By Yashwant Zagde
In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, BJP, while emphasizing on the politics of ‘development’, interestingly played the caste card too. BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, criticising Congress politics, had mentioned in his tweet: “I have risen from a socially backward class, so my politics would be ‘lowly politics’ for those people.” In the 2014 Lok Sabha election campaign, Narendra Modi had underlined his lower caste identity on several occasions.
His repeated utterances regarding his caste perhaps connects him with the OBCs who comprise 52 per cent of the country’s total population, according to the Mandal Commission report. BJPs projection of Modi as OBC leader helped them in gaining spectacular success among OBCs in both the terms.
According to National Election Studies (NES), for the last two decades, most of the OBC vote remained with regional parties which is considered to be believing in the politics of social justice. But in 2014, the situation changed drastically. According to NES 2014, more than half of the non-Yadav OBCs voted for BJP. The party focused on mobilising lower OBCs, which constitute the majority of the OBC population but seldom gets any representation at all. BJP's careful stitching together of these social groups paved the way for its popularity among OBCs. Consequently 34% and 22% of OBCs voted for the party in 2014 and 2019.
In this background, it will be interesting to analyse what important steps have been taken by Narendra Modi for the OBCs in his two terms. In the first phase, the Modi government decided to provide constitutional status to the National Commission for Backward Classes (NCBC). It is one of the major achievements of the current government. A new Article 338B has been added to the Constitution by enacting the Constitutional (123rdAmendment) Bill. This bill has been passed by consensus in the Parliament. The NCBC now has the power of civil court. However, it would be more important to see how such changes affect the material lives of the OBCs. More often than not, such commissions remain a symbolic act. While also considering, National Commission for Scheduled Caste/ Tribes, which has been effectively non functional for long.
Another important decision taken by the Modi government is the sub-categorisation of OBCs. Under Article 340 of the Constitution, the commission was set up under the leadership of Justice G. Rohini on 2 October 2017. The idea behind setting up the commission is BJP’s smart social engineering strategies for wooing non-dominant OBCs. The Justice Rohini Commission was supposed to submit its report in twelve weeks on 2nd January 2018. Nonetheless, it recently got its ninth extension for another six months until January 2021, considering the upcoming Bihar election. With the numerous extensions one after another, it seems BJP is not interested in implementing this policy. One of the reasons is the support of Yadavs to BJP. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the CSDS-Lokniti post-poll survey showed 23 percent of Yadavs voted for the BJP. In this context, where both upper and lower OBCs are supporting BJP, the party doesn't want to take any risk by pitching them against one another and losing the newfound support from any end.
As far as the welfare scheme for OBCs is concerned, the government does not seem keen on doing anything substantial. The government has sidelined the demand for a separate ministry for the OBCs. Also, the budgetary allocation for OBCs was only Rs 1,745 crore in the union budget of 2018-19, considering every second person in the country is an OBC, the annual expenditure of the central government on each OBC person is a meagre Rs 25 which is extremely minimal. The budgetary provision shows us the commitment of BJP towards the issues of OBCs. BJP is not the first one to ignore OBCs. In the past, Congress had the same attitude towards OBCs.
The poor budgetary allocation is linked with the unavailability of caste census of OBCs. The exact percentage of OBC Population will enable them to demand funds in par with their numbers. The caste data of Socio-Economic and Caste Census, which was conducted between 2011 and 2016 has not been made public. In the second term, the Modi government argued that the 2011 census data is incomprehensible, hence we will count OBCs in 2021 census. However, in the 2021 census, the OBC column in the questionnaire remains missing. On the contrary, the Modi Government released the 20th livestock census data which shows that animals hold greater value than human beings in India. In the modern state, data is a key instrument to formulate any social development policy. Without any data on caste, we would never know which social groups are overrepresented in the power structures and therefore cannot formulate policies for diversity and inclusion.
