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Congress handed over OBC voters to BJP. And it still hasn’t learnt its lesson

Congress' mistakes in its OBC policies have been so critical that even BJP's tokenistic actions appear more welfare-oriented.

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Congress president Sonia Gandhi recently formed a seven-member committee to study matters related to the caste census. The committee is headed by former Karnataka chief minister and OBC leader M. Veerappa Moily. In the Congress communique, there was no mention of any deadline for the committee to hand over its report.

This tells us a lot about the functioning of the Congress, and more so about its approach to Other Backward Classes or OBCs. In an ordinary situation, the decennial census would already have finished by 28 February. This year, the process got delayed due to Covid-19 restrictions. It sounds absurd that the principal opposition party does not seem have a policy related to the caste census, which has been at the forefront of discussions for such a long time, and only formed a committee in the month of September to deliberate on it. Interestingly, this committee has only two OBC members.

In reality, it is only half-truth to say that the Congress has no policy on caste census. It was the Congress that actually destroyed the national consensus on caste enumeration.

Also Read: Upper caste networks of political parties are resisting the caste census. But not for long

Congress’ decision in 2010

The Congress, when it was in power, made the decision to not have the caste column in the census forms. On 7 May 2010, the Lok Sabha held a long discussion on the subject of caste census. Because all political parties supported caste enumeration, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government agreed to act according to the House. Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi gave the impression that in the 2011 census, caste will be enumerated. But later on, the government formed a Group of Ministers (GoM) under the leadership of then Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, of which, incidentally, Moily was also a part. In the GoM, then Home Minister P. Chidambaram argued vehemently against enumerating castes in the census.

The GoM finally came up with the idea of not enumerating caste in the census and instead commissioned a separate Socio-Economic Caste Census, SECC 2011, which was a disaster because it took five long years to complete. Since the UPA government made a conscious decision not to conduct SECC under the Census Act, 1948, it failed to produce any data.

We lost the opportunity to have caste data in 2011 only because of the report of the GoM headed by Pranab Mukherjee.

One may wonder why the Congress acted in such a manner on a topic that was considered important for the welfare of the OBCs. It was no aberration. The Congress went full throttle against the OBCs during UPA-II, and I would argue that the Bharatiya Janata Party latched on to this with a vengeance to oust the Congress at the centre.

Also Read: Congress is not anti-OBC. One Rajiv Gandhi speech is used to cancel out all pro-quota steps

Mistakes in OBC policies

The Congress made four major mistakes in its OBC policies. One we have discussed earlier. Scuttling the caste census was the worst thing the Congress did to the OBCs. These are the other three mistakes:

First, it sidelined its OBC allies. The UPA-I was an inclusive house, comparatively. There were prominent OBC faces such as Lalu Prasad Yadav, Anbumani Ramadoss, T.R. Baalu, Sis Ram Ola, and Dayanidhi Maran in the Union cabinet. Having ministers from parties like the Rashtriya Janata Dal, Pattali Makkal Katchi, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, Jharkhand Mukti Morcha and Lok Janshakti Party, gave the Congress’ ministries an all-encompassing character. On the other hand, the UPA-II cabinet acted more like a monolith. It didn’t have the earlier leaders. It even lost DMK ministers midway. Barring Nationalist Congress Party and Rashtriya Lok Dal, it lost all allies. It survived despite doing all this, but lost the support of subalterns in that process. At the time of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the Manmohan Singh cabinet had only Veerappa Moily as its OBC face, who didn’t have any traction in the north.

The second mistake of the Congress was that OBCs were missing in the government and power structures. Despite being the largest social group, OBCs were not visible during Congress rule. Manmohan Singh belongs to the Sikh Khatri community, whereas UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi is a Christian. The BJP successfully created an image that India was being run by a Christian foreigner, and a Sikh PM was executing her diktats. The Congress would have gone for an OBC president at that time, but it opted for Pranab Mukherjee, and ‘upper caste’ Muslim leader Hamid Ansari as Vice-President. Montek Singh Ahluwalia was running the show at the Planning Commission and no OBC was visible in institutions like the Union Public Service Commission, University Grants Commission, Comptroller and Auditor General of India, and Central Vigilance Commission.

The Congress’ final mistake was to punish Arjun Singh, Lalu Prasad and the DMK leadership. As the HRD minister in the Manmohan cabinet, Arjun Singh made the biggest OBC outreach by implementing OBC reservations in higher education in central institutions. This made him the villain in the Congress party structures and he was punished. Consequently, he was denied a cabinet berth in UPA-II and in the Lok Sabha elections in 2009, his son and daughter were also denied party tickets. Due to this humiliation, he cried in public.

In the case of Lalu Prasad Yadav, Rahul Gandhi single-handedly ensured that he remained outside Parliament. He tore the proposed bill that would have ensured Yadav was not kept outside the electoral process. Yadav was, and still is, the most trusted ally of the Congress and has shown his capability to fight the BJP and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, but it seems that at the core of their heart, the elite leadership of the Congress hates subaltern ‘rustic’ politicians. Similarly, the UPA government went overboard in punishing the DMK leadership in the so-called ‘2G scam’ and kept Kanimozhi and A. Raja in jail. This Congress did this to their largest coalition partner. Interestingly, all the leaders punished for being involved in so-called corruption cases were OBCs.

Also Read: Bharat Ratna used to be for Congress’ secular Brahmins. Today it’s for BJP’s Hindutva Brahmins

BJP’s prime ministerial candidate

And then the BJP came up with a prime ministerial candidate who wore his Hindu-OBC identity on his sleeves. Narendra Modi’s claim of being a ‘pichdi maa ka beta’ and ‘chai wala’ resonated among the OBCs at a time when the ruling Congress was not doing anything for them visibly.

There may be many reasons for the ascent of the BJP and Narendra Modi, but the most important of them was the way the middle-class and ‘upper’ caste voters switched sides. But this class and caste can only win the war of perceptions. To win elections, the BJP was looking for support from ‘non-upper caste’ Hindus. The support came from the OBCs.

The Congress is still grappling with the OBC issue because its structure is dominated by ‘upper’-caste leaders from different religions. They even don’t claim that the Mandal Commission was implemented during the P. V. Narasimha Rao government and OBC reservations in higher education were given during the Manmohan Singh government. Perhaps the Congress is still waiting for the ‘upper’ castes to come back to their fold again so that it can form a coalition with Muslims and a section of ST and SCs. OBCs are still not on the agenda for the Congress.

This may sound like sweet music to the BJP leadership’s ears, which does nothing more than tokenism. The only substantial thing the party has done for the OBCs is implementing the 27 per cent reservation in all-India quota in the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) to grab. The Congress is not providing any challenge to the BJP, at least in this arena.

The author is the former managing editor of India Today Hindi Magazine, and has written books on media and sociology. Views are personal.

(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)

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