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.

The cracking of the caste code also warrants Modi addressing the Dalit and Muslim questions. Fortunately for Modi, the Akhilesh Yadav government offered him a golden opportunity to address the Dalit question by recommending 17 castes and sub-castes from OBCs to be transferred to the SC category. While the recommended castes do not want to be placed in a lower hierarchy, their entry is being resented by Dalits as the new castes would share their existing reservation quota. If Modi plays his cards right, he can pull those castes into the BJP camp by promising to prevent the transfer, and by offering to establish their real identity as most likely that of ST.

Modi also seems to be handling the Muslim card well. The Muslims are fed up with the bogey of identity crisis by secular-drum-beating parties who have distanced Muslims from the majority in daily life. The Muslims living in BJP-ruled states —Gujarat, MP, Chhattisgarh and Bihar (where Nitish Kumar had a tie-up with BJP) — have realized that life is no different from that of non BJP-ruled states. In fact, the better governance in some of the BJP-ruled states might have brought them economic prosperity. In contradistinction, they realize that the SP government in UP had been insensitive to their plight during a hundred or so riots in two years; the same was proven when top SP leaders were seen enjoying a Bollywood dance show in Saifai (Mulayam’s village) while the riot victims’ children were dying due to cold and hunger in the Muzaffarnagar relief camps. Mulayam’s efforts to rope in Kalyan Singh earlier is also fresh in their minds; it has made his secular credentials suspect. Many backward Muslims, especially from Azlaf and Arzal categories, are exploited by Ashraf Muslims and their exploitation is drowned in the bogey of the Muslim question. But the most important reasons for Muslims to be attracted to the BJP is their political ambition. The BJP can be a quick route to political empowerment for the new-rich and newly educated Muslims, as the BJP is seen to be opening up to Muslims. The recent case of veteran journalist MJ Akbar joining the BJP is a classic demonstration of this upsurge. Various Muslim clerics had also voiced their concern about non-BJP parties trying to instil fear among Muslims by creating a false threat perception. And all that was aptly captured in a recent CSDS Tracker Polls, showing that in UP, Muslim preference for BJP has risen to 11 per cent (it was 3 per cent in 2007 and 7 per cent in 2012). The last time the BJP got such high Muslim support was only during Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s time. The CSDS data also shows Modi to be popular as a PM choice among all social denominations (Brahmins: 60, Jats: 59, Rajputs: 52, Kurmis/Koeris: 49, Yadavs: 35, SCs: 25). This may be due to the fact that people, including Muslims, believe that the BJP was not responsible for the Muzzaffarnagar riots. Only 13 per cent voters blamed BJP, 45 per cent blamed the SP.

But while the road to the prime minister’s chair appears smooth, Modi is suddenly confronted with a new problem. There is public demonstration of senior BJP leaders’ rising discomfiture with Modi’s growing popularity and personality. Factionalism is rampant in every party and many seniors, whether in the Congress or BJP or elsewhere, have expressed their resentment about ticket allocation. But leaders like Advani and his men like Jaswant Singh, or even Sushma Swaraj and many others, do not seem to be reading the writing on the wall. No one takes Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi seriously now; they are leaders of the past. Their age does not warrant them facing the rough and tumble of Lok Sabha elections. Their declining the RSS’ proposal for a comfortable seat in the Rajya Sabha was inexplicable. For the BJP, many believe, this may be perhaps a last chance to form the national government, and that too not because of its commissions, but because of the people’s push. The future is pointing not only to a fierce power struggle within the BJP, but also to a widening gulf with the RSS.  

Modi’s last barrier may be guns soaked in secular-communal ideological positioning. The ideological debate is very central to Indian democracy, but two factors may marginalize that debate. One, many at grassroots level leading the secularism-communalism debate are so criminalized that people are fast losing confidence in secularism; and two, people are tired of that debate because it refuses to bring development to the centrestage of political discourse.

In addition, three recent tendencies may help Modi in his endeavour; one, people’s rising aspirations to see Modi as PM based on the fantasies of the Gujarat model of development (whatever that may mean); two, electors’ disenchantment with the Congress and the public perception of UPA-I and II as symbols of price rise, corruption and bad governance; and three, loss of faith in the incumbent government of Akhilesh  in UP. On the other hand, slackening RSS control over the BJP, the onset of power struggle within the BJP, and the possibility of the party’s grassroots units becoming sluggish owing to overconfidence about Modi’s success may lower Modi’s final scorecard. 

The Modi wave, or its under-current, as evident from people’s inclination for the Gujarat CM, may not get translated into votes unless the BJP chooses candidates carefully, sheds overconfidence, galvanizes the party campaign machinery and ropes in all its tall leaders for a concerted and sustained election campaign. Only then would the amalgamation of Modi’s OBC status and his development-centric campaign be able to break the complex matrix of castes and sub-castes.  


The author teaches Politics at Christ Church College, Kanpur


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