Congress’s vociferous demand for a caste Census ideologically aligns the party with OBC groups and enhances I.N.D.I.A’s capacity to take on the BJP’s alliance led by upper castes
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi acknowledges supporters during a public meeting in Shajapur, Madhya Pradesh, on September 30. Pic/PTI
The Congress has laid the foundation for building a viable “anti-hegemonic” alliance through its unequivocal support for holding a caste Census and carving out a quota within the quota for women in legislative bodies. The anti-hegemonic alliance, as academic Arun R Swamy defines it in his essay Political Mobilisation, aims to unite powerful political actors against a greater power that exercises or seeks to exercise hegemony over them.
The greater power relies on what is called “sandwich alliance” to acquire hegemony. The sandwich alliance, Swamy says, “unites the extremes of a power hierarchy against those in the middle.” In India’s graded power hierarchy, the upper castes and Dalits constitute the two extremes. In the middle are the Other Backward Classes, a category comprising a wide array of castes, each suffering from a varying degree of backwardness. Elite groups among the OBCs try to stitch an alliance for snatching power from the hegemon. This is the reason why Swamy calls them counter-elites or out-elites.
The OBCs were consolidated because of Prime Minister V P Singh’s 1990 decision to implement 27 per cent reservation for them. Their consolidation robbed the Congress of its hegemonic status, leading to the emergence of successive coalition governments at the Centre.
In 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party emerged as India’s new hegemon, a status it acquired by building a sandwich alliance led by the upper castes, which no longer saw the Congress as an effective protector of their interests. The BJP also stoked the resentment among the relatively depressed subgroups of Dalits and OBCs that their presence in government jobs is negligible because the elite castes—Jatavs and Yadavs, for instance—have cornered the largest pie of the reservation cake. They joined the BJP’s sandwich alliance in the hope that the party, after acquiring power, would set right this anomaly. This has yet to happen.
What also holds together the BJP’s sandwich alliance is its penchant for projecting Muslims as the foe of Hindus. This strategy is designed to subsume the caste identities under the larger Hindu identity and dissipate the pressure of subaltern groups on the political system.
The demand for a caste Census threatens the BJP’s sandwich alliance in fundamental ways. Once the population of each caste is known, it would be easy to verify whether elite OBC groups have jobs in proportion or excess of their population, thus busting the myth around their overrepresentation.
It was for this reason the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Samajwadi Party mooted the caste Census idea a decade ago. With their influence limited to Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, the caste Census idea has suddenly acquired legitimacy and pan-India resonance because it is now backed by the Congress and regional parties like the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, Shiv Sena, Nationalist Congress Party and the Left.
As to why the Congress has turned to explicitly supporting the anti-hegemonic alliance of OBCs, the answer is simple—it realised the futility of waiting for the upper castes, once the party’s mainstay, to return to its fold in the foreseeable future. That the party is searching for a new social base for its resurrection is evident from its decision to appoint OBC leaders as chief ministers in Karnataka, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan. There is already a scramble among Telangana’s backward caste leaders to acquire a greater share of Congress tickets than before for the forthcoming Assembly elections there. As such, the OBCs drive the politics in south India to a greater degree than they do in north India.
More significantly, the caste Census idea has been justified on the grounds of fairness—that it could give their members a share in power in proportion to their population. The logic of proportional representation holds out the possibility of providing reservation to those Shudra groups who are in the General Category, such as Marathas, Jats, Patels and Kapus. Attempts to carve out a separate quota for them or including them in the existing OBC category were struck down by the Supreme Court. Once the principle of proportional representation, based on caste-based Census figures, is accepted, the Supreme Court may just find it hard to defy the popular mood.
From this perspective, the anti-hegemonic alliance could expand beyond the OBC demography.
To checkmate the anti-hegemonic alliance, the BJP could choose to implement the Rohini Commission’s report, which has reportedly split the OBCs into separate categories and distributed the 27 per cent reservation among them. Since the Rohini Commission has not matched jobs each OBC group holds with their population, a decision to implement its report would, ironically, only give a fillip to the demand for a caste Census. The BJP may, therefore, press harder on the Hindutva pedal in order to ensure that religion, not caste, becomes the pivot of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.
Could not the BJP adopt the caste Census idea to prevent the anti-hegemonic alliance from acquiring an edge? Unlikely, for such a census would starkly visibilise the upper castes as a minority group, albeit extremely powerful, leading to a demand for whittling down its disproportionate share in resources and representation. And what is the BJP without their hegemony!
The writer is a senior journalist
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