In Bengal, Why is OBC Politics ‘Unheard Of’? Here’s the Real Story

OBC politics changed forever in Bengal in 2010, post-announcement of 10% reservation for some Muslim communities.

Updated
Opinion
6 min read
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In the classic 12 Angry Men (1957), Henry Fonda (Juror 8) had the unenvious task of convincing the other 11 jurors in the room of his viewpoint, while the others advanced counterarguments. Now, replace Henry Fonda with politicians and each juror as a different community of a state — that is what the game of politics truly is and always will be. It is a pure numbers game and we are all aware of the masters of this art.

With this analogy in mind, as the race for the Bengal election gathers steam, we find the TMC and BJP scrambling to consolidate support from electorally crucial communities to swing the 2021 state elections in their favour.

The TMC has now created individual cells for the Scheduled Caste (SC) and Scheduled Tribe (ST) communities, with a cell for the Other Backward Classes (OBC) in the works.

To many, this seems like a decision that should have been made years ago, because of a singular factor. The SC and ST communities of Bengal, by and large, tend to consolidate their votes. However, one could strongly argue that the TMC’s largest support lies in the OBC community, for which a cell is yet to be made active. But why is it that we rarely hear about OBC politics in Bengal?

How & When OBC Politics In Bengal Changed Forever

The steps taken by the TMC recently traces its roots back to the Mandal Commission Report of 1979. In 1990, while most of the country was up in arms to have the Mandal Commission’s recommendations implemented, Bengal was another story. In typical CPI(M) fashion, the then Chief Minister Jyoti Basu, responding to the demand to implement the Mandal Commission’s recommendation, famously quipped “there are only two castes in Bengal – rich and poor”; he had refused to acknowledge the existence of OBCs in the state.

However, OBC politics changed for good in West Bengal in 2010, when the state government announced a 10 percent reservation for certain Muslim communities, basis the recommendations of the National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities (Ranganath Mishra Commission).

While this decision was taken to consolidate CPI(M)’s Muslim voter base further, ironically, it was the TMC that truly bore the fruits of this move by coming to power in 2011 on the back of the Singur and Nandigram movements.

97% Of Muslims in Bengal Fall under OBC Quota: How Did Mamata ‘Achieve’ This?

It is to Mamata Banerjee’s credit that she spotted the same demographic pattern that the CPI(M) had noted. The minority Muslim community in India has shown signs of consolidation in voting, especially in the rural region. The TMC created two separate categories under the larger OBC reservation quota. Category A is called ‘More Backward’ and enjoys 10 percent reservation, while Category B is called ‘Backward’ and enjoys 7 percent reservation — thus increasing the total OBC reservation in the state to 17 percent.

In May 2012, a gazette notification was published by the West Bengal government, in which 35 castes were added to the OBC list. All 35 of these were from the Muslim community.

As on date, Category A of the OBC reservation in Bengal has 80 castes, of which 72 belong to the Muslim community, while Category B has 91 Castes, of which 39 belong to the Muslim community. Apart from the addition of a few Gorkha castes (out of sheer political pressure emanating from the Gorkhaland movement), only Muslim castes have been added to the state OBC list in the last two decades.

The efforts of the TMC thus led to an overwhelming 97% of the Muslim community in Bengal falling within the OBC reservation quota.

The community in turn has shown its gratitude towards the TMC by voting and re-voting for them in the 2011, 2016 vidhan sabha elections and the 2019 general elections (albeit this can be argued as being for different reasons altogether).

However, this utopian model was quite abruptly disrupted by the BJP in the 2019 elections. The results of the 2019 elections shattered the TMC’s best laid plans, and exposed a chink in its armour.

So, what did the BJP do then, that has made it such a fearsome competitor in the Bengal political arena in such a short span of time?

How BJP Managed to Swing SC/ST Vote in its Favour

In 2019, when the BJP miraculously increased its seat tally from 2 seats to 18 seats, it did so by dominating rural Bengal. The electoral data from the 2019 General Elections in Bengal will tell you that the BJP won seats where the demography was skewed in favour of SC and ST communities. This appears to have little to do with the promise of better governance, and a lot more attributable to ably targeting the alleged appeasement politics of the TMC administration.

In its hurry to win the Muslim vote-bank in Bengal, it seems that the TMC had forgotten to check its flanks. Simply put, they forgot about the other jurors in the room. The BJP appears to have done its research while waiting in the wings.

Through the expansive ground network of the RSS in tribal, northern and state border regions, the BJP managed to swing the SC and ST voters in its favour.

But Vidhan Sabha elections are a different beast, and this support alone may not be enough to triumph over the TMC in the 2021 West Bengal state elections.

So, the BJP shifted gears.

*Sourced from publicly available data on The Joshua Project and Census of India. 
*Sourced from publicly available data on The Joshua Project and Census of India. 
(Graphic: Shruti Mathur / The Quint)

Look at this table closely. What does it tell you? If you look at it the same way as the BJP did, this is the table that may win them the election. Now let me simplify this table and show you what the BJP is really looking at.

In Bengal, Why is OBC Politics ‘Unheard Of’? Here’s the Real Story
(Graphic: Shruti Mathur / The Quint)

No Govt in Bengal Had Focused on Hindu OBCs: How BJP Leveraged This

Do you see it now?

The BJP appears to have realised that while the TMC has been trying to consolidate the Muslim OBC vote bank, no government has truly focused on the Hindu OBC communities.

This could be, in part, due to parties’ thinking that Hindu OBCs could not consolidate as a larger entity. Unlike its counterparts however, the BJP had one such cause to consolidate them. If the BJP was able to generate enough anger towards the incumbent government’s apparent ‘Muslim appeasement’ and tie that in with the alleged ‘neglect’ of the Hindu OBC communities in Bengal, they could possibly hope to consolidate a large number of Hindu OBC voters. These OBC voters, along with the BJP’s existing ‘non-Bengali’, SC, ST and scattered rural Bengali voter base, may be just enough to get them over the line.

Thus, the BJP, with the help of the RSS, started approaching each of these Hindu OBC communities and spoke to them about their reservation rights and lack of equitable representation between them and their minority counterparts in government offices.

Over and above this, they are reaching out to communities such as the agrarian Mahisya community (which forms a little over 6 percent of the state’s total population) and have been demanding inclusion in the OBC list, to no avail.

A Neck and Neck Finish?

In order to begin defending against this threat, the TMC has finally awoken from its self-induced slumber and created separate cells for the SC and ST communities. It is this author’s opinion that the OBC cell is taking a little longer to finalise because there are several crucial political factors that are at play. Not least of which is the introduction of Furfura Sharif cleric Pirzada Abbas Siddique’s Indian Secular Front, targeted to garner support from the Muslim voter base in Bengal.

Suddenly, the TMC appears to be amidst two battles pulling apart the OBC community at both ends — the BJP with its Hindu OBC voter base and the ISF targeting the Muslim OBC voter base.

These things seldom tend to happen coincidentally in politics and therefore we must wait to see how the TMC responds, and the leaders that it will depute to head its OBC cell.

For now, the TMC is licking its wounds and preparing for the actual battle, where no doubt, their ground management supremacy will tilt the battle in their favour. It is a shame they do not have Henry Fonda as a star campaigner.

(The author is a lawyer based in New Delhi and a former political consultant with a keen interest in West Bengal politics. He tweets @ishanroyc. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same)

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