The Congress government in Chhattisgarh has decided to increase the reservation for OBCs in jobs and education from 14 per cent to 27 per cent, and for Scheduled Castes from 12 per cent to 13 per cent. Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel announced it days after his counterpart in Madhya Pradesh, Kamal Nath, declared that he has fulfilled what he claimed was a ‘long-pending demand’ from the OBC community by almost doubling the OBC quota from 14 per cent to 27 per cent.
Baghel knows that his move takes the overall reservation in Chhattisgarh (including 32 per cent for the Scheduled Tribes) to 72 per cent, which is well past the Supreme Court’s ceiling of 50 per cent. The government anticipates its decision will be challenged. Since the Constitution was framed, almost every Article and Act related to reservation has been subjected to judicial scrutiny. On Sunday, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat kicked up a storm by calling for “harmonious conversation” to “find a solution” to the issue of reservation, reigniting fears and accusations that the Sangh was signalling the BJP to work towards ending the quota system altogether.
The Congress latched onto Bhagwat’s remark to say it has only “exposed” the RSS’ “conspiracy to end reservations for the poor”. It helps the Congress party to take this stand given its government’s recent decisions. What remains unclear though is what has forced the Congress ruling class to turn to the community of Other Backward Class, which deserted the party long ago and which the Congress leadership never took the pains to win over? Until now.
Both Baghel and Kamal Nath’s decision to nearly double the OBC quota is a sign of the prevailing politics in the country. But it is more than just that — the political situation compelling two chief ministers of the Congress to take a similar decision favouring the backwards is built on three main factors.
Congress has lost its mojo
The political arithmetic of Brahmin-Muslim-Dalit insured three decades of uninterrupted power for the Congress at the Raisina Hills. That combination has since withered away.
The Brahmins as a voting block have left the Congress and joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in droves. Three episode – the Shah Bano case, the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits, and the implementation of the Mandal commission’s report – possibly triggered this drift. The BJP, with its ultra-nationalistic fervour, became the party of choice for the Brahmins who realised that the Congress had failed to protect their interests.
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Assertive Dalits formed their own party in 1984, because the Congress symbolism had grown insufficient to cater to their rising aspirations. Today, by no means can the Congress claim to enjoy complete support among the Dalit community, even though it still gets Dalit votes in many states. Wherever the Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) is not strong, Dalits vote for different formations with a section having even turned towards the BJP. The BJP has played to the internal contradictions among various castes in the Dalit community and found some entry points in a voting bloc where it didn’t have any presence earlier.
Muslims began to shift from the Congress to any political formation better placed to challenge the BJP after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992. Parties like the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), the Samajwadi Party (SP), and the Left Front’s Communist Party of India (Marxist) benefitted from this lack of choice in the Muslim community to build a support base for themselves in their respective strongholds.
These three political shifts left the Congress without a core vote bank, necessitating its hunt for new social allies.
In search of a vote bank
In the late 1950s and the 1960s, Socialist leader Ram Manohar Lohia had tried to break the hegemony of the Congress through a two-pronged strategy. The anti-Congressism strategy was taken forward with the intent to cobble together all non-Congress parties and stop division of anti-Congress votes. Lohia next worked towards uniting all backward and intermediate castes. That was the genesis of his famous slogan – pichhda paye sau me saath (the backwards should get 60 per cent of the jobs and seats in educational institutes).
In Lohia’s scheme of things, pichhda was a broad category that included the Tribals, the Dalits, the farming and artisan communities, as well as women of all castes. Lohia wanted to unite especially the backward castes as the Congress was unmoved towards their interests and Lohia sensed a brewing resentment among community members. It’s telling the churn India’s politics has taken and the position the Congress is in today when one looks at the party’s governments in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh seemingly going overboard in its effort to woo the backwards, who were once marginalised in the scheme of its things.
What is the plan?
The Congress and the BJP have both been the party of upper castes. Backward classes have largely remained at the fringes in their organisational and national political structure. But the issue for them arises solely from the numbers — backwards constitute more than half of the electorate. As per the Mandal commission’s report, their share in the country’s population is 52 per cent.
To overcome this, the BJP took to social engineering through a two-pronged strategy: retain the upper caste hegemony in its organisational structure, and keep just about enough OBC leaders but use them prominently to serve both representational and political purposes. Many OBC leaders like Kalyan Singh, Uma Bharti, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, and Raghubar Das were given prominence in the BJP, but the hierarchy ensured that the interests of the upper castes were always taken care of.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is the ultimate product of this strategy, culminating in the politics he espouses. He claims to be an OBC leader — “Haan, main neech jaati ka hoon (Yes, I belong to a lower caste)” — but he is the one who gave 10 per cent reservation to the EWS among the non-quota class and tried to implement the 13-point roster in university jobs, which nearly killed the possibilities for the SC/ST/OBC teachers to enter the university system.
Through Bhupesh Baghel and Kamal Nath, the Congress is now hitting at the core of this symbolic assertion of the BJP. It is trying to tell the OBCs that the BJP is not doing anything for the community, while the party and its governments are actually delivering on this front.
Will Congress succeed?
If the Congress manages to leave an impression that it has worked for the OBCs, then it could create some goodwill among the backwards. Because the BJP does not have much elbow room — in the sense that it cannot go beyond the symbolic gestures for the OBCs — it will constantly help widen the gap. This will provide more entry points to the Congress in the political matrix.
With the Congress facing an existential crisis, it can go for extreme measures. But the moot question is: does the Congress have the conviction or is it again only a strategy, similar to the social engineering of the RSS and the BJP? Does the present leadership of the Congress have the manoeuvring capacity of late Indira Gandhi who had nationalised the banks and coal mines and still continued to have the support of the corporates?
The author is a senior journalist. Views are personal.
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