The BJP-led government does not appear keen on a caste-based census although opposition parties seem to want one. Given that OBC support for the BJP has been growing, what explains its reluctance?
Besides other factors, the convincing victory of the BJP during the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha elections was possible due to significant inroads it had made among voters belonging to the Other Backward Castes (OBCs). Not that the BJP did not receive support from other caste communities: it did manage to mobilise a sizeable number of Dalits and Advasis besides consolidating its hold over its traditional supporters, the upper castes and the upper classes. And yet, the BJP-led central government seems reluctant about a caste-based census although it seems to be a unanimous demand of all opposition parties. (Table 2)
OBC support for BJP
The implementation of the Mandal Commission report in the early 1990s by the V P Singh government, granting 27% reservation to OBCs in central government jobs and educational institutions, changed the nature of electoral politics in India, more so in the states of North India. Post-Mandal politics resulted in the rise of a large number of very strong regional parties, especially in states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. The BJP had to struggle very hard and needed many years to counter the Mandal politics with its Hindutva politics, popularly referred to as “Kamandal politics” in the late 1990s. The BJP worked hard under the leadership of L K Advani and Atal Bihari Vajpayee and won the 1998 and 1999 Lok Sabha elections. Although the BJP formed the NDA government with alliance partners, regional parties remained very strong, polling 35.5% and 33.9% votes respectively in 1998 and 1999. Even when the Congress-led UPA formed the government in 2004 and 2009, regional parties together polled 39.3% and 37.3%. Even when the BJP won a majority of its own during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections with 31% votes, regional parties together polled 39%. (Table 1)
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It is only during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections that BJP made massive inroads among the OBC voters, making a dent in the core support of the regional parties, whose vote share declined to 26.4%. Evidence from a series of surveys by Lokniti-CSDs indicates that the BJP has made massive inroads among OBC voters during the last one decade. In the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, 22% OBCs voted for the BJP while 42% voted for regional parties. But within a decade, the support base of the BJP among the OBC seems to have changed dramatically. During the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, 44% OBCs voted for the BJP while only 27% voted for the regional parties. (Table 3)
Lok Sabha vs Assembly
But there is a catch. The BJP is the popular choice among OBC voters mainly during Lok Sabha elections, but does not remain so among the same OBC voters when it comes to electing the state government. During the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, only 11% OBCs in Bihar voted for the RJD, but during the 2020 Assembly elections, 29% OBCs voted for it. In UP, in 2019, only 14% OBC voted for the Samajwadi Party, but during the 2017 Assembly elections, 29% OBCs voted for it even though it lost that election badly. We find a similar difference in voting choices among OBCs in various others states between Lok Sabha and Assembly elections. (Table 4)
Also, the BJP has mobilised the lower OBC vote much more successfully compared to the dominant OBCs in many states in North India. So, while the BJP has reaped political benefits by making inroads among OBCs, its support base among them does not seem to be as firm as it is amongst the upper castes and upper classes, who have voted for the BJP in large numbers irrespective of the BJP’s electoral performance. During the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. 41% among the upper OBCs voted for the BJP while 47% among the lower OBCs voted for it.
The regional parties remained more popular among upper OBCs compared to lower OBCs. The Yadavs of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the dominant OBC caste in those stares, vote for the Samajwadi Party and the RJD in very large numbers, while the BJP has been able to successfully mobilise the lower OBC castes in these states. (Tables 5 and 6)
The reason why BJP seems reluctant about a caste census may be for fear that the numbers that might come up about different castes, especially the OBC castes, might give a new issue to the regional parties to mount pressure on the ruling party for reshaping the OBC quota in central government jobs and educational institutions. It might result in a situation of Mandal II, giving a new lease of life to many regional parties which otherwise are struggling to find a positive agenda to challenge the BJP that has dominated Indian electoral politics for the last one decade.
There seems to be a fear that the OBC figures might open up a Pandora’s box, which may be extremely difficult to handle.
Sanjay Kumar is Professor and Co-Director of Lokniti, a Research Programme at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS). While his core area of research is electoral politics, he has been engaged in survey-based research on a very wide range of themes — Indian youth, state of democracy in South Asia, state of Indian farmers, slums of Delhi and electoral violence.
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