With less than six months to go for the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections, the Other Backward Classes, or OBCs, which constitute nearly 50 per cent of the total electorate of the state, have started to emerge as a priority in the poll strategies of all the key players – the BJP, Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party and the Congress. The BJP, which has traditionally counted the upper castes as its voters, seems to have now shifted its focus on the OBC vote bank. Fixing the caste equations in the state is the party’s top agenda now.
The OBC voting population in Uttar Pradesh includes roughly 18-20 per cent Yadavs and 8 per cent Kurmis while another 8 per cent is formed by Lodh and Hindu Jat communities. Maurya, Kushwaha, Saini and Shakya account for around 12-14 per cent of the OBC population whereas Nishad, Kashyap, Bind, Mallah, Kewat and Kahar form 6-8 per cent of the voting population.
According to the post-poll data of 2017 UP assembly polls, the BJP not only managed to retain over 60 per cent of its traditional upper caste votes, it also secured 58 per cent of the EBC voters from Lodh, Kushwaha, Kurmi, Koeri and other castes. The data shows the BJP garnered the support of 57 per cent Kurmi voters, 63 per cent Lodh voters and 560 per cent OBCs.
BJP’s all-round approach to woo the OBCs
The biggest signs of an attempt by the saffron party aimed at wooing the OBC vote bank became apparent during the major reshuffle in the Union Cabinet which led to the induction of three Dalits and three OBCs from various sub-castes. To counter the Opposition’s bid to forge a larger non-Yadav OBC and non-Jatav Dalit consolidation, the saffron party included two Kurmis – Anupriya Patel and Pankaj Chaudhary, and one Lodh – BL Verma – from the OBC community.
The inclusion of Apna Dal chief Anupriya Patel and Maharajganj’s BJP MP Pankaj Chaudhary is seen as the BJP’s attempt to woo the dominant Kurmi community. Another inclusion is Badaun’s BL Verma who hails from the Lodh community that holds decisive sway in many districts in Central UP. Three Dalit ministers — Kaushal Kishore Pasi, Bhanu Pratap Verma Kori, and SP Singh Baghel — have also been included.
The Constitution (127th Amendment) Bill, 2021 and the announcement of reservation for OBC and EWS students in medical colleges are also being seen as measures to woo OBCs by the BJP ahead of the UP polls.
The BJP’s outreach strategy also includes the constitution of a team of OBC frontal wing functionaries, which represents a bouquet of sub-castes to cover 80 per cent of the total backward block in the state. This team of 26 members not only represents Yadavs, Kurmis, Lodhs and Jats, but also most backward castes (MBCs) like Nishad, Rajbhar, Kushwaha, Prajapati, Pal and Teli (Sahu).
Highlighting the BJP’s expansion of its social base through a higher representation to the OBC groups in the government, BJP MP Ashok Bajpai, tells FInancialExpress.com: “The BJP has always worked towards the welfare and upliftment of the backward community. It also constituted the National Commission for Backward Classes, which no other government did in the last 70 years.”
“Even in the recent Cabinet expansion, more than two-third of the new ministers inducted in the Cabinet belong to the backward and MBC communities. Modi ji chose ministers from the most backward castes, which did not even exist in the Indian politics,” he added.
Moreover, the BJP is out to play the legacy of party stalwart Kalyan Singh, who is known for his ‘social engineering’ in which he blended a strong Hindutva narrative with OBC politics in the state. The party is naming roads, medical institutions and even an airport after Singh, and also taking out Asthi Kalash Yatra of the late leader. Kalyan Singh is considered to be the tallest OBC leader in the state who stormed to fame with the temple movement and was bestowed the moniker of ‘Hindu Hriday Samrat’ till he lived. It was under his first regime that the demolition of the disputed structure at Ayodhya took place on December 6, 1992.
Consolidating OBC votes no cake walk
The BJP’s concern over the OBC vote has been evident in its recent decisions as it seems well aware of the challenges emerging from the issues of caste census and reservation.
Speaking to FinancialExpress.com, Narendra Kumar, Political Science Professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, said that the gains from the OBC reservation bill may, however, be neutralised by the growing chorus for a caste-based census, a demand backed by many parties, including ally Janata Dal (United), as well as some leaders within the ruling party.
“If the opposition is able to use this, then this might impact the BJP’s prospects. People are realising that the quota is not going to help much and that the caste census will play a bigger role. This could lead to some repulse in the BJP’s vote share,” Kumar said.
A major impact of the caste census demand was seen in 2018 when BJP ally Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party (SBSP) severed ties with the party amid its chief Om Prakash Rajbhar’s push for a caste survey in the state. The SBSP had won four seats in the 2017 UP assembly polls.
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On the other hand, the BJP leadership has so far not taken a categorical stand on the issue. There is a view that agreeing to the demand for a caste census will bring back Mandal politics to the centrestage and can be an effective weapon at the hands of regional parties to counter the BJP’s Hindutva and welfare planks – the twin issues used by the saffron party to make inroads into the OBC vote bank at the expense of state-based parties.
Speaking to FinancialExpress.com, Sangit Ragi, HOD, Political Science Department at Delhi University, said that the BJP needs to be cautious of the growing demands for a caste-based census, or else “it will be trapped in the Mandal politics agenda and may find it hard to come out of it.”
He also highlighted that the issue of caste census can hurt the BJP “if the data of castes is put forth in public”.
Another growing concern for the BJP is the continuing agitation by the farmers of the state against the Centre’s farm laws that has regained momentum. A major percentage of the farmers come from the OBC community, and the ongoing protests may hit the party’s poll prospects.
Other than the Opposition, BJP allies like Apna Dal, JJP, AIADMK, RLP and JD(U) have extended support to the farmers’ protest. Even some of its own leaders, including MP Varun Gandhi, have called for revival of talks with the farmers to end the stalemate.
Mr Ragi says that the government should approach the protesting farmers and initiate talks to find a common ground, indicating that the agitation might impact the party’s sentiments.
On the other hand, as the party embarks on a massive OBC outreach, it needs to make sure that its focus on the backward community does not alienate the upper castes, which form the fulcrum of the party.