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The Congress’s OBC outreach

The party appears to be waking up to the need for a proper strategy to woo backward classes for electoral gain

July 14, 2018 12:02 am | Updated 12:25 am IST

It is well documented that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) owed its 2014 electoral triumph to three factors. The first was a powerful anti-incumbency against the United Progressive Alliance-II government. The second, a massively funded public relations coup, more popularly known as the ‘Modi wave’. The third and most critical element was the reinvention of the BJP — traditionally a party of upper castes and the urban middle and upper classes — as a party of virtually anyone who publicly self-identified as a Hindu.

The BJP plan

Scholars of political science have mapped how the BJP stitched together a new social coalition by playing down its hardcore Brahmanism without disavowing it, and by bringing the Other Backward Classes (OBCs), Dalits and Adivasis — especially communities that felt neglected by the leading identitarian parties — into the saffron fold. This paid off handsomely in the 2014 elections, where in addition to healthy vote shares from every social group bar the Muslims, the biggest chunk of the BJP’s votes (39%) came from the OBCs. Even though the BJP enjoyed the largest vote share among the upper castes (47%), that still constituted only 33% of its overall votes.

It is today a matter of common sense that for any party which seeks to be a serious player at the State or national level, its electoral fortunes depend on the size of its support base among the OBCs who make up 50-60% of the population. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has been more keenly aware of it than anyone else, which was why, among the national parties, it is the socially conservative BJP — not the liberal Congress and not the ‘progressive’ Left parties — that was first off the blocks in giving the most number of leadership opportunities to OBC politicians, including, of course, their 2014 prime ministerial candidate, which it did in the teeth of strong opposition from its own power elite.

Congress counter

Now the Congress seems to be finally waking up to the need for a proper strategy to recover lost electoral ground. In 2014, while only 15% of the OBCs voted for it, 34% of them preferred the BJP. A massive 19% deficit vis-à-vis the BJP, and a drop in vote share of nine percentage points from the 2009 Lok Sabha polls (when 24% of the OBCs had preferred the Congress) is a major problem without fixing which the Congress cannot mount a serious challenge in 2019. (All the figures are from the CSDS’ National Election Study datasets).

One sign that the party has begun to apply itself to the OBC question was Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s speech at the national convention of the party’s OBC wing last month. It was a remarkable speech in that it marks the first such attempt in recent times, by a Congress politician, to publicly articulate the interwoven nature of class exploitation and caste oppression in the lived experience of OBC communities.

Mr. Gandhi began his speech with a story about an Indian fashion designer ridiculed in a Paris show by his foreign peers. It turned out he was mocked only because he was taking the credit for a garment created by a ‘darzi’ (tailor), despite lacking the requisite skill (tailoring) to even appreciate the labour and know-how that had gone into its making. Of course, it is not unknown for Indian designers to use the skilled labour of poor craftsmen while paying them a fraction of the product’s retail price. Such exploitation is standard fare in capitalist societies. But in India, this is enabled and institutionalised through caste relations — with the typical scenario consisting of Dalit-Bahujan tailors toiling for an upper caste businessman. Mr. Gandhi made the point explicit at the end of his anecdote: “In Hindustan, wherever you look, one set of people does the work, another set reaps the profit. This is the truth about Hindustan.”

He gave three more examples in the same vein — the widely ridiculed one of the Coca-Cola founder being a shikanji -seller, of McDonalds being started by a dhaba-wala , and of Ford, Mercedes, and Honda being set up by auto mechanics. In Mr. Gandhi’s telling, these companies were founded by people whose skill sets were similar to those typically found among OBC communities. So why is it that in India, no shikanji -seller, dhaba-wala , or mechanic has ever produced a business empire on the scale of a Coca-Cola, McDonalds or a Honda? “It is because the doors to political power and finance are closed to them,” said Mr. Gandhi, and he promised that “the Congress party will open both these doors to the OBC community.”

This is, no doubt, an original pitch. It combines the Congress’s traditional, pro-poor plank with an approach that is partial to entrepreneurship rather than to a National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme-like jobs guarantee. It represents an ideological shift in favour of private capital — but of small businesses, not big corporates.

But promises of economic empowerment are rather easy to make. Mr. Gandhi’s real test will come when he has to decide on party appointments and ticket distribution. On these matters, the Congress is still a solidly caste Hindu party. It won’t be surprising if Mr. Gandhi’s egalitarian impulses suffer the same fate as his storied attempts to democratise the party — attempts stymied by an old guard invested in the status quo.

Economic empowerment

But even if Mr. Gandhi manages to demonstrate his seriousness in delivering on bank credit and party appointments, these alone won’t cut it. In fact, an anecdote he recounted in the same speech offered a good explanation why. He spoke of bumping into a group of OBC MPs from the BJP near Parliament. When Mr. Gandhi casually asked them how are things, one of them says, “Rahul ji , people like me made Modi the PM. I am a Lok Sabha MP, but today I cannot speak a word in front of him. No one listens to us.”

Clearly, becoming an MP has not been empowering enough for these OBC leaders. Yet Mr. Gandhi is too much of an old school Congressman to venture beyond the safe terrain of economic opportunities and democratic representation. In his speech he stopped short of acknowledging the social dimension of caste, the most critical one for Dalit-Bahujans.

The RSS, however, did not make this mistake. An integral part of its outreach to OBCs (and Dalits) across the country has been the strategy of symbolically granting social prestige through newly minted quasi-religious folklore. These confer status on specific OBC and Dalit sub-castes by locating them within the mainstream of Hindu mythology, a project often accomplished via made-to-order sub-plots inserted into the Ramayana or the Mahabharata.

Symbolic empowerment may be good for the soul but it leaves untouched the structure of caste prejudice. Mr. Gandhi would like the Congress to focus on economic empowerment of the OBCs by ensuring a higher market value for their skills. He may even succeed in keeping his promise of offering them greater space within the Congress. But these alone cannot counter the Hinduisation of the OBCs that is currently on in full swing — the BJP would like them consolidated into a seamless Hindu vote bank by 2019 — unless they are accompanied by a politicisation of caste-based social exclusion. Reservations did precisely that, which is why they remain a political flashpoint.

Ultimately, the success of Mr. Gandhi’s OBC outreach will depend on his ability to articulate empowerment in an idiom that resonates with the masses. But this requires a certain breadth of political vision — one that views caste not as an electoral calculus problem but as a pathology curable only by a politics conceived as an instrument for social transformation.

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