Rise of OBC consciousness and politics

For a better understanding of the social dynamics and polity, it is important to have a glimpse into the factors that culminated in the rise of OBC consciousness and consolidated them politically. For many political analysts, the socio-political resurgence of the OBCs started in the early nineties with the announcement of the implementation of Mandal Commission report that provided 27 per cent reservation for the OBCs in public employment by the VP Singh government.

Even today we are left conjecturing whether it was the messianic zeal of VP Singh or political expediency to tame his deputy Devi Lal, a tall leader of the farmers and OBCs. As expected, protests broke out all over the nation and overnight VP Singh made his transition from a hero to a villain in the eyes of the media and the upper castes. The intense upper caste, middle class and media reactions against reservation resulted in solidarity among the members of the OBC communities which were regarded till then as too heterogeneous to come together electorally. The OBC backlash that followed changed the contours of the Indian polity forever.

This OBC consolidation did not take place in a day but it has a long history behind it. A significant event of the 1930s was the formation of the Bihar Socialist Party in 1934 at Patna in which Narendra Dev was made the President while the iconic socialist leader JP Narayan became the General Secretary. Soon at the Bombay session of the Indian National Congress in the same year, an all India Congress Socialist Party (CSP) was formed under the stewardship of Narendra Dev.

CSP remained very much a part of the Congress and with its leftist proclivities, it started advocating for an equitable social order and land reforms. It was hardly a homogeneous group comprising the likes of JP Narayan, Narendra Dev, Ashok Mehta, Lohia and Masani and soon, there were skirmishes between the socialists and the more conservative sections of the Congress. As the socialists championed the cause of workers and peasants and put their weight behind policies like common ownership of national resources and land reforms, it was all but natural that they would have problems with the landlords, princes and the capitalists who constituted a considerable chunk within the then Congress. The differences widened and it was hardly surprising that at the Nasik session of the Congress in 1948, the socialists walked out of Congress. The word ‘C’ was deleted from ‘CSP’ and Congress Socialist Party became Socialist Party. Karpoori Thakur organized the Socialist Party in almost all the districts of Bihar.

Apart from the formation of the Socialist Party, another related event was the simultaneous development of Kisan politics in several parts of rural Bihar under the leadership of Shahajanand Swarswati in order to mobilize peasant grievances against Zamindari attacks on occupancy rights. The Bihar Provincial Kisan Sabha was established in 1929 to take up the cause of the farmers which later onwards, morphed into the All India Kisan Sabha in 1936 at the Lucknow session of the Congress. It was imperative for the Congress to form this Sabha as it was losing touch with the rural pulse of the country on account of being too preoccupied with the urban issues under a predominantly urban leadership.

Several important leaders like Karyanand Sharma, Namboodripad, Lohia and JP Narayan were highly sympathetic towards the Kisan cause. The release of the Kisan Manifesto in 1936 calling for drastic measures like the abolition of Zamindari system, doing away with rural debts and protection of the rights of the actual tillers of land was simply not palatable to the Congress. The Kisan leaders repeatedly came into conflict with the Congress governments in Bihar and the United Provinces over issues related to marginal farmers. Ultimately, the Kisan Sabha severed its ties with the Congress in 1949. It is crystal clear that though the Socialist Party and the Kisan Sabha were originally parts of the Congress, they drifted apart from their parent party over inherent contradictions. The Kisan politics juxtaposed with socialist politics prepared the blueprint of OBC politics in the country, particularly in the northern hinterlands.

The socialists fought the 1952 General elections against the Congress but they were not able to make significant inroads into the electorate. The defeat of the socialists accentuated the internal bickering within the party as some of the leaders were not willing to buy the Lohia-ite logic of shifting the socialist discourse towards caste. Lohia strongly detested the political dominance of the upper caste elite and wanted more and more democratization of political power. Lohia and Kriplani joined hands together to form the Praja Socialist Party in 1952.

After a gap of three years, Lohia formed the Socialist Party again. Parties continued to be formed and broken on ideological grounds and personality clashes between the leaders of the socialist movement. The socialists were dismayed at the cult worship of Nehru and were convinced that his lofty ideals of socialism were not in tune with the harsh social ground realities. Though the Congress governments at the centre and the states had already embarked on land reforms with the Zamindari Abolition Act & other Acts related to Ceiling and Tenancy reforms, the socialists were not satisfied with them. The political will to implement the land reforms was not there because Congress drew sustenance from the upper castes and the landlord lobby.

