Two important political events in the past month highlight the ongoing political counter-strategizing against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) within the opposition ranks.
On August 23, an all-party delegation from Bihar met Prime Minister Narendra Modi to demand a caste census. The event saw rare bonhomie between foes-turned-friends-turned-foes Nitish Kumar and Tejashwi Yadav. There is good reason to believe that the demand for a caste census is aimed at pushing for breaching the existing 50% cap on reservations and increase the 27% quota for Other Backward Classes (OBCs).
On September 5, hundreds of thousands of farmers assembled for a mahapanchayat in Muzaffarnagar in western Uttar Pradesh. Addressing the gathering, Rakesh Singh Tikait, son of the late Mahendra Singh Tikait, went beyond the issue of repealing the three farm-laws, a demand that has triggered large-scale farmer protests in the green-revolution belt of Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh. He attacked the government over its latest reform policies such as the National Monetisation Pipeline (NMP), disinvestment of public sector units and plans to introduce tariff reforms in electricity and water. Tikait also underlined the need for communal harmony in strengthening the farm protest, using the slogan of Allah Hu Akbar-Har Har Mahadav (Muslim and Hindu religious slogans) popular in the heydays of Tikait senior. The choice of the location, Muzaffarnagar, was symbolic in itself, given the fact that the polarization after 2013 riots in this district and adjoining areas generated massive tailwinds for the BJP in 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
Both these strategies are aimed at chipping away significant sections of the BJP’s support base.
The Mandal game plan
Support among OBCs is an important pillar of the BJP’s current political dominance. Unlike parties which gained prominence with the Mandal agitation, the BJP has managed to expand its OBC support without alienating its upper caste base. This can be clearly seen in statistics from CSDS-Lokniti National Election Study surveys, where both upper caste and OBC support peaked for the BJP in 2019. The Mandal parties are hoping that by ratcheting up the intensity of the demand for doing away with the 50% cap on reservations, they can corner the BJP, which will have to protect its upper caste vote bank even as it tries to prevent its OBC supporters from returning to the fold of the Mandal parties.
See Chart 1: BJP upper-caste and OBC support
A dilemma for farmers’ protests
The forces of Mandal have always discounted the support of upper castes in their politics. Their political rhetoric is rooted in championing a narrative which portrays upper castes as historic oppressors and using the democratic weight of the non-upper castes to tilt the tables against them.
This is a strategy which is antithetical to building a strong farmers’ movement, especially one that includes rich farmers. This is because upper castes have a disproportionate share among large farmers in India, not just in the green revolution region, but in most parts of the country.
See Chart 2: Relative share among farmers with different land-holding size
While OBCs have been gaining in importance in the agrarian landscape, most dominant peasant communities in India are still not classified as OBCs. In fact, some of them – the Jats in Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, Patidars in Gujarat, and Marathas in Maharashtra are examples – have been aggressively demanding OBC status. Other upper caste groups, such as the Jat Sikhs in Punjab, are also an important voice in the ongoing farmers’ protests.
The short point is focusing too much on the Mandal game plan of uniting OBCs by othering upper castes is bound to weaken the ongoing farmers’ protests. Perhaps this is what prevented Tikait from venturing into the issue of caste census in what was otherwise a wide-ranging critique of the current government’s policies.
The caste-class tension is not limited to just villages
Agriculture is not the only area where the Opposition sees a big capital versus petty capital (in this case the farmer) conflict. The Opposition, from time to time, has also tried to raise this contradiction in the non-farm sector. Some such examples are the criticism of demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax (GST) as being biased towards big business and the latest criticism of the government’s disinvestment proposals and the NMP initiative. The last two were a part of Tikait’s speech at the farmers’ gathering.
It is likely that the formalisation push and proposed reform initiatives, whether or not they unleash future value, will create a set of losers among the relatively well-off among small business and existing public sector employees in government-owned businesses. However, the pains from such changes are once again likely to hurt the upper castes more, given their greater representation in such businesses and jobs.
This can be seen from the fact that upper castes (those who do not come from OBC, Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe categories) have a bigger relative share among the top quartile of earners among salaried workers and the self-employed in India. This is in sharp contrast to the caste composition of casual workers, who have the lowest incomes.
See Chart 3: Caste-wise relative share in various kinds of workers
Given their higher stakes in public sector employment or petty businesses, the upper caste population will have to be an important constituent of political pushback against policies such as disinvestment or squeeze on small businesses, etc. Any political party which champions a politics of othering upper castes is unlikely to succeed in this effort.
To be sure, the Opposition is not the only one which is likely to be facing these contradictions. The upper caste and trader community has been part of the BJP’s core support base since its inception. While this cohort might still feel the biggest ideological alignment to the BJP’s politics of Hindutva, it is bound to become more restless as its economic fortunes come under squeeze. The upper caste anxiety would have been much lower had the economy been firing on all cylinders. With the back-to-back shocks of economic slowdown and the pandemic-driven contraction, political palatability of the proposed reforms might not be very high.
There is still a lot of time for the 2024 contest. Even the 2022 Uttar Pradesh polls are six months away. But the developments above show that the future of political competition will play out in a landscape where loyalties of caste, class and identity will perhaps be more agile than they have ever been.