The ninth extension to the Justice Rohini commission for the sub-categorisation of Other Backward Classes last Wednesday raises many questions: What is the Bharatiya Janata Party afraid of? Is it doing a re-think about its hitherto successful social engineering formula concerning the OBCs? And, is it trying to back out on “more equitable distribution” of OBC quota benefits?
Justice G. Rohini-headed commission, set up in October 2017, was to submit its report in 12 weeks — by 2 January 2018. It had to “examine the issue of sub-categorisation” of OBCs in the central list to benefit the marginalised sections of the backward castes “who have not been able to get any major benefit” of reservation in jobs and education. Sub-categorisation was expected to benefit the BJP. Economically and politically dominant castes, such as Jats in Rajasthan or Yadavs in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, are known to corner most of the reservation benefits, leaving little for marginalised sections of the backwards castes. The latter would benefit from sub-categorisation at the cost of the former.
Justice Rohini commission was mandated to submit the report in 12 weeks; it hasn’t come 141 weeks later. On Wednesday, the Narendra Modi government, which had given two “final” extensions to the commission in 2018, gave it 29 weeks more — that is, a total 170 weeks. A report that was to be submitted in three months will take over three years or possibly, much longer.
If actor-turned-BJP MP Sunny Deol was the advocate for the OBCs, like he was for Meenakshi Seshadri in the 1993 film Damini, he would be shouting: “Tareekh pe tareekh, tareekh pe tareekh milti rahi hai, lekin insaaf nahin mila, My Lord (date after date, but not justice, My Lord).”
Read the official releases after each extension to the Justice Rohini Commission. The reasons cited for those extensions — purportedly sought by the commission — sound so familiar and predictable. Justice Rohini had told the Hindustan Times on 12 June 2019: “We had sought an extension and will give it to the ministry before July 31.” That was a year ago.
Rationale, or its absence, for nine extensions
In December 2017, the Union Cabinet gave the first extension to the commission by 12 weeks — up to 2 April 2018 to “analyse the voluminous data” it had collected by then.
In March 2018, the Cabinet approved the “second and final extension” by another 12 weeks — up to 20 June 2018 — because the commission had “requisitioned” data regarding admissions and jobs, and needed time for their “scientific analysis”.
In June 2018, the Union Cabinet approved the third and “final extension” (yet again) up to 31 July 2018 to enable the commission to have a “detailed look” at the data that it had obtained from state governments and other stakeholders.
That was the last time the Cabinet gave a ‘final’ extension. It can be boring but read on to see the unimaginative list of reasons proffered after every extension. I guess many commission members were no less amused.
The fourth extension — until November 2018 — was to enable the commission to hold “a round of discussions” with stakeholders before finalising the sub-categorisation. The fifth extension — until May 2019 — was also to hold “a round of discussions” with stakeholders “before finalising the sub-categorised lists.” The sixth one — up to 31 July 2019 — got the post-facto approval after Narendra Modi got a renewed mandate.
The seventh extension — up to 31 January 2020 — “shall enable the commission” to submit a comprehensive report “after consultation with various stakeholders.”
The eighth extension up to 31 July 2020 added the following to the commission’s terms of reference: “to study the various entries in the Central List of OBCs and recommend correction of any repetitions, ambiguities, inconsistencies and errors of spelling or transcription.”
The ninth extension — until 31 January 2021 — given by the Cabinet last Wednesday, was because the commission was not able to perform the task assigned to it “on account of Covid-19 pandemic.”
Politics behind extensions
Let’s now return to the questions that we put forth at the beginning. What is the BJP-led government at the Centre afraid of? In the immediate context, such a report, if submitted in July, would have had an impact on Bihar assembly election in October-November. The BJP wouldn’t like to trigger a contentious debate on OBC reservation when Nitish Kumar-led NDA government looks comfortably placed for another term in office, with a moribund opposition posing no challenge.
As for the previous extensions, the explanation lay in growing realisation in the BJP about the unnecessary risks involved in stirring a caste cauldron. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi reigns supreme and the BJP controls the narrative in public space, why create a bogey that may get out of hand and spoil it all? After all, coming from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), both Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah know how caste fault lines always come in the way of the crystallisation of a Hindu society.
So why set up this commission in the first place? Well, in October 2017, the political context was different. Although PM Modi’s charisma had enabled the BJP to transcend caste considerations across India, especially in the Hindi heartland, the party was still working on its social engineering strategy by stitching alliances with organisations representing different OBC groups — Om Prakash Rajbhar’s Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party and Anupriya Patel’s Apna Dal in Uttar Pradesh, Upendra Kushwaha’s Rashtriya Lok Samta Party in Bihar, and many other smaller parties across the country.
As Yadavs, a dominant OBC group, were known to be loyal to non-BJP parties—Samajwadi Party in UP and Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar—the BJP saw merit in mobilising non-dominant OBCs who, when counted together, were numerically much superior and, therefore, electorally important. The BJP’s social engineering formula of wooing non-dominant communities was not limited to OBCs only. For instance, in Haryana, Jats are estimated to constitute about one-fourth of the population but Jat chief ministers ruled the state for 33 of the 53 years of its existence. Modi and Shah sought to reach out to the remaining three-fourths of the population, who were perceived to be upset about Jat domination, by appointing a non-Jat CM, Manohar Lal Khattar. In Maharashtra, the BJP installed a Brahmin, Devendra Fadnavis, as CM in 2014, although Brahmins are estimated to constitute merely three per cent of the population. The idea was to exploit the perceived sense of disgruntlement among a large majority about the domination of Marathas who constitute just one-third of the state’s population. Similarly, a non-tribal face, Raghubar Das, was made CM in Jharkhand.
Setting up the Justice Rohini commission was a part of this strategy — to woo the marginalised OBCs by increasing their share in the reservation pie.
That brings us to the question whether the BJP’s cost-benefit analysis has made it unsure about OBC sub-categorisation. Clearly, yes. There are two reasons for this. First, the dominant communities that the BJP saw as its main target — say, Yadavs who voted en masse for Lalu Prasad’s RJD or Mulayam Singh’s SP have started shifting their loyalty in its favour.
It was evident in the 2019 Lok Sabha election; a CSDS-Lokniti post-poll survey in UP showed that while 60 per cent of the Yadavs had voted for the SP-BSP combine, 23 per cent of them voted for the BJP. In Bihar’s Yadav-dominated Pataliputra Lok Sabha constituency, on the outskirts of Patna, BJP’s Ram Kripal Yadav, once a close aide of Lalu Yadav, defeated the latter’s daughter Misa Bharti. In Rajasthan, the BJP did very well in Jat-dominated areas.
Second, even as dominant OBC castes have begun to show their willingness to support the BJP, the party is not willing to take the risk of triggering a post-Mandal-like political churning over OBC reservation. Its strategy of pitting non-dominant OBCs against a dominant OBC didn’t seem to pay the expected political dividends in Maharashtra, Haryana and Jharkhand assembly elections. In such a scenario, the BJP wouldn’t want to disturb the newfound support among the dominant OBCs by sub-categorising them and end up losing on both sides.
The jury is out on whether the BJP could eventually go back on its commitment to sub-categorise the OBCs for equitable distribution of quota benefits. Will the Modi government, come January 2021, give the tenth extension to the Justice Rohini commission? And then 11th, 12th, 13th…and nth?
My guess is as good as yours.
Views are personal.