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Congress' Sub-Quota Demand for OBC Women: Is It Too Late for Course Correction?

After supporting anti-Mandal protests and ignoring OBCs for years, the party is slowly, but surely, changing tack.

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Weighed down by its 138-year-old legacy, the Indian National Congress has always been reluctant to embrace change.

Whether it is something minor like dropping the party’s precondition for new members that they refrain from consuming liquor or a major shift in its economic policies, the Congress has invariably put up stiff resistance to any amendments on the plea that these would erode the party’s identity and ethos.

It is the same story in the case of the Congress party’s stand on the social justice agenda and recognising the electoral importance of Other Backward Classes (OBCs) following the implementation of the Mandal Commission report, providing quotas in government and educational institutions to the neglected section of intermediate castes.

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Changing Tactics

After supporting the anti-Mandal protests and ignoring the backward classes for decades, the Congress is slowly, but surely, changing tack.

This was first evident last year at its Udaipur chintan shivir where it was decided that 50 percent of positions in the Congress organisation at all levels be reserved for scheduled castes, scheduled tribes, Other Backward Classes, women and minorities. It was also suggested that the Congress take a fresh look at the longstanding demand of “Mandal parties” like the Samajwadi Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal on carving out a  sub-quota for OBC women in the 33 percent quota provided in the women’s reservation Bill.

It was in line with the party’s revised position that Congress leader Sonia Gandhi pressed the Modi government to amend the Women's Reservation Bill by providing a sub-quota for OBC women.

“The Congress demands that the Bill be implemented as soon as possible but a caste census be carried out alongside it and provisions be made for quotas within the quota for SC, ST, and OBC women,” Sonia Gandhi said during the debate on the Bill in the Lok Sabha earlier this week.

Other Congress leaders spoke in the same vein, first in the Lok Sabha and, subsequently in the Rajya Sabha where party members also moved amendments seeking a sub-quota for OBC women in the present Bill.

The Congress party’s eagerness to highlight this point stood out in sharp contrast to its earlier stance on this issue. When the Bill was last moved and passed in the Rajya Sabha in 2010 during the UPA regime, the Congress had virtually bypassed the Samajwadi Party and Rashtriya Janata Dal’s demand for sub-quotas for OBC women.

The debate in the Upper House had witnessed angry protests by its opponents, who later ensured that the controversial legislation could not go through in the Lok Sabha. Veerappa Moily, who was then the Union  law minister, had argued that a sub-quota could not be introduced as there was no data on the OBC population because the last caste census was undertaken as far back as 1931.

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Course Correction on Social Justice Agenda

Today, the Congress is pursuing an alliance with the Janata Dal (U), RJD, and the SP, the very parties it rebuffed 13 years ago. This partially explains why it has tweaked its stand.

Not only is it on the same page with these parties on the demand for sub-quotas for OBC women but it has also endorsed their call for a caste census, thus ensuring that the Congress and the other members of the INDIA bloc speak in one voice on issues of social justice.

The Congress decision to go in for a course correction on the social justice agenda had become imperative in view of its steady decline since those heady days when it was the dominant political force in the country.

Its support base comprising upper castes, scheduled castes, and minorities, carefully nurtured over decades, first started disintegrating after the implementation of the Mandal Commission report in the late eighties.

The subsequent change in the country’s political landscape proved to be fertile ground for the emergence of regional parties like the Samajwadi Party, the various avatars of the original Janata Dal and the Bahujan Samajwadi Party, which not only poached the Congress support base of SCs and minorities but also provided greater political representation to the backward classes which had been largely ignored by the grand old party.

This cost the Congress particularly dearly in the Hindi heartland states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar which account for 120 Lok Sabha seats. The Congress is floundering in these states even three decades after it was reduced to a bit player here.

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Countering BJP's OBC Gambit

A resurgent BJP further added to its woes. Known as a “Bania-Brahmin” party, the BJP was quick to recognise the merits of “social engineering” as it set out to expand the party's social base through conscious co-option of backward classes in its fold under the overarching umbrella of Hindutva.

The BJP successfully exploited the prevailing sentiment among the non-Yadav backward classes that the numerically strong and more powerful backward classes like the Yadavs had cornered the benefits of OBC reservations while those lower in the hierarchy had been left behind.

Not only did the BJP give tickets to those nursing such grievances but also accommodated them in positions of power both in the party and the government.

Rebuffing Congress leader Rahul Gandhi in the Lok Sabha earlier this week when he referred to the underrepresentation of backward classes in the current dispensation, Union Home Minister Amit Shah pointed out that the BJP has as many as 85 MPs and 29 ministers from the OBC category.

Clearly, the OBC gambit has yielded electoral success for the BJP and also helped in fulfilling its long-time ideological agenda of uniting all Hindus.

Congress spokespersons have, over the past few days, admitted that the party's revised stand on OBC quotas for women and caste census had been prompted by the changing political scene over the past 13 years. The party, they explained, was essentially responding to the growing voices from the ground that could no longer be ignored.

The truth is that a waning Congress along with the Mandal parties, which have also witnessed a steady decline in recent years, are pushing the social justice plank to counter the BJP’s popularity among the backward classes, hoping it will help them regain lost political ground.

But it will not be easy for the Congress to win the confidence of backward classes given its long history of shunning social engineering and staying with the status quo. Moreover, It has already been beaten to it by the BJP which has walked the talk on OBC empowerment. The Congress may discover, to its chagrin, that it has come too late to the party.

(The writer is a senior Delhi-based journalist. She can be reached at @anitaakat. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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