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Caste politics is being reinvigorated by actors who traditionally opposed it

The BJP is implementing it at the time of candidate selection and in expanding caste-based reservations. The judiciary is making it easier by relaxing aspects of past jurisprudence.

Written by Christophe Jaffrelot , Haider Abbas Rizvi |
Updated: August 22, 2019 9:03:20 am
In the last Lok Sabha elections, the BJP factored in caste as a major variable in its candidate-selection.

The reservation question is back in the Sangh Parivar. A few days ago, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat called for a “conversation in a harmonious atmosphere between those in favour of quota and those against it”: “Those who favour reservation should speak keeping in mind the interests of those who were against it, and similarly those who opposed it should do vice versa,” he said. It seems that the conversation should take place first within the Sangh Parivar, where everybody does not seem to be on the same page on caste-based reservation.

Traditionally, the Sangh Parivar has opposed caste-based politics and criticised the use of jativad as an electoral tool in its two incarnations, reservation and vote banks. Hindu nationalists denounced the Mandal report and VP Singh’s decision to implement it. In August 1990, Organiser protested: “The havoc politics of reservation is playing with the social fabric is unimaginable. It provides a premium for mediocrity, encourages brain-drain and sharpens caste-divide”. Two decades later, the situation has changed on both fronts, not only reservation, but also elections.

In the last Lok Sabha elections, the BJP factored in caste as a major variable in its candidate-selection. Its standard strategy consisted in federating smaller castes against the larger ones, which were often more affluent. This was in tune with the party’s policy regarding chief ministers’ selection: The BJP appointed a non-Maratha CM in Maharashtra, a non-Patel CM in Gujarat, a non-Jat CM in Haryana. In the last general election, this strategy was applied to candidate selection in the OBCs and SCs. In UP, the BJP targeted the non-Yadav OBCs, who often belong to the poorer strata of society and usually resent Yadav domination, particularly the way they corner most of the quotas.

While the Yadavs are traditionally associated with the SP, the BJP successfully wooed the non-Yadavs. Whereas 27 per cent of SP candidates were Yadavs in 2019, Yadavs represented only 1.3 per cent of the candidates of the BJP which gave tickets to 7.7 per cent Kurmis and 16.7 per cent “other OBCs”, who often came from small caste groups (data drawn from the Social Profile of the Indian National and Provincial Elected Representatives, created by Ashoka University and Sciences Po). This strategy translated into votes if one goes by the National Election Survey of CSDS-Lokniti: While 60 per cent of Yadavs voted for the SP-BSP alliance, 72 per cent of “other OBCs” supported the BJP, showing that the OBCs were polarised along jati lines. In the same way, the BJP has become the rallying point of non-Jatav voters against the BSP. Once again, the BJP cashed in on the resentment of smaller Dalit groups, accusing the Jatavs of monopolising reservation. In UP, the BSP gave more than 20 per cent of its tickets to Jatavs, whereas the BJP nominated 5 per cent of Jatavs only, 7.7 per cent of Pasis and 9 per cent of “other SCs”. Certainly, the BSP-SP got 75 per cent of the Jatav vote, but it received only 42 per cent of the “other SCs” vote, against 48 per cent which went to the BJP — the winner of 15 of 17 “SC seats”.

After the election, the BJP has continued with the same strategy in UP by appointing a Kurmi as party chief and promoting small OBC groups at the expense of the Jatavs. The Yogi Adityanath government has included 17 small OBC castes (Kahar, Kashyap, Kewat, Nishad, Gond, Bhar, Prajapati, Rajbhar, Batham, Bind, Turha, Manjhi, Mallah, Kumhar, Dheevar, Dheemar and Machua) in the list of SCs. These castes, which represent about 15 per cent of the state’s population, have been asking for this change. Now, they will have more opportunities as they will not have to compete any more with Yadavs and Kurmis. The Dalits, on the contrary, resent this move which is bound to intensify competition for quotas within the SC category. Not only did Mayawati object that only Parliament and the president had the power to do so, but the BJP minister for social justice and empowerment, Thawarchand Gehlot, said the same thing before the Rajya Sabha. Even if this decision is eventually declared unconstitutional, these jatis may be grateful to the BJP during the coming by-elections in UP.

The same reasoning applies to the policy of the BJP Chief Minister, Devendra Fadnavis, regarding the Marathas. In 2014, during the last Maharashtra election campaign, the BJP slammed the Congress government’s decision to reserve 16 per cent of government jobs and seats in educational institutions for Marathas. After forming government, the party changed its mind. In November 2014 the Bombay High Court stayed the ordinance regarding reservations for the Marathas because, according to the court, they were not backward. Immediately, Fadnavis declared: “We will appeal in SC on the HC ruling. We will take measures to ensure that the quota remains”. Fadnavis first appointed a new “Backward Classes Commission”, the Gaikwad Commission, which declared that “The Maratha class of citizens having been declared socially and educationally backward class of citizens are entitled to reservation benefits and advantages enshrined in Article 15(4) and 16(4) of the Constitution of India”.

Following the Commission’s recommendation, the Fadnavis government decided to grant a 16 per cent quota to Marathas in government jobs and educational institutions run by the state. This decision was approved unanimously by the legislature. The BJP innovated only on one ground: It had a law passed to create a new group called “Socially and Educationally Backward Class”, made only of the Marathas, which was granted a 16 per cent quota outside existing reservations for SCs, STs and OBCs in order not to alienate the BJP voters from the non-dominant Dalits and OBCs that the party was wooing in Maharashtra like elsewhere.

This time, the Bombay HC upheld the decision of the Maharashtra government in spite of the fact that Marathas had not suddenly become more backward and the additional quota took reservation up to 68 per cent (well beyond the 50 per cent threshold the SC laid down decades ago). The judges — who simply reduced the 16 per cent quota to 12-13 per cent — had to consider “exceptional circumstances and an extraordinary situation”. On July 12, the Supreme Court did not stay the HC order, simply sought the Maharashtra government’s response on pleas challenging the quota. This move may help the Fadnavis government to show its goodwill to the Marathas till the state elections.

Thus, caste politics has been reinvigorated by two kinds of actors who, traditionally, opposed it. One, the BJP is implementing it at the time of candidate selection and in expanding caste-based reservations. Two, the judiciary is making it easier by relaxing aspects of past jurisprudence.

This article first appeared in the print edition on August 22, 2019 under the title ‘BJP’s caste play’. Jaffrelot is senior research fellow at CERI-Sciences Po/CNRS, Paris, professor of Indian Politics and Sociology at King’s India Institute, London. Rizvi is Information Commissionor, Uttar Pradesh.

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