What does the new Lok Sabha look like in terms of its caste composition? We are responding to this question using data that a team of researchers from the Trivedi Center for Political Data (Ashoka University) and the CERI (Sciences Po) have collected, coded and compiled in the framework of the SPINPER project – The Social Profile of the Indian National and Provincial Elected Representatives.
We focus here only on the Hindi belt for two reasons, first for the sake of consistency because caste systems are very different out of this meta-region and second, because the Hindi belt (also known as “the cow belt”) accounts for almost half the MPs in Lok Sabha.
The Hindi belt is also important because it has been the crucible of the Mandalisation of Indian politics in the 1990s. This decade saw the percentage of OBC MPs doubling – from 11% to 22% – at the expense of the upper castes, largely because of the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party, but also because of the nomination of lower caste candidates by the Congress and the BJP, a party that used to be known as a “Banya/Brahmin” party, but which realised in the 1990s that OBCs could not be ignored anymore – as evident from the appointment of Kalyan Singh as Chief Minister in 1991. However, the last decade has seen the return of the savarn (upper caste) – and the erosion of OBC representation – along with the rise of the BJP. This trend started in 2009, but the Modi wave of 2014 has confirmed it and the last elections have resulted in a certain consolidation of this come back to the pre-Mandal scenario.
Certainly, the decline of OBCs in Lok Sabha has much to do with OBCs themselves: first, reservations have reached their saturation point and therefore no leader can say “vote for me, you’ll get quota” anymore; second, OBCs have got divided along jaati lines, as evident from the association of the Yadavs to the RJD and of the Kurmis to the JD(U) in Bihar.
But this trajectory is also due to the rise of the BJP, an upper-caste dominated party that has received the support of the savarn, precisely to contain the rise of OBCs. The subtext of the “Mandir vs Mandal” moment was spelt out in these terms, as religious mobilisation could defuse caste tensions and make plebeians forget their caste and class.
The large number of upper caste candidates the BJP fielded is a reflection of this strategy. Out of its 199 candidates, 88 were from upper castes this year. In fact, the really interesting figure pertains to the non-reserved seats, as many seats are reserved for SCs and STs, leaving no room to manoeuvre: BJP has nominated 88 upper caste candidates out of 147 non-reserved seats in the Hindi belt and 80 of them have been elected.
However, to look at aggregates such as “upper castes” and “OBCs” is not enough. One needs to scrutinise the situation at the jaati level, more so as the BJP has been associated with Brahmins and, lately, in the wake of Yogi Adityanath’s victory, to Rajputs, whereas the BSP has often been described as the party of the Jatavs and the SP as a Yadav party.
Indeed, the success of BJP in 2014 largely explains the way the proportion of Brahmin MPs, among the savarn, jumped from 30% in 2009 to 38.5% in 2014, the percentage they still represent in the Hindi belt in 2019 – a figure that reflects massive over-representation.
Rajputs, by contrast, are on the decline among upper caste MPs, from 43% in 2009 to 34% ten years later. This over-representation of Brahmins and Rajputs is largely due to the ticket selection of the BJP: out of 199 BJP candidates in the Hindi belt, 37 were Brahmins and 30 were Rajputs – 33 and 27 have been respectively elected.
Among the OBCs, the jaati which has lost the most is naturally Yadavs, the core of the SP vote bank that the BJP has tried to counter by giving tickets to other, smaller OBC castes which resented the domination of the Yadavs. Their percentage almost halved from 29% to 16% between 2009 and 2019.
In contrast, the proportion of “Other OBCs”, a very heterogeneous category made of non-Yadav, non-Kurmi, non-Koeri, non-Lodhi and non-Gujjar small OBC jaatis, has increased from 23% to 31%.
These figures also reflect the strategy of the BJP: out of its 199 Hindi belt candidates, only seven were Yadavs (six have been elected) out of 42 OBC candidates. Kurmis were more numerous, eight, out of which seven have been elected.
Similarly, among Dalits, the BJP tried to isolate Jatavs by giving tickets to other smaller jaatis: it nominated only 3 Jatav candidates out of 35 candidates – including five Pasis (4 of them won). In contrast, the Jatavs were 10 of the Mahagathbandan candidates, out of 78 in UP (as many as the Yadavs).
Among the intermediate and dominant castes, the Jats have remained almost at the same level as in 2014, with 14 MPs against 15 five years ago – they’ve been all elected on a BJP ticket which had nominated 14 Jat candidates.
(Christophe Jaffrelot is Senior Research Fellow at CERI-Sciences Po/CNRS, Paris, Professor of Indian Politics & Sociology at King’s India Institute, London, and non-resident scholar at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Gilles Verniers is Assistant Professor of political science, and Co-Director, Trivedi Centre for Political Data, Ashoka University. Data compiled by Sofia Ammassari)