UP Polls | OBC Churn’s Lesson for BJP – Shed the Upper-Caste Mindset

Of the 312 seats that the BJP secured in the 2017 UP elections, as many as 101 were won by OBC candidates.

6 min read
Hindi Female

Of the 312 seats that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) secured in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly in 2017, as many as 101 were won by members of the Other Backward Castes (OBCs).

That one fact will tell you why the exit over the last week of 10 prominent OBC members – whose increased presence in the party in recent years has been part of the BJP’s winning caste calculus – is causing such disquiet in the party.

Indeed, the party’s experiment with micro-social engineering, knitted into its all-encompassing Hindutva narrative, has seen the BJP perform spectacularly well in the state in two consecutive Lok Sabha elections (2014 and 2019) and one Assembly poll (2017).


The Social Justice Slogan

Over the last week, first, state Minister for Labour, Employment and Coordination, Swami Prasad Maurya, along with BJP MLAs Roshan Lal, Brijesh Prajapati and Bhagwati Sagar, quit the party. The very next day, another OBC Minister, Dara Singh Chauhan, who headed the Environment and Forests portfolio, put in his papers. And a day later, a third OBC Minister, Dharam Singh Saini, who held the AYUSH portfolio, along with fellow OBC BJP MLAs Mukesh Verma and Awasthi Bala Prasad, all resigned from the BJP. This was followed by the exit of another OBC MLA, Avtar Singh Badana, who has joined the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), a Samajwadi Party ally. On the same day, Amar Singh Chaudhury, an OBC MLA from the Apna Dal (S), a BJP ally in Uttar Pradesh, quit.

In their letters of resignation, submitted separately, Maurya, Chauhan and Saini all referred to their OBC origins, and accused the BJP of its government’s oppressive attitude towards Dalits, OBCs, farmers, unemployed educated youth, and small and mid-level traders; they also stressed that quotas for the OBCs and Dalits were not being implemented.

Their exits, the BJP fears, could lead to more departures, sending out a negative signal to OBCs in general at a time when Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party-led coalition is busy drawing in OBCs of all hues. Indeed, it has emerged as a platform that is willing to accommodate not just the Yadavs (and Muslims), but also those from less powerful OBC communities.

The SP leader has revived the “social justice” slogan, joining hands with a range of smaller parties, hoping to snatch a large chunk of the OBC votes that the BJP has succeeded in adding to its electoral pool in Uttar Pradesh since 2014, the year it won power at the Centre.

Jayant Chaudhury’s Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), which boasts of the support of the Jats of western Uttar Pradesh, who have been the backbone of the farmers’ movement, has also joined this alliance.

Further, eight of the 11 MLAs who have quit the BJP and Apna Dal have joined the Samajwadi Party.


Why the OBCs are Unhappy

BJP spokespersons have been busy labelling those who have left the party as “turncoats”, saying that they quit because they were going to be denied tickets for the 2022 election. But OBC sources in the BJP stress that while the party accommodated OBCs and Dalits, they were never really part of its main decision-making apparatus, nor were they accorded the respect upper castes are given in the party. In a state that has seen Mulayam Singh Yadav, Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav at the helm as powerful chief ministers, representation is no longer enough – it must include a seat at the high table.

A senior BJP OBC leader, who is still in the BJP, says:

Yogi Adityanath has been unjust towards the OBCs and has only backed the upper castes. I only wish my fellow OBCs had rebelled a couple of years ago; then, we might have succeeded in replacing Yogi Adityanath as Chief Minister.”

The signs were all there: on 1 July last year, OBC candidates staged a protest in Lucknow over reservations in the teacher recruitment drive in 2020. That year, the basic education department had recruited 69,000 teachers, but the OBCs, the protesters stressed, got less than 4 per cent of the seats, even though the prescribed quota is 27 per cent.

To address this unhappiness, Prime Minister Narendra Modi expanded his Council of Ministers last 7 July, with seven new Ministers from the state, of whom three were OBCs. On 29 July, the Modi government allotted 27 per cent in the All India Quota (AQI) for seats in medical colleges for the OBCs, however, “balancing” it by reserving 10 per cent for the Economically Weaker Sections (EWS), a euphemism for upper castes.

But this has made little impact on the OBC. They have seen that the OBC quota for teachers has not been filled, therefore, holding out little hope that promises of fresh quotas will be honoured. The BJP’s strong opposition to a caste census and a sub-categorisation of the OBC quota has also not gone unnoticed.

A caste census, the BJP knows, could lead to demands to remove the 50% quota cap and earn it the wrath of the upper castes. As for sub-categorisation, it could decrease the importance of the dominant OBC castes, such as the Yadavs, Kurmis and Koeries, creating yet another problem.


Learning From Kalyan Singh Days

All this is not surprising if one looks back at the BJP’s past record in the state. Wind back to the early 1990s, when the appointment of the late Kalyan Singh as the Chief Minister of the state resulted in a carefully crafted political strategy that married Hindutva with social engineering.

Kalyan Singh was simultaneously the Hindu Hriday Samrat – long before Modi acquired that epithet in the BJP – and an OBC from the Lodhi Rajput community. He was head and shoulders above other BJP leaders in the state; he was also ideologically in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) mainstream.

As a Lodh Rajput, he could help mop the votes of his community that totalled roughly 3 per cent of the vote in Uttar Pradesh. But simultaneously, because of his aura, he also succeeded in attracting sections of other non-Yadav OBCs, many of whom saw him as an OBC leader who had the potential to take on Mulayam Singh Yadav and the community he represented.

Indeed, it was Kalyan Singh who gave the BJP the winning edge and helped the party add a new social constituency to its upper-caste base.


The Limits of the Hindutva Plank

But if Kalyan Singh enhanced his party’s chances, there was a flip side: he also began to be perceived as a ‘patron’ of the OBCs by the upper-caste Brahmins, Thakurs and Banias, who constituted at the time the BJP’s core political constituency. They began to complain that

Kalyan Singh’s empathy for his caste fellows had translated itself into awarding lucrative government contracts to the newly rich Lodhi Rajputs and to increasing their representation in government jobs. Kalyan Singh responded by addressing a ‘backward’ rally in Lucknow, at which he urged the gathered OBCs to vote for OBC candidates in the next elections regardless of which party they belonged to.

In May 1999, 36 legislators resigned in protest at Kalyan Singh’s continuance as Chief Minister. Significantly, all but two were upper castes. Kalyan Singh was then replaced by an upper-caste MLA, Ramprakash Gupta.

The results were there for all to see in the subsequent Assembly poll in 2002 and the Lok Sabha election in 2004. The BJP’s numbers plummeted and the party did not really recover till 2014, when it revived its experiment in social engineering.

There is clearly a lesson in this for the BJP. Will it take note or does it feel that Hindutva has taken such deep roots that in the end, by communalising the situation, and working to convince the people that all opposition parties are “anti-Hindu”, Hindus, regardless of their caste affiliation, will vote for the BJP? The Samajwadi Party will also have to tread lightly – it is not very long back that people voted against it for fear that the Yadav community would dominate the politics – and the economics – of the state.

(Smita Gupta is a senior journalist who’s been Associate Editor, The Hindu, and also worked with organisations like Outlook India, The Indian Express, TOI and HT. She’s a former Oxford Reuters Institute fellow. She tweets @g_smita. 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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