Last week, the Maharashtra government “scrapped” an ordinance that mandated reservations for Muslims in educational institutions, which had been upheld by the Bombay High Court. But the government continues to support the other quota — in favour of Marathas — that the NCP-Congress government had instituted and the HC had stayed. The Sangh Parivar has traditionally been hostile to caste-based reservations. They have been described by the RSS as divisive and unfair to those who are meritorious as well as to the poor from the upper castes. After then Prime Minister V.P. Singh announced the implementation of the Mandal report in August 1990, The Organiser protested: “The havoc the politics of reservation is playing with the social fabric is unimaginable. It provides a premium for mediocrity, encourages brain-drain and sharpens caste-divide”.
The BJP has been less categorically hostile to quota politics because, as a political party, it could not risk alienating the OBCs, who valued reservations. However, it suggested an alternative form of positive discrimination, not based on caste but on economic criteria (hence the famous “aarthik aadhaar par” formula). In its 1996 election manifesto, for instance, the party indicated that, if voted to power, it would continue with OBC reservations, but would also introduce a 10 per cent quota, based on economic criteria, for the poor who were neither SC/ ST nor OBC. Any time the Congress or other parties promised reservations to caste groups, the BJP denounced it as vote-bank politics. The party did it again last year, in Maharashtra during the state election campaign, after the Congress government decided in July to reserve 16 per cent of government jobs and seats in educational institutions for Marathas (as well as 5 per cent for Muslims).
But the Maharashtra BJP changed its mind soon afterwards. In November 2014, the Bombay HC stayed the ordinances on reservations for Marathas and job quotas for Muslims. Marathas, according to the judges, were not backward. Immediately, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis declared: “The state government is fully supportive of Maratha quota. We will appeal in the SC on the HC ruling. We will take measures to ensure that the quota remains.”
The grounds on which this appeal was made in the following days remains unclear. How could the state government substantiate the claim that Marathas are backward? They fulfil all the criteria of what M.N. Srinivas called a dominant caste: forming about one-third of the state population, they are demographically more important than any other caste cluster and own a sizeable proportion of land. Not to mention their control over the cooperative system, especially in the sugar belt. This socio-economic domination has translated into political hegemony. They have always been heavily represented (even over represented) in the state assembly. More importantly, they have frequently controlled the government under the aegis of chief ministers like Y.B. Chavan (the first CM of Maharashtra) and Sharad Pawar.
Caste-based reservations for Marathas can only be justified in terms of vote-bank politics. But this is not an isolated case — the BJP has granted quotas to dominant castes before. The classification of Jats in Rajasthan as OBC in 2000 is a case in point. Certainly, the Jats of Rajasthan are not as politically influential as the Marathas of Maharashtra, but they are not backward either. In 1999, while canvassing in Rajasthan for the general elections, Atal Bihari Vajpayee himself had promised them that, if voted to power, his government would accede to their demand of being classified as OBC. Rajasthan’s Jats were included in the OBC list immediately after the elections. The same thing happened in UP, where the BJP chief minister, Ram Prakash Gupta, agreed to include them in the OBC list early in 2000.
Today, the BJP’s use of quota politics is part of its larger interest in caste politics. During the last Lok Sabha election campaign, Sushil Kumar Modi, a senior BJP leader in Bihar, made no mystery of the fact that Narendra Modi’s caste background was an important asset for the party in the state: “It is true we have been talking about his humble background, his tea vendor roots and how his mother washed utensils for a living. It is true OBCs and EBCs constitute a large section of Bihar, and there is nothing wrong in talking about the majority and trying to find a connect with them with moves such as NaMo tea and chai pe charcha”.
Narendra Modi himself referred to caste-related categories in Bihar, a state in which they are part of the political idiom more than elsewhere. Senior political analyst Varghese K. George wrote about Narendra Modi’s Lok Sabha campaign: “‘The next decade will belong to the Dalits and the backwards,’ he [Narendra Modi] said, emphasising his own lower caste origins, at a rally in Muzaffarpur in Bihar on March 3”. Suhas Palshikar and K.C. Suri have pointed out that during his campaign, Narendra Modi “made optimum use of his humble origins”.
However, class mattered as much as caste during the last Lok Sabha elections. CSDS-Lokniti data, which will be published in the next issue of Studies in Indian Politics (Sage), shows that while only 28 per cent of poor OBCs voted for the BJP, the comparable figure for lower and upper middle class OBCs was 37 per cent. The class element worked in the same manner among the upper castes: the richer they were, the more BJP-oriented they were. This correlation reflects the traditional appeal of the BJP for the middle class and the impact of the “neo-middle class” phenomenon — whatever their caste background, aspiring groups believed that Narendra Modi could give them a better life like in the model state that Gujarat was supposed to be.
The only caste group for which this linear relation does not hold is the Dalits. Poor or rich, they didn’t vote for the BJP in as great numbers as the Indian average. While the BJP conquered 31 per cent of the Indian electorate, only 22 per cent of Dalits who were poor or belonged to the lower middle class voted for the BJP. The comparable figure for the most affluent Dalits was just 27 per cent.
This may be due to many factors, including the premium that Hindu nationalists continue to place on the orthopraxic quality of caste. Such an emphasis was evident recently from Haryana CM Manohar Lal Khattar’s defence of khap panchayats: “If a khap sees that boys and girls are going against social norms then it gives decisions… It has been scientifically proven that marrying within the gotra is not right… The existence of khap panchayats makes the court’s work easy… If a matter is solved outside court, it is better”. Such statements show that the Parivar relates to caste in more ways than one. Besides quota politics à la Congress, there is a deeper worldview at play.
Postscript: In December, the SC refused to hear the Maharashtra government’s plea against the Bombay HC order because it was interim in nature. A few days later, the Maharashtra government tabled a bill on Maratha reservations, which was quickly cleared by the assembly. The socio economic and caste census that was launched in 2011 will perhaps enable the judges to decide whether Marathas are more backward than Muslims in Maharashtra.
The writer is senior research fellow at CERI-Sciences Po/ CNRS, Paris, professor of Indian politics and sociology at King’s India Institute, London, Princeton Global Scholar and non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
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