Playing the division card: on BJP and the OBC vote

The BJP’s electoral fortunes depend on its capacity to polarise the OBC vote

Updated - May 13, 2019 12:36 am IST

Published - May 13, 2019 12:02 am IST

In the ongoing elections, the Congress’s electoral strategy continues to be based on its age-old Nehruvian strategy of ‘politics of accommodation’. In contrast the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh strategy thrives on the ‘politics of polarisation’. As has been evident in the last five years, social tensions amongst various social constituencies across caste, religion, and region have been brewing. These tensions have underpinned the political strategy of the BJP for 2019. It has mobilised support by polarising in order to delineate social differences and prejudices in social relations. As part of this strategy, there has been a sustained attempt to divide religious groups between Hindus and Muslims, to keep Kashmir as a point of reference, and with increased violence and political rhetoric to collapse the distinction between communalism and nationalism.

Sum of all tactics

With regard to caste groups, one has witnessed a sustained marginalisation of Dalits, beginning with the death of Rohith Vemula in early 2016 , attacks in Una, Gujarat, to attempts to dilute the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act and well-laid out provisions for reservations. The attempt seemed to be to go to polls by consolidating the votes of caste Hindus and the Other Backward Classes (OBCs). The caste Hindu votes were sought to be secured on the basis of the proposed 10% reservations for the economically weak among the upper castes. Though small in number, consolidated voting of the upper castes would make a difference, though the BJP’s fortunes in 2019 depend on the OBCs.


Though the OBCs are a heterogeneous group internally divided across economic and social location, there has been a sustained movement of the OBCs to the fold of the BJP. This shift was somewhat consolidated with the ascent of Narendra Modi in 2014 and his rhetoric of belonging to a backward caste. This shift of the OBCs will continue to define in important ways the electoral prospects of major national and regional parties. In the 1980s, the OBCs consolidated behind various regional parties. After the 1990s, and post-Mandal, it is intriguing that the politics of social justice and the ‘second democratic upsurge’ inaugurated the OBC shift towards the BJP. It was also typified as a ‘secular upsurge’ as the OBC reservations had the potential to bring the Hindu-Muslim OBCs together by conjoining their interests and potential mobility.

The shift towards the BJP has to be understood in terms of the particularistic location of the OBCs in the caste order and the relative economic mobility they have enjoyed in the last three decades. The less dominant OBC castes today define the aspirational generation of India, marking mobility from rural to urban areas, and they constitute the bulk of the lower-middle classes in urban and peri-urban areas. In rural areas, with the sustained agrarian crisis, the farmers’ movement of the 1970s and 1980s got converted to OBC identity politics, putting emphasis on joining the formal education and employment sectors. The BJP holds a strong promise to such social constituencies through its rhetoric of ‘New India’, creation of jobs, rapid urbanisation and smart cities. After the economic reforms of the 1990s, the OBCs have benefited from greater inter-generational mobility; today, more than abject poverty, they perceive themselves to be vulnerable to slipping into poverty. Such a precarious location attracts them to the processes of corporatisation and the promise of new opportunities that a globalised economy offers.

Hindutva’s appeal

Further, in terms of their caste location, the OBCs never had a programme of moving out of the Hindu fold, unlike the Dalits. This becomes partly clear in the difference between Ram Manohar Lohia, who has come to symbolise OBC politics in the Hindi heartland, and B.R. Ambedkar. While Ambedkar was convinced that caste is inextricably linked to Hindu religion and conversion was the only way to emancipate Dalits, Lohia preferred a critique of caste-based discrimination but never linked it to a critique of the Hindu religion itself. The BJP’s robust Hindutva mobilisation that symbolises a celebration of Hindu identity offers it a ready entry-point to appeal to the OBCs, including in many of the southern States. It also signifies a local cultural idiom that was earlier articulated by parties such as the Samajwadi Party (SP) in its campaigns against English and introduction of computers. OBCs also become a ‘natural’ constituency for the BJP’s campaign to make Hindi the sole official language, which also allows for the optics of an anti-elite political rhetoric.

In addition, the BJP has been at the forefront of the ‘movement’ to sub-divide the OBCs in order to provide representation to the more backwards among the OBCs. The party had succeeded in doing this in Uttar Pradesh, one of the main reasons for its stupendous victory in the Assembly elections in 2017. This allows for more backward OBCs to come out of the yoke of patronage of dominant OBC communities such as Yadavs and Kurmis in U.P. and Bihar. The BJP has the unique advantage of providing more seats for individuals from the smaller and less dominant OBCs since it is a relatively younger party still expanding its leadership ranks in many States. Further, the BJP in its strategy of not offering seats to Muslims, unlike any other party, keeps more seats reserved for OBCs. Paradoxically, while the dominant OBCs such as the Yadavs moved to a socialist-brand of politics, other caste groups among the OBCs have moved towards a muscular Hindutva brand of politics.

The BJP’s electoral prospects depend on this new directionality of OBCs and how its strategy fares in the face of the Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party alliance in Uttar Pradesh.

Ajay Gudavarthy is with the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University


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