The western educated upper caste elites and the rural feudal aristocracy were hands-in-glove and hence all attempts towards a meaningful land reforms programme could not reach a logical conclusion. Movements for a voluntary land donation like Bhoodan under the leadership of Vinoba Bhave do happen in which efforts were made to persuade the landed class to provide land to the landless. However, despite all the hindrances and lacklustre implementation of land reforms, some degree of partial success was also achieved and it won’t be an exaggeration to accept that the first decade of land reforms had certainly brought some changes, however small, in the agrarian relations in the rural hinterlands of the country, including Bihar and UP. Most of the benefits of land reforms were secured by the tenants (middle castes) leaving out the tillers (dalits & MBCs) whose socioeconomic status did not change much.

Whether it was Uttar Pradesh or Bihar, the traditional hold of the landowning upper castes began to decay as the capacity of the upper OBCs like Yadavs and Kurmis increased enhancing their confidence levels to such an extent that they began demanding more and more political rights. The backward caste ideologue Lohia stressed on the caste factor to remove the social inequalities and called for more democratization and even dispersal of power. The socialist strategy of demanding 60 per cent reservation for the OBCs in jobs & legislatures further added fuel to the fire and led to the consolidation of the backwards.

The rejection of the report of the First Backward Classes Commission headed by Kelkar dismayed the socialists who scoffed at Congress attempts to preserve the upper caste domination of Indian polity. Lohia was convinced that Nehru was not interested in addressing the caste factor which was responsible for the perpetration of the vicious cycle of poverty and illiteracy. Nehru knew that unleashing the caste conundrum would pose problems for the nascent Indian democracy and jeopardize the supremacy of western educated upper caste elites in policymaking.

The history of OBC mobilization in the northern part of the country can be attributed to the pioneering efforts of Lohia, Charan Singh, Devi Lal and Karpoori Thakur who brought together the backwards and the farming communities. The towering Kisan leader Charan Singh was originally a leader of the Congress but in the wake of his disagreement with the socialist and collectivist land policies of Nehru, he broke away from his parent party. For him, ownership of the land was very important for the farmer in remaining a cultivator. Though he was a Jat, he considered himself to be a leader of the farmers and backwards and strongly criticized the domination of the bureaucracy, academics and politics by the upper castes. The Bhartiya Kranti Dal (BKD) was founded by him in the late sixties. Though he claimed to be spearheading the cause of the backward castes, the fact was that his party basically catered to the concerns of those castes in rural areas that had been cultivators and herders for decades and had enjoyed a good standing in the traditional caste system.

Lohia and Charan Singh began to consolidate the forces of social justice, the deprived, the farmers and the workers so as to realize their ostensible dreams of a social order based on social equity and justice through their real intentions were the capture of power. It is another matter that in course of time, for sheer political reasons, the political order they envisaged turned into caste order. While talking about social justice, both the leaders were pitting the backwards against the forwards. The time was becoming ripe for a confrontation between the OBC leaders & the upper caste leaders for control over power.

The year 1967 proved to be a watershed in the direction of the polity and the empowerment of the backward castes. The Lohia strategy of consolidation of the entire opposition including socialists against the Congress produced rich dividends as for the first time since independence, 9 non-Congress governments were formed in the states. The Samyukt Socialist Party (SSP) of Lohia had started the horizontal mobilization of middle and lower castes by appealing to their identity and making them aware of their political rights. Charan Singh became the chief minister of UP with the support of Lohia and Raj Narayan in 1967. Bihar also witnessed tumultuous political developments paving the way for Mahamaya Prasad Sinha to be sworn in as the CM of Bihar with the backing of the entire opposition including the communists, the Jana Sangh and the SSP, collectively known as the Samyukt Vidhayak Dal.

The powerful socialist OBC leader Karpoori Thakur could not become the CM due to upper caste hostility and had to remain content with the post of deputy CM. However, in 1970, he became the CM of Bihar. The period from 1967 to the emergency was a period of serious political turmoil as the struggle for power between the upper castes and the backwards got even worse. The extension of community development programmes, cooperative societies and the onset of the Green Revolution led to huge public investment in agriculture. Subsidies to boost agricultural production in the form of cheap irrigation and electricity facilities added to the prosperity of farming communities, particularly those belonging to the upper OBC and intermediate castes like Kurmis, Lodhs, Gujjars, Yadavs and Jats and contributed to enhanced political aspirations among them. In the early seventies, the intermediate castes were still rising; they acquired the attributes of a class, thanks to the Green Revolution. Even within the Congress, power struggle commenced between the forward castes and the backwards. The period witnessed the ascendancy of backward caste leaders like Karpoori Thakur, DB Rai, Jagdeo Prasad, BP Shastri etc in Bihar while UP saw Charan Singh, Ram Naresh Yadav and others striding across the political spectrum. It was also marked by political uncertainty as Bihar failed to have a durable CM. The state went through an extended period of political crisis as CMs changed in quick succession.

