CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan has invoked his OBC status in the run up to the MP assembly elections. He tells the voters that he is the son of a poor farmer from backward class. And that is why raja-maharajas like Digvijay Singh and Jyotiraditya Scindia and business tycoons like Kamal Nath were trying to oust him from power. The forthcoming election, he says, is a fight between the poor and the backward on one side and the rich and the feudal on the other.
When Kamal Nath reached Bhopal three months ago to take over as MPCC chief, his combat gear consisted of a voluminous document detailing caste composition of each assembly constituency. His election strategy also hinges on the OBCs, who constitute more than half of the population in the state. The Congress has realised that its traditional dependence on tribal and dalit votes is no longer a guarantee of smooth sailing at the hustings.
The BSP, the third force in MP, has also been trying to broaden its base beyond the scheduled castes. The OBC voters command a pivotal position in its election strategy too. The party of Dalits has been systematically increasing the share of ticket to candidates from backward communities. It’s percentage of OBC candidates has gone up from 23 in 1993 to 35 in the last assembly election.
Election 2018 is going to script the story of rise of OBC in MP politics, a story that started 15 years ago with Uma Bharati becoming the first OBC chief minister of the state. Significantly, both her successors, Babulal Gaur in 2004, and Shivraj Singh Chouhan in 2005, were also OBCs.
This was a radical change in the BJP, earlier dubbed as a ‘Bania-Brahmin party’ in the state because of its stronghold in urban upper caste middle class. Its ideological fountainhead, the RSS, too has traditionally been dominated by the upper castes. All the three earlier CMs from Jana Sangh/ BJP were upper caste leaders Kailash Joshi, VK Sakhlecha and Sunderlal Patwa.
Just like the BJP, the Congress too was traditionally dominated by upper caste leaders. All its chief ministers till date have been either Brahmins or Rajputs, with the lone exception of Raja Naresh Chandra Singh, a tribal who ruled for 13 days.
Arjun Singh of the Congress was the first politician from MP to recognise the winds of change and importance of OBCs in state politics. In his first term as chief minister, he appointed a commission for backward castes in 1981 to establish a list of OBCs and to identify their needs. The commission, headed by a politician, submitted its report in late 1983. The Congress reaped rich dividends in the parliamentary and assembly elections that followed.
Both the Congress and the BJP, particularly the former, have been slow in waking up to growing aspirations and influence of the backward castes in state politics. Both focussed on dalits, who constituted 15 per cent of population, and tribals who accounted for one-fifth of voters. At one point of time, the Congress experimented with promoting tribal leaders and subsequently had a disastrous tryst with its ‘Agenda’ for Dalits to counter growing BSP influence.
The BJP has proved more pragmatic in adjusting to changes in the social milieu. All the three CMs in the past 15 years have never been averse to wear their OBC identity on their sleeves. The party has cemented its base among OBCs, reflected in their increased participation in power sharing in government and its various arms over the past decade. Chouhan has particularly promoted a new crop of leaders, hitherto non-entities in the state. Just a look at names in the ministry, district governments and office bearers of state undertakings corroborates this.
A master of backroom manoeuvring and political strategy, Kamal Nath has sensed the growing clout of OBCs. The MP Congress under him is expected to tailor the poll tactics to suit the new script. The trick is to balance various castes within the large OBC umbrella. The problem here is fragmentation, which means tweaking out different strategy for different constituencies. With the exception of the Yadavs, none of the backward castes accounted for more than five per cent of the total population in MP, according to 1931 census.
One reason behind this phenomenal rise of OBC in influence and power is that, compared to scheduled caste and tribes, which are still struggling under the yoke of centuries old oppression, the comparatively well off sections of backward castes were quick to reap the benefits reservations, extended to them after mid-eighties. With increasing prosperity, they have become more assertive politically. Hence 2018 poll are going to see a resurgence of OBC power, cutting across the entire political spectrum.
(The writer is a senior journalist.)