The 2014 Lok Sabha elections produced an assembly where many voices can hardly be heard. The representation of Muslims, for instance, is at a historical low, with less than 4 per cent of the seats. But there are other groups that have also suffered a sharp decline in representation. OBCs, who over the last 25 years have dominated the political scene in the Hindi-speaking belt, are a case in point.
Since the late 1980s, one of the most significant trends in Indian politics has been the gradual decline of upper-caste representation in the Lok Sabha, and the concomitant rise of OBCs. This phenomenon was essentially due to the decline of the Congress — a party dominated by upper castes — and to the rise of regional parties, primarily supported by large, dominant OBC groups. In 1989, the proportion of OBCs in the Lok Sabha had jumped from 11 per cent to 21 per cent, and continued to grow in the post-Mandal phase until 2004, when it peaked at 26 per cent. In parallel, the representation of upper castes persistently fell, from 49 per cent in 1984 to 37 per cent in 1989 and 34 per cent in 2004. The gap between OBCs and upper caste MPs returned from the Hindi-speaking belt had never been so small. The 2009 general elections marked a reversal of that trend, as upper caste representation shot up to 43 per cent, and the share of OBCs fell to 18 per cent.
The 2014 general elections confirmed that reversal, with upper caste representation further rising to 44.5 per cent, and OBC representation stagnating at around 20 per cent. It is the first time since Independence that the proportion of upper castes in the Lok Sabha has increased two times in a row.
OBCs, who have occupied the centre of the political space in northern India since the early 1990s, are now back at their pre-Mandal level of representation.
Among OBCs, Yadavs are the main losers. Dominant in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar politics, where they respectively represent 8 and 11 per cent of the population, they have seen their representation slump from 11 per cent of MPs from the Hindi-speaking belt to 6 per cent over the last two elections. They currently stand below the Jats (7.5 per cent), who have been gaining ground over the same period. The representation of Kurmis, another important group, has also decreased by a third since 2004.
Among the upper castes, the Brahmins are the main winners. Their share of MPs has jumped from an all-time low of 9 per cent in 2004 to 17 per cent a decade later. They have caught up with the Rajputs — the group counting the highest number of MPs among the upper castes in the Hindi-speaking belt since 1998.
Naturally, there are geographical variations. In Bihar, the share of OBCs remains high, at 30 per cent. The upper castes have about 45 per cent of the seats. The gap in Uttar Pradesh is wider, at 43.5 per cent for upper castes against 26 per cent for OBCs.
Who is responsible for this significant transformation of the social profile of the Hindi-speaking belt’s representation in the Lok Sabha? Not the regional parties, which remain largely dominated by OBCs. Not the BJP alone, since the biggest jump of upper caste representation took place in 2009. In fact, both national parties – the Congress and BJP – are responsible for this reversal, since the two parties tend to proportionally field more upper caste candidates, as compared to other parties. In 2009, 44 per cent of Congress MPs from the Hindi belt came from the upper castes, and 57 per cent in 2014. The fewer MPs the Congress has, the higher the proportion of upper caste among them.
The BJP’s case is the most interesting. The party has never had less that 40 per cent of its Hindi belt MPs coming from the upper castes. This proportion rose to 58.5 per cent in 2009. It dropped by 11 percentage points in 2014 to 47.5 per cent, but remained above the average.
Such an evolution shows that the classic tropes of OBC politics — quotas and simple descriptive representation — no longer work. Quota politics ceases to be effective when no party — not even those dominated by OBCs — can promise an extension of the quota regime. The “vote for me and you will get reservations” slogan has lost traction.
The second lesson is that social, economic and political divisions among OBCs, between jatis, and between OBCs and other backward groups have prevented the formation of durable backward fronts in the Hindi Belt, hurting the prospects of erstwhile-socialist regional parties. In fact, the non-dominant OBCs, which constitute the majority of the OBC population, seldom get any representation at all, other than in a few pockets where they have a numerical advantage. The Bihar elections will tell us if Yadavs and Kurmis can put aside their differences and work together in an election that will be more about state-level caste interests than national considerations.
Third, class dynamics have gained considerable importance over the last two decades, a period of unprecedented growth of the neo middle classes, particularly in small towns and also in rural areas. These class dynamics not only increase social differentiation between groups but have reinforced social differentiation within particular castes. Voting patterns among OBCs in India at large show that these groups no longer vote as cohesively as they used to. According to the CSDS-Lokniti National Election Survey 2014, richer OBCs have voted for the BJP more than poorer OBCs (37 per cent against 28 per cent). In Uttar Pradesh, poorer Yadavs have stayed faithful to the Samajwadi Party (82 per cent), but the higher the class, the more Yadavs shifted towards the BJP. In 2014, 32 per cent of “lower class” Yadavs voted for the BJP, as against 49 per cent for the SP.
These aspiring Yadavs supported the BJP, as many other neo-middle class voters did, for its development promises. They followed Narendra Modi, who was projected as an OBC leader, because of their aspirations for higher standards of living. The personalisation of the campaign meant that the BJP could afford to distribute more tickets to its historical core support base, the upper castes. As is the case for the Congress, the BJP remains a party heavily dominated by the upper castes.
This could create a conundrum for the BJP. Are all these MPs pursuing an upper-caste agenda in the House? How does this new configuration of the sociology of the Lok Sabha affect MPs’ positions on issues such as land acquisition, on which OBCs are at loggerheads with the established old elites? One could argue that the personal opinions of MPs are irrelevant in a highly centralised party and in a political system dominated by a centralising executive — but that could be true only up to a point.
Despite the claims of inclusiveness or the sophistication of electoral strategies, both the BJP and Congress remain upper caste dominated, unwilling to make space for other groups unless they absolutely have to. For the moment, the class dynamics among those groups are in favour of the BJP. But should the party be unable to deliver on job-creation or shed its current pro-rich tag, the cards could be reshuffled. The Bihar elections will be a crucial test.
Jaffrelot is senior research fellow at CERI-Sciences Po/CNRS, Paris, professor of Indian Politics and Sociology at King’s India Institute, London, and non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Verniers is assistant professor of political science, Ashoka University