The JP movement in 1974, better known as the Peoples’ movement, brought together the socialists, the communists and the Jana Sangh on a common platform to take on the might of the Congress. The JP movement gave a fillip to the OBC aspirations though, from an ideological point of view, it did not encapsulate the movement. The first non-Congress government at the centre was formed in 1977 with Moraji Desai as the PM and Charan Singh and Jagjivan Ram as the deputy PMs. It is interesting to note that the said leaders had begun their political careers within the Congress party. Karpoori Thakur became the CM of Bihar and his appointment & acceptance of the Mungeri Lal Committee report advocating reservation for the backwards in government jobs created a political storm in the state. He removed English from the school curriculum as he felt that English was the main factor responsible for the deprivation and the exclusion of the backwards from key bureaucratic and academic positions. His decision to create a new category of MBCs to give them political identity led to a further deepening of the social democracy. As far as the centre was concerned, the backward lobby of the ruling coalition created pressure on PM Desai to constitute the Second Backward Classes Commission under the chairmanship of BP Mandal, a former CM of Bihar. The situation in Bihar remained fluid as the Dalit leader Ram Sunder Das was propped up by the upper castes to dethrone the Karpoori Thakur government from power.

The Janata Party government at the centre also collapsed due to the inherent contradictions and vaunted ambitions of its leaders. In the ensuing elections that followed, the Congress government under Mrs Gandhi made a strong comeback and formed the government at the centre. In Bihar, Karpoori Thakur and his Lok Dal were completely vanquished. Annoyed at the growing assertiveness of the socialist cum backward leaders in the Hindi belt of UP and Bihar, the Congress went back to its ploy of promoting the upper caste leadership as both the states saw a string of upper caste leaders as CMs from 1980 onwards till 1989-90. Congress adopted an ostrich-like approach to the OBC aspirations and the Mandal Commission report that had identified more than 3500 castes under OBC list advocating 27 per cent jobs for them in public employment, kept on gathering dust for the next 10 years.

For a while, it seemed that the hard-earned recognition and power of OBCs was on the wane with the collapse of the Janata Party, but then, who knew that the genie was out of the bottle? The OBC empowerment had begun, the Mandal process was underway and the numerically preponderant OBCs were averse to being pushed over. The Mandal recommendations had led to intense debates in public forums and had led to increases in OBC consciousness. The Congress strategy of dilly-dallying with the political aspirations of the OBCs provided space to the caste parties to grow. It allowed leaders like Lalu, Mulayam, Sharad and Mayawati to consolidate their hold over their constituencies by directly appealing to their caste identities. Leaders became like tribal chieftains, only responsible for their caste tribes and having no qualms about the blatant unabashed use of caste card to secure their goals. Till the early years after independence to the mid-eighties, divide among political parties was mainly ideological. Charan Singh promoted OBC politics but he drew political strength as the leader of the farmers. Caste was, no doubt, a factor but the form of its manifestation was disguised and more subtle. What was implicit earlier became more explicit?

And then the inevitable happened. Mandal Report saw the light of the day. Overnight the political landscape of the nation changed. The upper castes, the media and the intellectuals were shocked. The upper caste dominated mainstream political parties were in a daze but not the so far in slumber mode, OBC communities. The likes of Lalu, Mulayam, Sharad and Nitish walked tall on the streets of the Hindi heartland.

Both the states of Bihar and UP have been theatres of Mandal politics or say OBC politics. The fact that really catches our attention is that while OBC political leadership has had an uninterrupted supremacy over dalits in Bihar for the past more than 25 years, it’s not so much smooth sailing for the OBCs in the neighbouring state of UP. The Samajwadi Party has always found BSP, a Dalit party to be a hard nut to crack. On the other hand, RJD or JDU never faced any formidable opposition from the Dalit leadership.

References:
1) Political Process in UP: Identity, Economic Reforms and Governance by Dr Sudha Pai
2) Caste and democratization in Post Colonial India: An ethnographic examination of lower castes in Bihar by
Dr Jeffrey Witsoe

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