Lack of representation and unfilled quotas
Reservations have been one of the most effective techniques of policy of representation in India to redress the whole history of oppression. For OBCs, Mandal commission report created that space by providing reservation in employment and in the education field. In 2013, OBCs represented 8.37 per cent of Class A in the Central Government Services, 10.01 per cent of Class B and 17.98 per cent of Class C. Also, as per National Sample Survey 2015, the proportion of OBCs in higher education is 35 percent, out of which only 15 percent are able to finish PhD. These numbers show us OBCs inadequate representation in the government jobs and education sector.
OBCs are not only penalised by the decline of the reservation system, they are also affected by other policies. For instance, In 2017, the scholarship budget for OBCs has been reduced from Rs 500 crore to Rs 50 crore. Likewise, in the public sector banks, OBC representation is only 1% in top executive posts. The OBCs are almost absent in higher judiciary and in PSUs, out of 89 secretaries at the centre, none of the secretaries belong to the OBC category. It appears that the government is not concerned with disproportionate representation of OBCs.
The field of academia is no exception. There are no OBC faculty members at the professor and associate professor levels in any of the 40 central universities. In addition to this, the University Grants Commission (UGC) notification on March 5, 2018 sought to shift the unit of provision of reservations from a university as a whole to the departmental level. Such a shift has reduced the quantum of reserved seats and restricted the entry of lower castes. In the small departments, vacancies are few, which would be indivisible thereby no seats would be reserved. Further subsequently, this bill got passed in parliament. If the Supreme Court (SC) upholds this bill, there will be a dearth of faculties in the university from the lower rungs of the society in the near future.
Exclusion of OBCs in NEET
In the last month, there was a buzz on social media on the issue of denial of reservation for OBC candidates in all India quota being filled through National Eligibility Test (NEET). Under the all India quota, 15,% 7.5% and 10% seats are reserved for SC, ST and Economically weaker sections in central/ state institutions respectively. However, reservation for OBC candidates under the all India quota is restricted to central institutions. The complaint filed by the All India Federation of Other Backwards Classes Employees Welfare Association (AIOBC) to the health ministry mentions that since 2017, OBC candidates have lost over 10,000 seats which have been transferred to the upper caste students. It was a result of non-implementation of OBC reservation in state/ union territory medical institutions. Political parties across the spectrum from Tamil Nadu filed the petition in the SC in this matter. Responding to their petition, the court argued that reservation is not a fundamental right.
It has been observed that in the last few years, the judiciary has contributed to the erosion of the reservation system. On this issue, NCBC has issued a notice to the health ministry complaining that the quota was not implemented systematically, yet the government did not respond to the most pertaining question of ensuring social justice for OBCs.
More recently, Modi government has come up with the proposal of raising creamy layer bar for OBCs from 8 lakh to 12 lakh per annum. Moreover, the government also plans to change creamy layer criteria by adding individual ‘salary income’ in the income test for identifying the creamy layer among OBCs. For this purpose, the central government has appointed 3 members of the Expert Committee headed by former DoPT secretary B.P. Sharma. It is believed that if this move takes place, it will be devastating for OBCs and it will dilute the entire affirmative action policy. Ironically, the committee constituted for such an important matter does not have a single OBC member. As per the committee, the new criteria will help extend the reservation benefits to the rural OBCs and it will rationalise the criteria and simplify the calculation process.
There is no surprise that even NCBC which comprises BJP members extended their support for this proposal. With this step, BJP is trying to move ahead with their agenda of upper caste appeasement by turning the reservation policy based on economic criteria. However, in the backdrop of upcoming Bihar state election, Modi government has decided to put on hold on this disputable proposal for the time being and raise the ceiling for the creamy layer from Rs 8 lakh to Rs 12 lakh.
The trajectory of the OBCs is a result of the absence of a critical socio-cultural movement among them. Data proves that since 2014, their political representation has eroded in the parliament. As Jaffrelot argues, declining the OBC politics resulted in the questioning of their policies of concern. Hence, there is an urgent need to build a conscious raising movement among OBCs to tackle their problem.
Yashwant Zagade is a Research Scholar pursuing PhD in Post-Mandal OBC politics of Maharashtra, TISS, Mumbai.