Election 2014: Modi’s OBC Card Trick

If Modi succeeds in redefining the Backward castes discourse in Uttar Pradesh, it might hugely alter the electoral outcome in the coming Lok Sabha polls

AK Verma Kanpur 

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s fielding of its Prime Ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi from Varanasi has intrigued people everywhere. If one is to believe in the alleged ‘Modi wave’, he could contest from any place and win. Why, then, has he chosen a supposedly safe constituency such as Varanasi?

It appears that the fielding Modi from Varanasi was dictated by the compulsions of breaking the complex caste code that had ensured dominance of casteist parties —the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party — for a quarter of a century now. During this period (1989-2014), the BJP saw its stock declining in UP. Politically, it was in power only for about six years, during which it went through three chief ministers, viz, Kalyan Singh, Ram Prakash Gupta and Rajnath Singh. And its electoral decline was consistent both in terms of seats and vote share; the party hit its nadir in the 2012 assembly elections, getting 47 out of 403 seats and only 15 per cent votes. The BJP not only suffered a general decline, but performed badly in all seven sub-regions of the state: west UP, Ruhelkhand, Doab, Avadh, Bundelkhand, east UP and north-east UP during 2004-2012 (See Table). Especially poor is the party’s record in the Poorvanchal (east and north-east UP), where it won just four of 29 Lok Sabha seats in 2009, after having won three seats in 2004.

If its political decline was steep and rapid, the BJP’s prospects were dented further by a lack of robust political agenda, effective leadership and efficient party organization. There are no issues on which the party is in dialogue with people. The dominance of the SP and BSP was based on the mobilization of OBCs and Dalits, respectively, by these parties. This time, the BJP sees in Modi a man who could play his backward caste identity to pay other caste parties back in the same coin, and also mobilize voters of a development-starved UP, especially Poorvanchal, by selling them his image of a ‘development man’.

The candidature of Modi from Poorvanchal is also partly due to the region having 29 Lok Sabha seats and, if we account for the influence of Varanasi on the Avadh region, we can add 14 more seats, taking the tally to 43 LS seats. The arrival of Modi can influence the electoral outcome of these seats. Varanasi is also close to eight western districts of Bihar: Paschim Champaran, Gopalganj, Siwan, Saran, Bhojpur, Buxar, Bhabhua and Rohtas, that account for nine LS seats. The BJP seems to have factored in the favourable impact of Modi on those seats as well. Thus, with Modi in Varanasi, the party is targeting a massive win in which UP and Bihar are both going to play crucial roles.

But, will the BJP succeed in making inroads into the caste domains of the SP and the BSP — the OBCs and Dalits respectively — in UP where politics is greatly influenced by primordial affiliations of caste and religion? We must also enquire whether people have any choice. In a state where the fruits of development have not reached people even after more than half a century since independence, they are forced to look to their own caste leaders for petty favours in daily life. How can they suddenly renounce that mindset without any change in the system that controls delivery of goods and services? No one wants to vote on caste or communal lines, but only if there is a quick, fair and rational mechanism for attending to people’s’daily needs and redressing their grievances.

What will the BJP do then? In UP, there are 41.5 per cent OBCs, 21 per cent Dalits, 18.5 per cent Muslims and 19 perc cent upper castes. The Mandal Commission (52 per cent) and the Hukum Singh Committee (54 per cent) projected an even higher population figure for OBCs. If the BJP has to break hold of caste parties, it has to do so through someone belonging to the OBCs. That has been probably the most important consideration for the BJP in fielding Modi, and ignoring the claims of its seniormost leader, LK Advani. Modi’s OBC status will not only work in UP, it will also have a pan-India impact.

By bringing Modi and highlighting his backward caste, the BJP has sought to revisit and redefine the OBC discourse in northern India, which has so far been monopolized by the SP in UP and Lalu Prasad Yadav’s RJD in Bihar, even though the BJP had also attracted more backward castes mainly Kurmi, Sonar, Lodh and so on. But, through Modi, the party is trying to net even the upper-OBCs — mainly Yadavs — who form the backbone of the SP. Also, by referring to Modi’s Teli (most-backward) caste, the BJP may be aiming to attract the most-backwards, who have a substantial population in UP. The OBC group can be split three ways: the first category comprises the Yadavs; the second, or more-backward category, contains eight castes, and the third, most-backward category is comprised of 70 castes. So, Modi as OBC Prime Ministerial candidate is an attraction to the more- and the most-backwards. Already, one can hear paradoxical opinions in the rural area: “I will not vote for the BJP, but I will vote for Modi.” That shows that those who are voting for Modi are allergic to the BJP. For this kind of popular psychology, only the BJP is to blame. The ‘anti-Hindutva’ agendaof the secular parties will be effectively countered by Modi by revisiting and redefining the backward discourse. And, if he succeeds in this, its electoral impact will be massive.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: APRIL 2014