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Sub-categorisation of OBC Quotas: A Political Minefield Where Parties Fear To Tread

File photo of Uttar Pradesh CM Yogi Adityanath (Source: ANI)

Interesting scenes were witnessed in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly on Wednesday when the former Minister for Social Justice in the Yogi Adityanath government stood up to grill his successor on the sub-categorization of the Other Backward Classes (OBCs).

Om Prakash Rajbhar, the Suheldev Bhartiya Samaj Party president and an estranged BJP ally, sought to know the status of the Raghvendra Kumar panel report — a committee set up by the Yogi government to study the ways and means for a more equitable distribution of OBC reservations.

“The report is being examined. And the Yogi government does not want to leave legal loopholes for anyone to approach the court of law,” replied the incumbent minister Anil Rajbhar to his predecessor’s query.

The committee headed by a former Allahabad High Court judge had submitted its report more than two years back and is yet to see the light of the day. However, media reports suggest that the committee has recommended the OBC population be divided into three separate sub-groups. And 27% OBC quotas be apportioned to ensure a level playing field and adequate opportunities to the have-nots among the backward population.

Considered a political minefield, the division OBC quota first played out in UP politics two decades back when the then state chief minister Rajnath Singh formed a three-member committee headed by his Parliamentary Affairs Minister Hukum Singh. The move was seen as part of the BJP’s strategy to wean away a section of backward communities from the Samajwadi Party (SP)  and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP).

SP was the biggest beneficiary of the 1989 Mandal rupture in UP politics as numerically dominant land proprietary Yadav community assumed the leadership of the backward block. A section of the most backward simultaneously polarized towards the BSP under Kanshi Ram who offered space and opportunities to these caste groups.

Rajnath Singh’s political ploy on sub-categorization of OBC failed and BJP finished a poor third in 2002 assembly polls. Perhaps Singh thought ahead of his time and the intra-caste faultlines did not develop and mature in just a decade of Mandal disruption.

Things started to change closer to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections when BJP’s campaign projected Narendra Modi as a backward leader, at least as a sub-text to his established image of being an able administrator and a Hindu icon.

The makeover worked well for the party in the entire heartland. By 2014, the non-Yadav OBCs and non-Jatav Dalits had had first-hand experience of both BSP and SP-led full majority governments. The jostling for space and leadership within the Mandal block drove them further towards BJP. Many MBC (Most Backward Castes) leaders migrated in search of greener pastures.

The BSP leader in the UP Assembly, Swamy Prasad Maurya joined the  BJP ahead of the 2017 assembly elections. So did Dara Singh Chauhan, the former MP from Ghosi in eastern UP. And SP Singh Baghel, the four-time MP from western UP. The list is long.

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BJP was also successful in stitching pre-poll tie-ups with sub-regional parties claiming to represent small caste groups which have challenged the Yadav hegemony in the backward block and the Jatav leadership amongst the Dalits.

Om Prakash Rajbhar’s Suheldev Bhartiya Samaj Party contested the last UP elections as a BJP ally. So did Apna Dal which has its support base amongst Kurmis in central and eastern UP. BJP projected the current deputy CM as one of the many CM probables ahead of the 2017 assembly polls.

Five years later, in 2022, the challenge before the BJP is to retain the social combination that it has assiduously built to register its biggest ever victory in the UP assembly polls.

As the Opposition attempts to reclaim backward votes, key players have started to take pole position on issues that can potentially rupture the current equilibrium which suits the BJP.

This is precisely why BJP’s call on the Justice Raghvendra Kumar Committee is being closely watched in political circles in UP and outside.

The panel which submitted its report in 2018 had recommended that well-offs among the OBCs like Yadavs and Kurmis be entitled to only 7% of the total 27% reservations earmarked for the backward castes, around 11% be reserved for more backward classes like Gujjars and Lodhs while the remaining nine percent be set aside for the MBCs like Rajbhars, Bind, Nishaads et al.

Clubbing Kurmis with Yadavs and restricting them to a 7% quota may have its own political implications. Unlike the Yadavs, Kurmis in large pockets of Rohilkhand have traditionally been with the BJP.

READ: UP Election 2022 – A Caste Pitch And Promissory Notes

BJP in alliance with Apna Dal has in the last two elections successfully weaned away this second most influential caste after Yadavs to its fold in other regions as well. Top Kurmi leaders in SP like Beni Prasad Varma have passed away. Kurmi leaders in the BSP have either been shown the door or marginalized. The jury is still out on how the OBC sub-categorization will affect the land proprietary and relatively well-off communities amongst the OBCs like Yadavs, Kurmism Jats, Chaurasia, and Patels.

The MBCs, on the other hand, are seeking a larger and more equitable share in any form of positive discrimination which promotes diversity. In the last three decades, the MBCs have tested and helped all three parties SP, BSP, and BJP to enjoy power. They are increasingly growing restless seeking decentralization of power from dominant to smaller amorphous groups. In other words, they now seek not just representation but real participation in the decision-making process.

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It is here that smaller parties like Om Prakash Rajbhar’s Suheldev Bhartiya Samaj Party and the Nishaad Party see an opening to expand and assert as they demand sub-categorisation of OBC.

The Modi government had also set up a commission in 2017 to examine these demands at the national level. Its report is awaited and the Justice Rohini Commission has been given another extension till January next year.

Both in UP and elsewhere, sub-categorisation of the OBC is a politically sensitive issue. Parties, in general, tend to tread with caution on the quota quagmire.

READ: Up Election 2022 Will Be Difficult For The BJP, Says Farmer Leader Rakesh Tikait

Sumit Pande is a contributing editor with India Ahead. The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author.

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