The Lok Sabha 2024 campaign has been ‘caste’ as a battle between two versions of social justice. The Congress posits population-based quotas against the BJP’s holistic social justice, ie, empowerment of the most backward classes through increased political representation and all-round development.
The Congress stance is prima facie illogical. If reservation for historically oppressed sections of society is to be ‘in line with the commensurate share of population’, then one might as well apply quotas across the board. For instance, the Bihar caste survey shows that Other Backward Classes (OBCs), Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs) add up to some 85%. If quotas are fixed on that basis, they could claim 85% of jobs and seats in educational institutions, plus compete for the remaining 15% with the so-called upper castes. That seems a tad unfair.
Nor did the Congress Working Committee apply its mind to gender parity. If share of population and historical oppression are the criteria, then at the very outset women are entitled to 48.4%. A vertical quota of 48.4% for women, split horizontally on lines of caste and community, would be the logical outcome of such a policy.
But politics and laws, having been crafted by men, have their own logic and lexicon whereby social justice has little to do with gender justice. At best, they project the fallacy that social justice will address gendered inequalities. At worst, the leader of a prominent Mandal party gets away with publicly endorsing patriarchal norms.
Gender aside, census-backed proportional representation is a rabbit-hole. With some 2,500 notified castes in the central OBC list, it will end in splitting quotas increasingly fine, even in the highly unlikely event that the Supreme Court-mandated 50% cap on reservation is raised.
The G Rohini commission on sub-categorisation of OBCs needed 13 extensions and six years to disentangle all the data. One of the reported findings is that a quarter of OBCs corner all the benefits. If this obvious injustice is backed by census data, it may well lead to social conflict with communities citing statistics in support of their demand for a larger share of the pie.
The Congress’ OBC-centric strategy is a natural response to the mobilisation of non-Yadav OBCs by the BJP. In north, central and western India, the gradual process of bringing OBCs under the ‘Hindu’ umbrella reached fruition and yielded rich electoral dividends for the BJP. Over a third of BJP MPs are OBCs, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The Congress took its cue from Janata Dal (United) leader Nitish Kumar whose non-Yadav OBC votebank has proved electorally decisive. By releasing the results of his caste survey (technically not a census), Nitish established that non-Yadav OBCs are numerically dominant in Bihar. When added to the core constituencies of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (Muslim-Yadav) or the BJP-HAM-LJP (upper castes-Dalit) — depending on whom Nitish happens to be aligned with at the time — they can swing an election in the state.
Uttar Pradesh has no such caste survey, but the BJP’s upper caste-non-Yadav OBC combine has worked spectacularly well. Rumour has it that the JD(U) is keen on fielding candidates in eastern UP, which has a significant concentration of Kurmis, the caste to which Nitish Kumar belongs. The stumbling block is its alliance partner, the Samajwadi Party, which is disinclined to yield seats in a region where it did reasonably well precisely because it managed to win the support of small OBC groupings.
The Congress has witnessed the electoral efficacy of strong local OBC leaders like Ashok Gehlot in Rajasthan, Bhupesh Baghel in Chhattisgarh and Siddaramaiah in Karnataka. By insisting on ‘jitni abadi, utna haq (quotas as per population)’, it hopes to make a dent in the BJP’s OBC bastions in Madhya Pradesh, UP, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Haryana. It justifies the demand for a caste census on the grounds that the 50% cap on quotas can be breached provided the apex court is presented with data.
For its part, the BJP holds that development and welfare schemes for the poor will do more for the most backward communities than quotas. But it gave constitutional status to the National Commission for Backward Classes (NCBC), has encouraged reservation for OBCs in medical education and has urged states to implement the 27% quota for OBCs, besides promoting their representation in local bodies. It has not sought to inflate caste quotas, instead enacting a 10% reservation for the economically weaker sections.
Can the Congress disrupt the BJP’s caste consolidation and punch holes in the ‘Hindu’ umbrella? The trouble is that while reservation is an emotive issue, voters may not find the Congress stance credible. After all, the apex court has not been inclined to support caste quotas in excess of 50%. A legislation to that effect would be challenged, on the grounds that it is divisive, ignores merit and encourages brain drain. The Congress will have to do more to get its ‘OBCD’ (OBC plus Dalit) electoral alphabet right.
Bhavdeep Kang is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author