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In post-Mandal India, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s attempt to build electoral alliances tying upper castes and non-dominant OBCs is not new. This is a strategy the party used in the mid-1990s across North India to resist the consolidation of pro-Mandal parties and prevent the formation of large coalitions of “backwards”. Mid-1990s onwards, the BJP distributed more tickets to non-Yadav OBC candidates in Bihar to counter the Janata Dal and, subsequently, Rashtriya Janata Dal.
In Uttar Pradesh, it also prompted Kalyan Singh as a Backward Classes figure – a Lodhi – to expand BJP’s vote base among non-Yadav OBCs. In Madhya Pradesh too, the party also promoted Lodhs (notably Uma Bharti) and Kirars (notably Shivraj Singh Chauhan). BJP also symmetrically co-opted leaders of non-dominant Dalit jatis – including Valmikis – who resented the way Jatavs had cornered reservations and the rise to power of the “Jatav party” that the Bahujan Samaj Party had become.
But this caste arithmetic did not fundamentally alter the high representation of upper castes within the BJP across the Hindi belt. In Madhya Pradesh, they make up 45% of the BJP MLAs elected in 2018 (against 18.3% of OBCs). In Bihar, they make up 42% of all BJP MLAs elected in 2020 (against 36.5% of OBCs). And in Uttar Pradesh, 47.4% of the BJP MLAs elected in 2017 belonged to upper castes (against 24% of OBC MLAs). In state governments, too, upper-caste ministers continue to be over-represented and control the most important portfolios.
These numbers are broadly consistent with past trends, contradicting the idea that the ‘new BJP’ has somehow become an OBC party in the Hindi belt. As BJP won many seats in recent elections in these states, it drove up the overall representation of upper castes.
This is not to say that nothing has changed with the BJP, of course. One element BJP added to its electoral strategy in 2017 was a more conscious effort to reach out to specific small backwards groups, such as Nishads, Rajbhars, Sainthwars, Mauryas. In previous elections, it had already started including major non-Yadav groups, such as Lodhs and Kurmis. In 2017, BJP expanded the induction of OBCs by co-opting small backward caste leaders, poaching them from other parties when necessary, as a means to project an image of inclusiveness.
Targeting small backward castes was also a means to attack its adversaries, presented as Yadav, Jatav and pro-minority outfits. In addition, it fitted with a larger attempt – again an old trope – to promote inter-caste unity under the banner of religion.
Finally, BJP’s inclusive electoral strategy emulated the previously successful inclusive strategies of its adversaries. In 2007 and 2012, BSP and, later, SP won single majorities also by providing representation to a greater array of groups, including upper castes and various OBC groups. This strategy of inclusion was essentially pragmatic, proceeding from a localisation of caste-based nomination strategy that necessarily expanded to non-Yadav, non-Jatav candidates, in constituencies where it made no sense to nominate candidates from their respective core support groups.
This strategy required recruiting candidates from outside the organisation, political entrepreneurs who had the resources to contest for tickets. These hired hands had joined regional parties mostly for reasons of expediency. It is therefore not surprising that some shifted to BJP when it rose again in Uttar Pradesh. In other words, BJP defeated its adversaries by emulating their strategies, adding these to other forms of mobilisation that would propel it to success in 2017.
So, did the BJP win the 2017 election by showing a more inclusive face to voters? It certainly did. But not at the cost of the hold that traditional upper caste elites have had in the party. This discourse and strategy of inclusion, based on descriptive representation, did not translate into a balance of power that would be significantly less skewed in favour of BJP’s traditional core support group. Over three years, half of Yogi Adityanath’s cabinet would still consist of upper-caste ministers, with the most important portfolios assigned to them. More importantly, BJP kept overruling its own backward class leaders on matters that concerned them most, such as reservations or the caste census.
Disaggregating the OBC category provides another clue to the limits of BJP’s brand of inclusion. Most of the new castes inducted in the party in 2017 were small groups that obtained token representation, with a handful of seats each. This did not yield them the power and influence they hoped for once the election was over. Other non-Yadav OBCs, such as Kurmis and Lodhs, were already present in the party, and occupied a higher share of seats and wielded greater power. Most of the OBC leaders who recently resigned from BJP cited their frustration with the balance of power between groups as a motive for their decision.
The induction of a larger number of OBC castes also increased the internal competition among backward classes for status and representation within the BJP, and notably in the cabinet. It is not surprising that many of them belonged precisely to those small groups that were recently included.
Does this mean that BJP support among the OBC will fragment in this election? Nothing is certain. What we know about electoral behaviour in Uttar Pradesh, from CSDS data, is that besides Jatavs, caste-based voting in aggregate terms does not tend to be cohesive. Of course, this data tells us that non-dominant OBC voters have massively supported the BJP in recent elections, the way they did when BJP came to power in Uttar Pradesh in the late 1990s. But voters who support BJP do so for multiple reasons, and not simply because they blindly follow the few local caste leaders inducted by parties. BJP’s strength is that it mobilises across issues – caste, religion, development, welfare, nationalism – providing voters multiple reasons to vote for it.
But the coming election brings back caste as a major variable, something that last year’s reshuffles in the Union and the UP governments had already suggested. After many years of unchallenged domination, BJP was compelled to recognise that Hindutva and identity politics are not enough to win elections and that its big tent approach does not erase the differences that divide its various components.
Gilles Verniers is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Ashoka University and Co-Director of the Trivedi Centre for Political Data.
Christophe Jaffrelot teaches at King’s College London and Sciences Po, Paris. His latest book is Modi’s India: Hindu Nationalism and the Rise of Ethnic Democracy.