, most others had backed the party.

Non-Yadav OBC leaders flocked to the BJP. Keshav Maurya was joined by Swami Prasad Maurya, who was once Mayawati’s trusted lieutenant; with Babu Singh Kushwaha having left already, the BSP lost a major part of its OBC base to the BJP. Nonia leader Dara Singh Chauhan came over. The BJP launched a campaign to brand the SP as a party that took care of only Yadavs and Muslims, a narrative that Mulayam’s then badly divided party failed to counter.

The SP and BSP joined hands for the Lok Sabha elections of 2019, but the BJP still won 62 seats, and the Apna Dal won two. The BJP had promised sub-categorisation of OBCs in 2014 and 2017, and a Commission headed by Justice G Rohini has been looking at the issue since October 2017. A separate committee at the state level under Justice Raghavendra Kumar has submitted its report to the state government.

Swami Prasad Maurya and Chauhan are no longer with the BJP. Every OBC leader that has left the BJP ahead of the 2022 elections has accused the Yogi Adityanath government of being unfair to these communities. On the other hand, SP leader Akhilesh Yadav has reached out to non-Yadav OBCs with several election promises.

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First published on: 05-03-2022 at 03:30:03 am
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