Why OBCs Hold the Key to the Future of Indian Democracy

The expansion and consolidation of the BJP-RSS combine cannot be stopped without weaning away the OBCs from within its fold.

The rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) coincided with the mobilisation of the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) – a political category comprising various jatis at different levels of social and economic development. The higher-end OBCs have land and political power, while the intermediate ones have land combined with social backwardness. The lower-end ones, or the Extremely Backwards Classes (EBCs) have neither.

What is common between them is their location on the caste-ladder, perched between the ‘outcastes’ and the higher-up caste Hindus. They are entrenched within the Hindu fold in spite of being at the lower end of the ladder.

Social and economic mobility

More importantly, the OBCs have witnessed social and economic mobility. A recent International Monetary Fund report cited OBCs as enjoying the fastest inter-generational mobility compared to even the higher castes. They became tenants and landowners, unlike the Dalits. They experienced movement into the formal economy, higher education and job opportunities owing to the implementation of the Mandal Commission in 1990.

OBC mobilisation was often referred to as the ‘second democratic upsurge‘, it was typified as representing ‘secular upsurge’ as both Hindus and Muslims were included in the OBC list. Some scholars referred to them as ‘bullock capitalists’ who owned land but were socially backward, which allowed them to play an important role in strengthening the centrist character of the Indian polity where they negated the possibility of Left-based class politics since they owned land. Further, they denied majoritarian confessional politics of the Right since they were relatively low in the caste order.

This prognosis has failed and what we are witnessing is that the majority of the OBCs are converting Indian polity into a majoritarian one. In this sense, OBCs hold the key to the future of Indian democracy and its social content.

Backbone of the BJP

By and large, today the OBCs are the backbone of the BJP. The strategy of the saffron party is geared towards consolidating the OBCs and their aspirations. Their social location combined with their habitation in rural hinterlands in proximity with Dalits and the Muslims make them the ideal social force for the BJP-RSS combine to ‘deploy’ them as the foot soldiers to the project of building a muscular Hindu Rashtra.

Also read | Neglected Upper Castes Can Land an Upper Cut on the BJP

OBCs, not only in the north but also in the south, are involved in regular physical conflicts with both the Dalits and the Muslims. The current strategy of organised lynchings against both the Muslims and the Dalits further opens up the wedge between the OBCs consolidating their Hindu identity. Lower-end OBCs are service dependent and therefore are dependent on higher-castes for their survival.

Except for Tamil Nadu, where the OBCs who lead the anti-Brahmin movement produced an alternative philosophy under the leadership of Periyar. arguing for rationalism and atheism as pillars of a productive culture of the Shudras. Under the colonial rule, Tamil Nadu was the first to implement OBC reservations, sidelining the social power of the Brahmins.

The anti-Brahmin movement overlapped with Tamil nationalism that argued for an ancient Dravidian culture at odds with the Aryan invasion. This took the north versus south overtures leading up to the anti-Hindi mobilisation in the 1960s – including recently, when Amit Shah wished to re-impose Hindi.

However, this is at variance with the OBC mobilisation in the north and the rest of India. OBCs, in fact, lend the pan-India character to the BJP-RSS combine. In Telangana, for instance, the OBCs are mobilised through organising Vinayak Chaturvedi and Hanuman Jayanti (which is now also deemed as the God of the Dalits).

Raja Singh, the BJP MLA who recently won in Telangana, is the latest face of OBC consolidation. He is the face of anti-Muslim venomous political discourse, often heard challenging and provoking the Muslims in his public speeches.

Re-mobilising OBCs away from the Hindutva fold 

Further expansion and consolidation of the BJP-RSS combine cannot be stopped without weaning away the OBCs from within its fold. The ladder-like caste structure has in a way compelled them to distinguish themselves from Dalits to get de-stigmatised socially, and attack and displace the Muslims to gain economic mobility by taking over their economic activity.

Also read | BJP Experimented With Its Brand of Caste and Religion-based Politics in 2014 and Cemented it in 2019

The cultural critiques against Brahminism do not any longer hold a great appeal to the OBCs. In fact, aggressive neoliberal expansion combined with muscular Hindutva nationalism seems to serve the purpose of mobility better. Continued identitarian mobilisation demanding exclusive representation combined with a virulent attack of Left-progressive politics has only added strength to the rightward shift of the OBCs.

What could be the possible strategy of re-mobilising the OBCs away from the fold of Hindutva? This is by no means an easy task. Alternative identities such as that of farmers or workers in the informal sector do not hold a similar cultural or emotional value as the Hindu identity does. Hindu identity also redeems them of the stigma much better than a secular identity of being a farmer.

In any case, they want to move away from agricultural-based activities owing to sustained agrarian crisis. Even social welfare policies such as the MGNREGA create problems for the landed, making it difficult to find cheap labour that was provided mostly by the Dalits. Congress party never explicitly thought of mobilising the OBCs, they instead focused on the upper-castes, Dalits and the Muslims.

OBCs were for the first time mobilised by the regional parties and now by the BJP. The BJP-RSS combine has managed to offer an economic, social and political alternative to the OBCs. Even further sub-division of the OBCs has only helped the BJP rather than scuttle its mobilisation of various segments as part of the same militant Hindu identity. In fact, the vulnerability of a smaller number is being compensated by the aggressiveness of a unified Hindu identity.

Ajay Gudavarthy is an associate professor at the Centre for Political Studies, JNU.