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Is Narendra Modi the new OBC Messiah?

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It must be one of the great ironies of Indian politics that it was a party known for its staunchly upper caste base that finally brought OBC wave to national politics.

While many political observers have praised the BJP for “destroying the caste politics” of backward leader Mulayam Singh Yadav and dalit leader Kumari Mayawati, the point that is being overlooked is that to do that, the BJP itself has had to transform into one of “them”.

OBCs or Other Backward Classes, is a technical term used to refer to the “middle castes”, as distinct from the upper castes and the untouchables or dalits. In ethnic terms, the middle castes are all those communities that do not fall into any of the three Aryan varnas of the Hindu caste system – Brahman, Kshathriya and Vaishya.

According to the traditional Brahmanic caste system, only the top three castes are “full citizens”, while the fourth varna (Shudra) are the slaves and the fifth, (avarna, or those without a varna, or status, in society) are the outcastes.

The top three castes, who account for about 10% of Indian population, wear the sacrificial thread and are supposed to live according to the Veda, while the OBCs and the dalits were not even supposed to hear the Vedas accidentally.

In terms of voting, the upper castes, who wear the sacrificial thread, have always been a largely cogent voting unit, or as they say in India, a good ‘vote bank’.

The only slight exception was the Brahmins. At the time of independence, politically, the Brahmins were divided into two – the right wing ‘Sang Parivar’ (organizational family) led by the RSS, and the centrist Indian National Congress. The other upper castes largely supported the Congress party as well.

The second cogent group of communities was the Dalits or untouchables, led by BR Ambedkar. Largely through the efforts of Ambedkar, the Dalits got positive discrimination in the constitution, and emerged as a force in Indian politics.

Together with upper caste Hindus, Dalits formed the bedrock of Congress’ support among the masses. It was the rule of the upper and lower.

The middle castes were not a political force till much later, except in places like Punjab, Kerala, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu (which did not have many upper castes to start with).

The ‘upper and lower’ caste alliance served the Congress party well for over 40 years – with the top positions largely in the hands of the upper caste leaders, while a sprinkling of dalit leaders kept the dalits in the impression that their voice was being heard.

In the 1990s, the middle castes started organizing themselves under parties such as Mulayam Singh’s Samajwadi Party (Socialist Party), Mayawati’s Bahujan Samajwadi Party (Majority Socialist Party), Shiva Sena and NT Rama Rao’s Telugu Desam Party. While the Telugu Desam Party was an assertion of Kammas (Naidus) from the almost constant rule of the Reddys, the Shiv Sena provided a mass anti-Congress platform.

“These Sainiks are attracted to Shiv Sena by its performative style and egalitarian discourse that is less pervaded by caste and notions of purity than the distinctly high-caste idiom of the RSS and similar Hindu nationalist organizations. Shiv Sena’s history and dynamism, in many ways, is based on its populist program of bestowing self-respect on ordinary people, regardless of their caste,” writes Thomas Hansen in ‘Wages of Violence: Naming and Identity in Postcolonial Bombay’.

The SP and the BSP, and their precursor the Janata Party and the Lohia movement, gave voice to the middle castes of the Gangetic belt that had been ignored for long.

“During the 1960s, rising political awareness took the OBCs into othe parties, first the various incarnations of the Lok Dal, and then VP Singh’s Janata Dal. Except in the 1977 election, the SCs in UP and Bihar continued to support Congress, whicch was thus able to retain control of both states,” notes John McLeod in his “The History of India”.

The BJP too had its ‘middle caste’ or OBC moment in the plains too – as firebrand OBC leaders like Kalyan Singh and Uma Bharti took the party to power not only in UP, b ut also at the center. However, a subsequent reassertion of the upper castes in the party, followed by the exits of Kalyan Singh and Uma Bharti from the party itself, saw the saffron party start a long era of decline in the plains.

It is in this context that the Congress came back to power in 2004 and 2009, helped actively or passively by the OBC and dalit parties like SP and BSP.

YEAR 2014

A year ago, BJP was hoping to get about 160 seats in the 2014 general elections. No matter how the numbers were being added up, everything pointed to a hung assembly with the chances of a BJP and a third-front-UPA government at 50:50. Something was required to deliver the crucial boost to the BJP and help it take advantage of the rampant disgust at the Congress’ misrule.

While it was Govindacharya, a brahmin, who is considered the architect of the first OBC-movement within the BJP in the 1990s, the credit for the current movement must go to Rajnath Singh, a thakur, and to some extent to Mohan Bhagwat, a Nagpur Brahmin.

To some extent, Modi was supposed to take the NDA into the 230-250 seat range, with allies like AIADMK, Nitish Kumar’s JD(U) and the Bahujan Samajwadi Party helping the alliance come to power by supplying another 40-50 seats.

Being a true BJP supporter, Modi would not have objected to stepping aside if the prospective allies wanted a less hardline leader to be the prime minister.

However, the caste calculations of fielding a backward leader and highlighting his humble (and OBC) origins were not only right, but delivered well above expectations. The thumping mandate has surprised everyone, including the BJP. But it is helpful in reminding us of one fact – everything may be right, but you have to get the caste of the prime ministerial candidate right for the right effect.

Having acknowledged (some would say projected) himself as an OBC, Modi has seized the OBC identity edge from the likes of Samajwadi Party and Nitish Kumar at the national level.

Of course, BJP may not do well in state elections if it goes back to upper caste leaders in local elections, but at the national level, Modi will be difficult to challenge as an OBC leader.

But it is wrong to say that BJP has slayed the caste-based politics of India.

In addition, there is also another chink in the Modi-as-OBC-Messiah position — the interests of the OBCs and the upper castes are frequently at odds with each other. A good example is on the topic of reservation in jobs and education. While the upper castes overwhelmingly oppose caste-based reservation, the OBCs overwhelmingly support it. Another is on the role of the traditional Brahmanic religion. While the upper castes, especially Brahmins, want more ‘prestige’ for the religion, the OBCs often have an ambivalent or antagonistic approach to the Vedic way of life due to its implications for themselves.

However, by offering a ‘Shudra’ as a candidate for the ultimate position of power in India, Rajnath Singh has suggested a compromise that has been, at least for now, grabbed eagerly by the OBCs.

The new equation also raises the question of what the Congress Party can do. It has been led by the heirs of Allahabadi-Kashmiri Brahmin Pt Jawaharlal Nehru, who do not seem to be in any mood to let go of the leadership.

One of the options is to project Priyanka Gandhi, who reminds the country of her grandmother Indira, one of the strongest rulers India has seen since independence. However, while the people yearned a strong decisive leader in 2014, what they will look for in the 2019 elections is not easy to predict at present.

Another option is to tap into the upper caste Hindu discontent with the rise of Modi, and try to build an alliance that includes the dalits, the upper castes and Muslims. However, this will depend on how Modi maneuvers his way inside the BJP.

Nevertheless, one thing is clear – in India, caste pays in politics, and OBCs, ignored for decades, are finally in the reckoning.

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