The Congress party is going through a process of OBC restructuring, which has the potential to change the sociological character of the grand old party of India. The party’s tilt towards an OBC-centric social justice projection is a belated recognition of a group that constitutes 52 per cent of India’s population. This change is happening in a subtle manner and most political analysts and many social scientists have not taken note of it.
One of the reasons for that could be the insular character of Indian sociology and political science – the research in both the subjects has been dominated by upper caste-upper class male who lacks the perspective from below.
Let’s map some of the changes that have taken place in the Congress in the last few months.
1. For the first time in itshistory, the Congress has constituted an OBC department. Congress MLA and now a minister in Chhattisgarh cabinet, Tamradhwaj Sahu, is heading this department and formulating party views on OBC issues. The department is so important for the Congress that party president Rahul Gandhi himself addressed its inaugural session.
2.Most Congress-ruled state at this juncture don’t have a Brahmin chief minister, which was unthinkable till the 1990s. The Congress-ruled states/UT like Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Puducherry have OBC chief ministers now. Deputy CM of Rajasthan is also from the OBC community. Punjab CM Amarinder Singh is a Jat Sikh. The Congress-supported government in Karnataka has an OBC Vokkaliga CM, D. Kumaraswamy.
3. The Congress government in Madhya Pradesh has brought in an ordinance to increase the OBC reservation from 14 per cent to 27 per cent.
4. Congress leader Jyotiraditya Scindia has claimed that he belongs to the Kurmi caste, a numerically powerful OBC group. Congress leader from Uttar Pradesh RPN Singh, who is now the party’s in-charge in Jharkhand, is also being projected as a Kurmi OBC leader. Raj Babbar is also now invoking his OBC identity.
5. The Congress has formed a sub-committee that will advice the manifesto writers on the OBC issues to be included in 2019 campaign.
6. On the roster issue pertaining to university faculty reservations, Rahul Gandhi backed the SC, ST, OBC students and teachers. When a Bharat Bandh was called by some social organisations over the roster matter, many Congress leaders and departments supported it.
7. The party last year appointed Keshav Chand Yadav, who belongs to the OBC community, as the president of the Youth Congress. He comes from Deoria, Uttar Pradesh, and belongs to a family of farmers. He was earlier the national general secretary of the Youth Congress.
8. The Congress is trying to forge an alliance with OBC parties like the Rashtriya Janata Dal, the Rashtriya Lok Samta Party, the Mahan Dal and the Nishad Party in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
Hindu upper caste calls the shots
The Congress has been never a party of subalterns and it never claimed to be one. Its genetic structure has been very different. On the surface, the Congress claims that each social group is a stakeholder in the party and it takes care of everyone. But at the level of ideas, ideology and leadership, it has been a party of social elites since its inception.
It may claim that it has party presidents from different social backgrounds, but the power within the party structure has always remained with the Hindu upper caste male. With this social group at the top, the Congress has tried to reach out and forge social and political coalitions with other groups for election purposes.
Squeezed from two sides
This template of the upper caste at the top forming coalitions with the subalterns worked wonders for the Congress till the BJP came to the centre stage during the Ayodhya Ram Mandir movement. This was the time when the underclass of the Indian society was also asserting itself under the leadership of Lohiaite and Ambedkarite parties like the Janata Dal, the Lok Dal, the socialist parties and the BSP.
So, the Congress was facing the squeeze from two sides. The BJP was taking away the upper castes while the subaltern regional parties, headed by Mulayam Singh Yadav, Lalu Yadav and Mayawati, were trying to organise the underclass.
Meanwhile another voting bloc, the Muslims, got disenchanted with the Congress after the union government headed by then Prime Minister Narasimha Rao failed to save the Babri Masjid from being demolished.
Now, after the churning of two decades or so, the Congress finds itself in a peculiar situation wherein the party structure is dominated by the upper castes, mostly Brahmins, and there is no solid voting bloc, especially the underclass, aligned to it.
The Congress had done things for the welfare of the OBCs, but never boasted about it. It actually implemented the recommendation of the Mandal Commission report in 1993 and reserved 27 per cent seats in central government jobs for the OBCs. Again in 2006, it was the Congress government, which set the ball rolling for 27 per cent reservation for the OBCs in central higher education institutions.
This might have antagonised the upper castes but it failed to attract the OBCs because there were not many prominent OBC leaders in the party to organise the support for the Congress.
BJP’s caste politics
On the other hand, the original Brahmin-Bania party, the BJP, has transformed itself completely during this period, and especially after the rise of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his public declaration of his OBC caste.
The BJP has adopted an aggressive social engineering mission to foreground many OBC leaders at the district and state level. The party’s OBC support has grown significantly over the last decade. Among Hindus, the BJP now receives more OBC votes than upper caste votes.
However, as demonstrated by a report in ThePrint, the national leadership of the BJP is still predominantly Hindu upper caste male. But over the years, the BJP has developed leaders like Kalyan Singh, Uma Bharti, Vinay Katiyar, Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Narendra Modi, who later became its OBC face.
The BJP’s strategy is to showcase the OBC leadership at the level of the party structure, but work aggressively for the benefits of the upper castes at the level of policy-making.
Also read: What did OBC Narendra Modi do for the OBCs?
For instance, the BJP government has given 10 per cent reservation to non-SC, ST, OBCs. It has subverted the provisions of caste-based reservations, the most glaring example being the 13-point roster system notified by the UGC. The government, however, backtracked on it and promulgated an ordinance to restore the 200-point roster system.
Given the present political scenario, the Congress is facing an onslaught from different quarters. The party is trying to reinvent itself, and aligning with the OBCs and other subaltern groups is part of that process. But it will be a tough task for the Congress because this transformation has to be initiated at the level of the party structure, which is still dominated by Hindu upper castes.
The author is a senior journalist.